Saturday, December 12, 2015

Swachh and Safe .... ?

"Always go to the bathroom when you have a chance".
                                                                     .....  King George V
(While this is something all mothers might approve, he might have paid a bit more attention to the situation in his then  empire ...      Just saying !)

We are almost at the end of 2015.

162 years since trains began in India , and counting.

And then one  reads  this.

"Senior Citizen's leg gets stuck in commode of train toilet for 10 hours".

It is an Indian Style toilet.  And the pictures across social media show her ankle visible  from outside the eventually detached train compartment,  when engineers had to use gas cutters to cut the toilet contraption  to free her .

Which leads one to ponder about the design and development of railway toilets over the last century and more.

The first train ran from Mumbai to Thane in 1853. By 1867, the Allahabad-Jabalpur line was started  and by 1875, 95 million pound sterling was invested in Railways by the British , most of it in expanding the reach. By 1900 , we had the government getting in, with the Great Indian Penninsular Railway, and the network expanded , with the first electric train arriving in 1908.

Like in many other aspects, development happened, as if people did not matter.

The story goes that one Okhil Babu, got completely cheesed off and fired of a letter as below :

 and this was the precursor to the railways seriously incorporating toilets in trains.

A peculiar problem, native to India, was the need for Indian Style toilets; more beneficial to our anatomy, clearly more hygienic to use,  and which the native population preferred to use.

(The propensity to gravitate to a western form of toilet, housing that needs a special request to incorporate an Indian Style toilet , and approvals given to government office buildings with all western style toilets with scant regard for the user profile is perhaps a subject for a separate post .  I wrote something about Progress and Sanitation in 2009.  NOTHING has changed. )

And so they introduced very simple toilets , with minimum maintenance costs. Hole in the floor style. 

The Railways expanded, millions of miles were added, speeds of trains increased, freight train systems were developed, air conditioning happened ;  as of 2012 , a population of approximately 25 million  was transported by Indian Railways daily which amounts to around 9 billion a year,  but alas,  by and large the Indian Style train toilets, or Hooper Toilets, remained unchanged. 

There is something alarming about the design, where a simple glance down in a running train toilet, shows you the rails and ground rushing by at great speed accompanied by rhythmic loud sounds.

I've been witness  to the trauma, of a toilet trained 3 year old , travelling from Mumbai to new Delhi in the early 80's, in in one of the Indian Railways highly touted trains, trying to use the toilet, getting alarmed with the hole in the floor, the noise, and the view of the rushing ground below the train, and then trying to escape , while still desperately trying to use the toilet. You could not use the toilet when the train was stationary, when  there was zero alarming noise and disappearing tracks.   Cajoling parents, approving other passengers, fear, unavoidable body procedures, the discomfort,  it was like a performance, trying to find a mean between finishing up your stuff soon, and not inconveniencing other passengers, in a train with an alarming  passenger-bathroom ratio.

The lady in the aforesaid mishap on the Konkan Railway, was 65, clearly used to train travel, was using it at 3 am,  and although this might have been one of her bad/unlucky  days, one wonders why the Hooper Toilet has not undergone any  hitherto noteworthy research and development, particularly , with respect to its hole-in-the-floor design.

Yes, the lady slipped while opening the door (the floor is always wet),  but has anyone thought of using some more metal/porcelain and making the waste path  stuff longer  as it is discharged, either out into the tracks, or into a tank ?  Why a straight down vertical drop ?  The lady's foot slipped inside, and went straight down , and could be seen from outside the compartment , when they isolated the train bogey.

Perhaps a longer horizontal path and a possible curved exit might have avoided this.

One wonders why , while efforts are made to figure out more civilized ways to manage  disposal of the waste products, by introducing chemical toilets, or other mechanical methods, why minimal attention has been paid to the shape and gradient of the disposal pipe, from the point of view of passenger safety.

But seriously, there appears to be a disconnect where railway toilets are concerned. 

And then you read about the amazing logic, dated Nov 2015,  used by no less than the Railway Board , to decide that NO TOILETS were needed on a DMU train in Odissa , (a Diesel Multiple Unit train where no separate engine is required as it is incorporated into the carriage itself) covering 160 kilometres,  presumed to be covered in 4 hours.  Furthermore , the train would be halted for 30 minutes between its origin and destination. 

The National Human Rights Commission has slapped a notice on the Railway Board to file a report on this absence of toilet facilities. Read about this here.

I assume the Railway Board is aware of senior citizens, old age health situations, small kids, ladies, all mostly compelled to traveling by passenger trains.  

While the Railway Board decides when and how peristalsis happens in a citizen's intestines, and how powerful his/her sphincter muscles should be, per kilometre of railway track ,  and letters and notifications are slapped on each other regarding this, perhaps it is time for someone to hold a nationwide/worldwide competition for an improved design for a safe Indian style train toilet ?   

Swachh , yes . How about , Safe ?



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