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Dear Railways, It’s Not Just Passengers’ Duty To Keep Trains Clean

In other words: Please pick up my trash!

20/09/2017 8:59 AM IST | Updated 20/09/2017 12:27 PM IST
Rahul Tongia
Running at full capacity ... one of two bins in the entire coach

If we make it easier for people to do the right thing, they will figure out they can and will want to do so...

Much has been written about not just how dirty trains are, but how dirty some passengers are (like the damage to the brand new Tejas trains). What if keeping trains cleaner isn't just about educating users and civic sense, but also about having proper systems in place, what could be considered soft paternalism? If we make it easier for people to do the right thing, they would figure out they can and would want to do so.

Railways offer service and delivery for creating trash—but not to pick up trash

Well, to be fair, the food vendors are there to deliver snacks and meals, but this does create a lot of trash. Yet, there is no one coming by to collect trash. There should be.

If you say that it's the responsibility of the end-user to clean up after themselves, okay, but what does that mean in practice? With a morning chair car ride some months back, if I had to get up to put my trash away, it would have meant waking up my neighbours to get out.

If you say that it's the responsibility of the end-user to clean up after themselves, okay, but what does that mean in practice?

Even worse, there just isn't sufficient infrastructure for people to dispose their trash. See the picture of one out of a total two trash bins in the entire coach. It could scarcely handle the waste from a single row of passengers. Note: it also has no bag or liner—I shudder to think what the insides look like.

In one coach, assuming there are 120 people, one obviously needs more bins. Sure, adding staff or contractors for collecting it would raise the costs but this (a) can be folded into the cost of the food (e.g., 1 or 2 rupees per meal or snack) and (b) should reduce overall costs when we factor in alternatives and the cost of cleaning up.

What do people do today? I chose to wait a while, holding on to my breakfast plate, until my neighbours woke up. But if one just leaves the plates on the tray, there is a high risk these could fall down. Worse, I've seen people leave their waste "on the side" or on the floor, or even in the newspaper holder!

Reduce the trash impact

In an ideal world, we'd create less waste. But in the interim, there are a few things we can do to help, not just with trash but overall cleanliness and hygiene on trains.

First, let's use biodegradable materials for food packaging and "disposables". This might add a bit of cost, but in the scale that the Railways operates, it should be quite a small percentage increase to the cost of a meal. The Railways could also become an anchor user for the fledgling biodegradable materials industry, adding a new market for crops, manufacturing, etc. A bigger challenge might be how to handle mixed waste—while the plate, food, napkin, fork, etc. can all be biodegradable, what do we do about aluminium foil? Or the ketchup sachet? Relying on manual separation is expensive, and expecting end-users to segregate their waste hasn't (yet) worked at home, so can we expect it to work in a public space?

The Railways could... become an anchor user for the fledgling biodegradable materials industry, adding a new market for crops, manufacturing, etc.

Second, why not have each food delivery come with a tray liner (this could even be biodegradable)? By this, I mean a very thin and disposable sheet that one puts on top of the tray (equivalent to a newspaper that one can spread out). This serves a dual purpose—keeps the tray clean and the food sanitary. It would only cost a few paise per tray. Yes, I realise I'm now suggesting the creation of more material and disposal, but, done right, it can have a lower impact on a life-cycle basis. This sheet could even offer advertising space, covering the costs in full. The alternative is to have a proper serving tray, which may be more expensive and inherently requires picking up. Even airlines don't give a tray with snacks.

How do we innovate?

I hope the new Railways Minister has a chance to think about such issues, although he clearly has more important things to think, about including safety and overall economic viability. But one suggestion is we pilot such ideas on a few trains, and see how much they help (or don't). Undertaking large change top down is sometimes the best way forward, but sometimes smaller steps, with more feedback, learning, and iteration, is required. After all, trash isn't just about infrastructure, but a systems and behavioural issue.

Let's start with improving waste management on trains, which offer a finite, tangible, and perhaps achievable laboratory for realising Swachh India.

Beyond just having a convenient and practical system for dealing with trash on trains, we also need to figure out what happens to that trash. There are many anecdotal stories of trash collected onboard being dumped outside at "strategic" locations or even from moving trains. This same issue plagues community trash bins (when they are available). If they're not emptied regularly, they overflow (leaving aside the issue of scavengers emptying these scraping for meagre value-add materials). Waste management is a broader challenge across India (I'm shocked that most metros other than Bangalore do not have mandatory waste segregation). Let's start with improving waste management on trains, which offer a finite, tangible, and perhaps achievable laboratory for realising Swachh India.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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