Mumbai: Arjun Mehta, started commuting by local train in Mumbai ten years ago in 2009. For the first five years he took the same train, as a student at 6.35 AM from Malad to reach Churhgate. After graduating from college in 2014, he got a job in Bombay Stock Exchange, which is also in South Mumbai. While the destination remained the same, the timings of his train changed to 7.55 AM. Over this 10-year period many things changed, the train compartments have been modified, the number of trains increased and a new station (Ram Mandir) was added. However, one thing that remained constant is the scenes of open defecation on railway tracks.

Open Defecation on railway tracks continues despite Mumbai being declared ODF in July 2017
Open Defecation on railway tracks continues despite Mumbai being declared ODF in July 2017

Open defecation on railway tracks is a common sight for lakhs of Mumbaikars, like Arjun, who commute daily on the Western and Central line. Besides the problem of open defecation and open urination, littering by travelers and slum dwellers who reside near the tracks, is a health hazard and a blot on Mumbai’s lifeline, the local trains.

As the nation-wide cleanliness, campaign ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ started in October 2014 is only eight months away from its deadline of achieving 100 percent Open Defecation Free (ODF) India, here’s a look at the on-ground challenges of why open defecation and garbage dumping persists on Mumbai’s railway tracks. Mumbai’s local train network is divided into four corridors. The Western Line, which stretches from Churchgate to Dahanu Road covering 120 km; the Central Line stretches from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) to Kalyan, the Harbor Line from Andheri to CSMT and the Trans-Harbour Line, which is the most recent addition connecting Thane with Navi Mumbai. 7.5 million people use 2,342 trains that run daily.

Open Defecation On Railway Tracks

When Mumbai was declared ODF in July 2017, netizens had questioned the declaration and even called it ‘premature’. One didn’t have to go in the remote areas of the city or travel far to claim that the city isn’t ODF completely considering the open defecation on railway tracks.

The railway tracks were live examples of ODF status being flouted on a daily basis. So, on what basis did the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) declare itself free from open defecation?

BMC, which was in-charge of providing toilet access to the Mumbaikars, claimed that land under the Railways, defence land, port land and Aarey Colony in Goregaon are not under their jurisdiction. Hence, the civic body directed railway authorities to come up with a solution to curb open defecation. However, the railway authorities in turn requested the BMC to provide enough toilets to the slum dwellers residing close to the railway tracks.

It is not feasible for us to monitor the railway tracks throughout the day. It is also dangerous to walk on tracks when there is a train every 2 minutes on all the railway tracks. So, by the time we reach the place where someone is openly defecating, it is too late. Thus, we have requested the civic corporation to construct more community toilets near the railway tracks, Ravinder Bhaker, Chief Public Relation Officer (CPRO), Western Railway tells NDTV.

Underlining another important issue with respect to open defecation, A K Singh, Senior Public Relations Officer, Central Railway says,

Habit and lack of awareness are major roadblocks to an Open Defecation Free journey in India. The case is applicable even in a progressive city like Mumbai. For decades, the railway tracks are being used as toilets and it is going to take time to change this habit.

When NDTV team directed the question to BMC, it said that the work of constructing more toilets as per the demand and availability is on going. In addition to that, the Good Morning Pathak comprising BMC staff are deployed to restrict people from Open Defecation.

Meanwhile, when NDTV team reached out to slum dwellers in Bhadranagar slum, Kandivali West, located near the Kandivali railway track, many of them complained about the condition of public toilets and how it forced them to defecate on the tracks.

No one likes to be watched and photographed while defecating. It is not out of habit that I walk every morning to the railway tracks putting my life into danger. The community toilet provided to us stinks and is in a terrible condition. In addition to that, there is always a line in the morning and being a wage worker, I cannot afford to miss even one minute at my work, says a resident of Bharanagar slum on condition of anonymity. There are close to 30-40 families residing in the Bhadranagar slum.

 Defecation Apart, Littering An Add-On Problem On Mumbai’s Railway Tracks And Platforms

In the financial year, 2018-2019, 82,000 cubic metres of waste which is approximately 40 lakhs of sacks, was removed from the railway tracks between Virar and Churchgate on Western line. Similarly, the Central Railway (CR) disposed of 94,000 cubic metres of garbage in the last fiscal (between April 2017-March 2018). Despite the huge volumes of garbage cleared by the railway authorities, NDTV team found waste dumped on the tracks in January this year.

Citing people’s littering habit as the major reason for unclean railway tracks, Mr Singh says,

For people littering on railway platforms we have imposed fines but how do we stop the commuters from throwing garbage in a moving train? For them it might be just one wrapper, bottle or a plastic bag. But for us, it is thousands of littered items thrown daily. A change can only be seen if they stop treating railways tracks as garbage dumps.

Expressing similar concerns, Sheetal from Sant Nirankari Charitable Foundation, an NGO that has been helping the railway authorities in cleaning activities says,

Since 2015 our foundation has been conducting cleanup drives on railways platforms in Mumbai and across India. We have adopted 58 railway stations in Mumbai including the major ones like CSMT, Dadar, Churchgate, Bandra and so on. Once a month we conduct the drives and a few hours after every drive the littering menace is back. Awareness and educating people are very crucial if one has to bring a change.

The Western Railway (WR) and CR both are undertaking several measures to end the littering menace, one of them being the special ‘muck trains’. A Muck train basically halts at every station. Through the excavator machines, the muck or liquid waste is lifted and dropped in the train. Meanwhile, the railway staff collects dry waste like plastic items and puts it in a sack. The sacks are then deposited in the train. While the dry garbage is sent to recycling facilities, the wet garbage is processed at the waste treatment plant at Deonar landfill. Such trains run in the night on all the four corridors to collect the waste.

The railways have also increased fines on open urination, littering and spitting ranging between Rs 200 and Rs 500 and in the last four years, close to Rs 40 lakh have been collected from the people by the WR.

Beautifying the walls on platforms is another measure taken by the authorities to discourage people from spitting. With the help of city-based NGOs and organisations like Sant Nirankari Charitable Foundation and Rotary International Club several walls have been painted.

In last year, the number of bins on railway platforms have increased along with an increase in deployment of staff to maintain cleanliness. Every station on all the four corridors have a minimum of two and a maximum of eight platforms. According to the authorities of WR and CR, bins are provided on all the platforms of every station today.

Along with announcing the trains timings and issuing warnings on crossing railway tracks, railway authorities in Mumbai also remind people to refrain from littering and encourage them to use public toilets and keeping the stations clean. To stop the slum dwellers from throwing the household garbage on the tracks, the CR has also started to construct boundary walls.

Also Read: Western Railway Takes A Historic Step, Installs Sanitary Napkin Dispensers And Incinerators In 6 Divisions

Public Toilets On Railway Platforms

There is a total of 76 Toilet blocks in WR. 173 toilet seats and 495 urinals are for men, 142 toilets seats for women and 49 are for the disabled between Churchgate and Dahanu. As for the CR, there are 77 stations and 175 toilet blocks.

Female section of public toilet on Churchgate station

When NDTV team conducted an inspection of toilets on railway platforms, we found two problems that were common between these toilets and the other public toilets across the city. One of them was the condition of public toilets. Despite charging a nominal amount to use the toilet, the toilets were ill-maintained and lacked basic facilities. The female section of the toilet on Marine Lines station had no electricity. While toilets on crowded stations like Lower Parel, Borivali and Churchgate had a stink. One of the reasons cited by the caretaker at one of the stations was the lack of cleaning detergent available. She said that using water to clean the 4-6 toilets used by hundreds of users daily was not enough.

The female section of the toilet on Marine Lines station had no electricity
The female section of the toilet on Marine Lines station had no electricity

Overuse of toilets and long queues were also listed as problems by the commuters.

I avoid using the toilet on Churchgate station where my office is and on Goregaon station where my house is, as a provision of a clean toilet is available at both places. However, once I urgently wanted to use a toilet and I had to wait for five minutes for my turn at the Churchgate station. I paid for the urinal but on going inside I couldn’t bear the smell and I decided not to use it, says Jatin Pillai, an IT professional.

A long queue at Churchgate station
A long queue at Churchgate station

The railway authorities on their part said that maintenance of most toilets is outsourced to private agencies. To keep a check on their activities, the authorities introduced WhatsApp numbers where people can lodge a complaint and send images of the dirty toilets. The WhatsApp number for WR is 9004499773, while people on CR can report on 9987645307.

On an average, WR gets 3-4 complaints daily and based on that the authorities take an action on the private agencies.

Six months ago, we had started the WhatsApp initiative to understand the problems of the people and at the same time use it as a check and balance system for the contractors in-charge of cleaning. Over a hundred people have used this facility and actions have also been taken in the form of penalties. We urge more commuters to avail the facility and help us maintain the toilets and platforms clean, says Mr Bhaker.

The WR also introduced a mechanism in 2017 under which users can rate and provide feedback about the hygiene of toilets at the 17 stations under its jurisdiction. Under the Smart Feedback System for cleanliness of lavatories, users have to scan the QR code, provided in front of the toilets, and answer questions regarding their upkeep and behaviour of the attendant, among other things.

Conclusion: City-Based NGO Suggests A Collaborative Effort

Environment Life, a city-based NGO which is involved in cleaning the seasonal waterfalls around Mumbai have been attempting to attract the attention of Mumbaikars and authorities on the filthy condition of railway tracks since the last three years. From meeting the railway and municipal officials, regularly tweeting pictures of garbage accumulated on railway tracks to outlining solutions, the NGO has been working continuously to change the face of Mumbai’s lifeline.

One of the images tweeted by Dharmesh Barai
One of the images tweeted by Dharmesh Barai

Based on the experience of multiple complaints, Dharmesh Barai, Founder of Environment Life tells NDTV,

In the last three years, I have resorted to every means possible to get Indian Railway’s attention on the heaps of garbage lying on tracks. While authorities have replied to my queries on mail and social media, there was no on-ground action taken. Every response has been limited on paper. The blame game between the BMC and Railway authorities is putting people’s right to cleanliness in jeopardy.

Sharing a copy of a complaint that Dharmesh and his team made at CSMT railway office in April 2017, he gives an insight into the response and on-ground action from the railway authorities.

Copy of a response from Central Railway
Dharmesh shares a copy of a response from Central Railway

Further throwing light on people’s reckless behaviour he says,

People are not going to magically stop throwing garbage on the tracks overnight. Until there is a strict enforcement of law, the railway tracks will not be cleaned completely. A mass awareness campaign is the need of the hour.

When asked what is the solution for a cleaner and greener railway in Maharashtra’s capital city, Dharmesh listed out four points:

  • Make the perpetrator responsible: Giving an example of Pune railway station he says that the model must be implemented in Mumbai as well. As per the model, whoever is caught littering must be engaged in cleaning the railway platforms as a punishment.
  • As a solution to the problem of littering from moving trains, deploy 1-2 officials inside the trains who can fine commuters on the spot.
  • Invest the amount collected through fines in cleanup activities on the railway platforms and tracks.
  • Implement the model of mass cleanup drives, like witnessed on the Versova beach, during mega blocks. This will not only ensure cleaner tracks but also generate mass awareness.

Dharmesh is of the opinion that only a joint effort from travelers and authorities can bring concrete changes to the existing condition of railway tracks and platforms in Mumbai.

Also Read: Swachh Agenda Of BMC Budget 2019 Covers Improving Sanitation Facilities, Cleaning Rivers And More

Open Defecation Free Mumbai, A Reality Check

Open Defecation Free Mumbai – A Reality Check is an on-ground report on the condition of public and community toilets across Mumbai. Through a series of five articles, it aims to establish if open defecation still persists in the city that was declared Open Defecation Free in July 2017 by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. It also delves into the lifeline of Mumbai, local trains and analyses the cleanliness on railway tracks and platforms

NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollutionclean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.

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