Waiting for his train to Vashi on Platform 7 of Kurla station, Yuvraj Popli, dressed formally for an interview, is edgy, perspiring. The Panvel-bound train he needs to board is running late, which is when he finally decides to use a toilet. “This is a worst case case scenario, because I need to be focused. Otherwise I would never use the toilets here. I’m scared about catching an infection even if I’m only using the urinal,” says Popli. “It’s not the stains but the filth in the urinals that makes me uncomfortable.”
The men’s toilet block he finally visits is one of the most frequently used toilets on Mumbai’s suburban train stations. Kurla is a major and perpetually busy terminus, a transitional station for those moving from the main line to the harbour line of Central Railway or vice versa. Before he boards the first-class compartment of his train, Popli says, “I have a younger sister. Embarrassing as it is, I tell her never to use railway station toilets even in an emergency.”
A group of women in burqas on Platform 5 hold their handkerchiefs over their naqaabs. “Even during the evenings, we need to hold our breath. Why are toilets next to the women’s compartment?” one asks. “During rush hour, you can smell it on the opposite platform,” she adds.
An old woman is posted outside the women’s toilet at Kurla station, collecting Rs 2 from female visitors. She says few commuters visit the toilets, and only frequent visitors are from the nearby Nehru Nagar slums in Kurla (East). “Even they would rather defecate in the bushes in the dark than use this facility,” she says. Asked how often the toilets get cleaned, she says they are washed “occasionally” but are hardly ever used anyway.
At Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that records one of the highest footfalls in the city, the toilets are located opposite Platform 4. Prawesh More and two others, having travelled over an hour from Belapur on their way to Fashion Street, enter the men’s toilet block.
“It is afternoon and all 30 urinals are occupied. And there are two persons waiting at each of the urinals,” says More. “I have never seen anyone clean these toilets, but what’s the alternative?”
That CST needs better toilets is obvious. Tourists to the Gateway of India and the various other tourist attractions in south Mumbai alight at CST or at Churchgate, but neither of these railway stations offers a simple, clean toilet with running water, a wash basin and soap, all considered bare minimum for tourist destinations the world over.
In the Churchgate subway, eateries and their patrons continue to complain of the stench.
At Lower Parel, Nisha Kalra, a freelancer with an advertising agency, has left her office at Sun Mill Compound in a rush. Rushing to the station on her way to an outdoor assignment, Nisha says she can’t muster the courage to visit the toilet “because of the smell”. “They are Indian style toilets and the stink is unbearable. I could smell the toilets from about 15 metres away,” she says.
Sita Maheshwari (70), who manages a public toilet block, says the business is terrible. She earns barely Rs 150 a day, and payments to be made include money to contractors, water supplier and for the supplies to clean. Splashing water around one of the toilets to reduce the stench, the Bhiwandi resident blames the lack of civic sense among Indians for her poor business.
Subash Gutpa (48), president of the Yatri Sangh or passengers’ association in Mumbai, says lack of free and clean toilets, especially for women, has remained a long-standing concern. “The association had raised the issue, especially when the President, UPA chairperson and the Railway Minister were all women, hoping they would understand problems faced by women commuters, who unlike men cannot relieve themselves in public,” he says, adding that little was done on the matter.
The Indian Railways has restricted itself to running trains. “It is about time it starts thinking about improving passenger amenities,” Gupta says.
There are 106 suburban stations in the Mumbai region, ferrying about 70 lakh passengers daily. And yet, the railways has not been able to provide a basic amenity such as a clean toilet for commuters.
While almost all railway stations have toilets, they are poorly maintained. And since the maintenance model for railway toilets is to employ a contractor who expects to make a profit, little progress has been made. A workable business model for toilets at stations is yet to be worked out. Most toilets blocks, or at least those at major railway stations where passengers break their journey, are on pay-and-use contract.
“Only a good business model can sustain itself,” says Narendra Patil, Chief Public Relations Officer, (CPRO), CR. “We are involving private contractors who have knowledge of providing sanitation so that we can provide better services to commuters. A decision on charging for toilets is under consideration,” said Patil.
On the other hand, Western Railway is looking at a joint partnership with the civic body to provide toilets outside railway stations to make it more remunerative and ensure they are cleaner.
“We are working at providing land to the BMC to construct toilets outside railway stations that can be used by people living in the vicinity. This collaborative approach will help people in general,” says Sharat Chandrayan, CPRO, WR.
According to officials, while levying a uniform charge for use of toilets may not be the right model for suburban railways as smaller stations may not have a large volume of users, the civic body will always find users as these toilets will not for people in general, and not only for railway commuters.
With Rohit Alok