A majority of India’s population continues to use the train for outstation travel between major towns, cities and across states. Close to 75% of this segment choose to travel by the ordinary II class, which include cushioned sleepers & seats, fans whirling above to cool temperatures, and windows which can be opened & shut depending on the weather and time of travel. At both ends of the compartment lie rest rooms offering western style commodes and local style latrines. There is no denying that cleanliness of these rest rooms has improved substantially over the past decade. Attempts are continuously made to keep these washrooms clean and dry.
Where the Railways seem wanting are in its efforts to hygienically dispose of humungous garbage collected during long distance travel in these compartments. It is estimated each passenger generates an average amount of 200 grams of garbage on a 12-hour journey. This comes in the form of aluminum foil & thermocole from food packets, plastic mineral water bottles, biscuit & junk food wrappers, glass bottles, tetra packs, and finally waste food that is not consumed, but simply flung across windows, alongside tracks. This results in tremendous amount of discarded garbage (degradable & non-degradable) on railway tracks across major routes in India. More of this is found closer to railway stations and junctions as well as at signal points.
The garbage left behind, especially the food is consumed by rodents and crows, making it a breeding ground for innumerable pests with the ever persistent danger of spreading infection and disease. Rag pickers who should have ordinarily been in school make a living by collecting non-degradable garbage and selling it at wayside points. It’s not uncommon to find some of them cleaning compartments with broom brushes on some routes before the end of the journey and collecting small tokens of money from sympathetic travellers.
A singular reason why this happens can be ascribed to the lack of garbage bags being provided in II class train compartments. Air-conditioned coaches have garbage bags placed below water sinks, travellers don’t have the liberty of throwing garbage outside as glass windows are sealed. Also, awareness levels have increased over a period of time and travellers are more sensitized than before, resulting in better usage of this garbage collection facility. Those undertaking the journey in the ordinary class face greater hardships simply because the garbage container located below the wash basin at either end of the compartment doesn’t seem to have a garbage bag. The levers don’t function too well, while the container itself doesn’t appear to be cleaned resulting in non-usage of this facility. Under the circumstances, discarding waste outside the window becomes a `convenient’ solution.
What can the Railways do? Firstly the authorities must make it mandatory to keep garbage bags in all II class coaches, that are collected once every 6-8 hours and not at the end of a journeys. Remember, it’s common to have 12 to 24 journeys on major trunk routes. Secondly, the authorities need to make regular announcements on its public address system located inside trains warning of the dangers of throwing garbage outside and long-term repercussions for all rail travellers. Thirdly, it needs to introduce garbage collection centres at major railway junctions wherein garbage collected from passing trains is systematically transported to garbage dumps where it is treated. Railways should also encourage travellers to opt for dry food items and introduce it as part of their dining cuisine. Over public address system, they should be encouraged to carry the dry garbage back home. Finally garbage containers inside these coaches must be redesigned and placed in a more convenient location to ensure better usage during a journey and easy collection & disposal at collecting stations.
It may seem a tall order, however, with awareness greater than before there is bound to be better acceptance among rail travellers in the II class. In fact, the Railways would be failing in its duties in neglecting this part of rail travel, probably the most important factor desired for ensuring `healthy & more comfortable journeys’ in future. Untreated garbage carelessly littered across rail tracks and the odour it generates is a disconcerting experience for first time visitor. Tourists as well as regular passengers deserve better. Needless to say, the Clean India campaign will also receive a much needed impetus if these simple measures are followed.