CHENNAI: Scientists of IIT-Kanpur have thrown the kitchen sink at a high-tech solution to a messy problem: How to keep the world’s largest railway network clean and prevent corrosion of lines when train toilets unload waste directly on the tracks.
Bio-toilets developed by the Indian Railways and Defence Research and Development Organization have earned praise from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but IIT scientists say they are neither environment-friendly nor suitable for trains.
But Indian Railways, which has for several years been searching for a way to prevent spreading human excreta across the countryside and stop track corrosion, which costs it350 crore a year, is betting on the bio-toilets.
Officials say they tested the system extensively and, since January 2011, installed 436 bio-toilets on eight trains. The railways plans to install bio-toilets in all new coaches at a cost of 500 crore.
The bio-toilet uses ‘cold-active’ bacteria collected from Antarctica and other low temperature areas to treat waste, turning it into water and gas that are disinfected before being expelled from the train.
IIT-Kanpur studied the toilets when they were put on trial three years ago. “There is no magic bacteria that can treat waste fast enough for use in a train toilet,” said Vinod Tare, professor, environmental engineering and management, IIT-Kanpur.
IIT-Kanpur and the Research Design and Standards Organisation developed a zero discharge toilet that the railways tried but rejected.
“Such toilets are suitable for houses not for trains because a large number of people will need to use them in a short span of time.”
Tare said the whole project was based on misinformation. “With every flush untreated waste is expelled through different levels and finally on the tracks,” he said.
But railways officials insist that they have fixed the problems with the system. “We have eliminated the drawbacks that IIT-Kanpur pointed out,” Railway Board executive director (mechanical engineering) Shailendra Singh said. |
“We are using stronger bacteria and garbage tossed into the commode will not affect the functioning of the toilet.”
A mild swipe of the bacteria on the sides of the toilet box is enough to clean the toilet once, but the railways will load several kilograms of the bacteria in each toilet box.
“The toilets will save a lot of money because they will reduce corrosion of railway tracks and the undercarriage of coaches need not need to be replaced often,” said a senior official with Southern Railway, which operates the Chennai-Guwahati Express, which uses bio-toilets.
“We found more than 5 kg of gutka sachets when a box was opened during an overhaul,” he said. “The garbage did not affect the bacteria and there was no odour.”
The technology is effective, official said, but passengers will have to cooperate with the railways and display discipline akin to that expected of aircraft passengers. A page on bio-toilets posted on Indian Railways’ website says passengers are expected not to use the toilet pan as a garbage bin.