Unless the litter that stretches for miles on either side of any railway station is disposed of properly, the Railways cannot be considered green.
In Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal’s Budget speech on February 26, the part on Green Energy Initiatives states: “The Indian Railways remain firmly committed to protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development and use of energy-efficient technologies.”
Among the initiatives: the creation of a Railway Energy Management Company to harness solar and wind energy, energising 1,000 level crossings with solar power, use of “agro-based and recycled paper and banning the use of plastic in catering.”
With its geographic reach, the Railways can create among the world’s largest distributed power generation infrastructure, supplementing their own energy needs while catalysing the use of renewables across the nation.
Such an initiative might prove exemplary. The Minister also deserves praise for addressing other issues that cause passenger frustration — slow online reservations, food service, and cleanliness.
He notes, “The widespread disappointment of the travelling public with the state of cleanliness and hygiene at stations and trains, bedrolls and catering has often been highlighted … As a frequent rail traveller, I have experienced this personally. Resource constraints cannot be a reason for sub-standard services…” He proposes the “extension of On Board Housekeeping Scheme (OBHS) and Clean Train Stations (CTS) to more stations and trains.”
And yet, the most visible and overwhelming travel experience is unaddressed altogether, namely, the presence of litter — paper cups, plastic bottles, snack food packets, and paper — on either side of the tracks, especially near any railway station.
Greening the rail network is the Railways’ responsibility as much as that of the passengers. Yet the Railways don’t help. Let me illustrate with recent experiences:
a) I bought a water bottle from a vendor on a train, and handed him an empty bottle. He was puzzled. I asked him to take it with him to dispose of in the proper manner. He returned the bottle to me, pointed to the window, and said: “Throw it out the window.” I refused. Since there was no sign anywhere in the coach prohibiting anyone from throwing out waste, my argument was meaningless. After watching this exchange, my neighbour took the bottle, crushed it, and put it in the seat pocket.
b) I walked to the pantry car and ate a vada served on a paper plate with a napkin, and not on old newspaper. I was impressed — it was hot, fresh, and excellent. When I asked the cashier where to throw the used plate, he indicated the window. “Trash bin?” He pointed to one 15 feet away.
c) I washed down the snack with some coffee, and walked through the coach looking for a trash bin to put the paper cup in. Finding none, I waited until the next station, and stepped out to look for one on the platform. None was in sight. I brought back the cup and left it near the sink in the compartment.
Systems, not jugaad
In some coaches, there is a trash bin under the sink, disproportionately small for the size of the coach and its occupants, and no sign indicates it exists. It is full within hours of the start of any journey. On airplanes, in contrast, the cabin crew comes through, clears up cups, trays and newspapers, and sets the place right.
Among the numerous instructions written on coach walls (in sometimes amusing and antiquated English), none say, “Do not throw litter out the window.”
Doordarshan advertisements encourage prospective brides not to marry into homes without proper toilets, yet none urge people not to treat windows as trash outlets. TV screens on platforms carry entertainment programmes, but no anti-litter messages.
‘Incredible India’ posters adorn railway facilities, but there is no beauty in the images when iconic monuments are surrounded by litter.
Systems and tools are needed — well designed, robust, and long-lasting — to address litter management and not quick-fix or jugaad solutions.
Put Rahul to work
Unless the litter that stretches for miles on either side of any railway station is systematically picked up, several times a day, year after year, and disposed of properly, the Railways cannot be green or customer-centric. The Railways’ energy management is only the start; cleaning up is greening too.
Waste in India has reached crisis proportions. The conditions near the railway tracks are only one instance. We know organic waste can be converted to energy, and paper and plastic waste can be recycled. Notwithstanding their excellent initiatives, the Railways need a lot more help. Who should provide this?
My view: We need a Cabinet Ministry of Litter and Garbage with inter-ministerial scope, funded by a tax — maybe one rupee for each snack food package and water bottle.
In the tradition of the original Gandhi, whose cleaning of latrines and the symbolic and substantive value associated with it we all know about and admire, Rahul Gandhi may lead it.
I don’t propose this lightly — the issue deserves sustained national spotlight.
(The author is a visiting professor of strategy at IIM Kozhikode.)