Trash on the Tracks

Indian Railways Trash

A few years ago, I was riding in open-seating on a short-haul train between major metros. The precise place doesn’t much matter; this scene could have played itself out anywhere. I was by the window, and in the window seat across from me sat an obviously affluent, middle-aged woman. She was snacking incessantly throughout the journey. As she finished each morsel, she would casually toss its plastic bag or wrapper out the open window. When she purchased a cup of chai from the passing chai-wallah, it was a safe bet that the plastic cup would also be headed out the window.

It was more than I could stand; and though it was not premeditated, when she aimed the cup out the window, I instinctively reached out and caught it, scalding my hand with the remains of the chai in the process. The woman was shocked and angry, and lashed out at me. What the hell was I doing? She was simply disposing of trash!

I began a harsh, but even-toned rhetorical inquiry. “Why would you throw trash from the train? Are you so important that someone else should have to pick-up after you? Do you have so little self-respect that you are untroubled living amid garbage?”

The woman was unrepentant, and she seized on this last question with such defiance and obvious satisfaction, she clearly believed she had routed the debate. “I don’t live here,” she said.

“Look out the window,” I continued. “Many people live where you are throwing your trash. Don’t you have any consideration for the people who must live amid the garbage you throw?” Most rail passengers, like most of India’s urban population, seem to care little or nothing for anyone but themselves.

“Do you want to turn your country into a garbage pit? Do you hate your country so much?”

The impugning of an Indian’s patriotism gets them every time. Sure enough, the woman apologized and asked for the plastic cup back. I told her that she had lost all rights to the cup, but that I would hold it in until we reached the station (another hour-and-a-half, at least) and throw it into a dustbin on her behalf. I also told her that she should not apologize to me, but to her fellow passengers, whose country she had been thoughtlessly defiling. The other passengers, needless to say, had been watching this scene unfold with rapt attention.

Though I deliver variants of this sermon nearly every day I am in India, I usually do not intend to disgrace my targets as I did with this woman. With practice, my tone has become gentler, even as my message is unwavering and unforgiving. People already understand that littering is wrong; but they seem to need an object lesson – like a foreigner picking up their refuse and placing it in the nearby dustbin – to drive the point home. But on that day, I was angry, and I did all within my power to see that the woman’s humiliation was complete. In mitigation of my admitted cruelty, I will say that it is hard to ride the rails in India without feeling the bitterness which provoked my relentlessness.

Indian Railways operates the most extensive, most densely utilized train system in the world. Each year it tickets more than four billion passenger journeys, and passengers travel more than 310 trillion kilometers – over 850 billion passenger-kilometers every day. Some substantial percentage of those passenger-kilometers generates trash and human waste, almost all of which finds its way to the tracks or the landscape beyond.

The toilets on Indian trains are little more than compartments in which to squat over a hole to the track below. They are in fairly constant use. This may actually be a reasonable, if imperfect, way of disposing of such a vast quantity of human waste – distributing it along the tracks, a place guaranteed to be uninhabited, to sterilize in the searing tropical sun.

Indian Railways Trash

The key to this system, of course, is that passengers use the toilets when the train is moving along open stretches of track, and not standing still in the station. The toilets even have signs, remind passengers to please refrain from using them at the stations. Take a guess where many passengers prefer to use the shitter? Now, imagine what the average Indian railway station smells like.

Indian Railways Trash

The great Gandhian civil engineer, Ishwarbhai Patel, a winner of India’s prestigious Padmashri award for his lifetime of work in sanitation, actually developed a simple mechanism to eliminate this problem. Instead of falling directly to the tracks, waste is captured in a holding tank, and only released when the train reaches intercity speeds. Indian Railways, however, never implemented this solution.

In the last two weeks, I have ridden more than 90 hours on Indian Railways trains, long-hauls between various metros. I have made an informal, non-scientific survey of the track-side landscape in the course of the journeys, looking out the window or the open doorways at the end of the cars. I have yet to observe a single one-meter stretch that is garbage-free, even in the most remote countryside.

The passengers are not the only ones to blame for this disgusting state-of-affairs. Indian Railways – the Government of India, itself – is a leading distributor of trash along the track.

On long-haul routes, Indian Railways trains include a catering car, and tray-loads of hot meals are served in first, second, and third-sleeper classes. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to learn how many such meals are served by the railways. Many. When the finished meals are collected by the porters, the trays are taken to the space between the bogeys, where there is a small opening to the tracks, and the trash – uneaten food, plastic bags, aluminum containers, plastic cups – is dumped from the moving train.

Indian Railways Trash Indian Railways Trash

Indian Railways is not only guilty of littering the Indian landscape, it seems to seek the active complicity of even its most well-meaning passengers by failing to provide adequate dustbins on the trains or at station platforms. The on-train bins, one at either end of the bogey, have a capacity of less than 8 liters. They quickly fill and overflow; and once spilling onto the floor, the floor becomes a magnet for further trash.

Indian Railways Trash

How is train trash ultimately cleaned-up? Much of it, of course, isn’t. It blows into the fields and open-spaces, rivers and streams, and streets and alleyways along the tracks, joining litter from other sources. Garbage is quite simply ubiquitous in India.

At the stations, cleaners are hired to pick trash from amid the muck of feces and urine.

Indian Railways Trash

At some station stops, street children with brooms board the train to sweep the floors of the compartments for tips from the passengers. Everyone seems comfortable with this system; but should seven year old children really be responsible for picking up after adults?

On journeys of more than one day, there is usually a stop at which the tiny dustbins are emptied, and the toilets hosed-down, by a contractor to the railway. The trains are also swept of garbage at the terminus, before they begin a new journey. I have no idea what becomes of the trash removed from the trains at these points.

Some of the garbage is collected for recycling. In India, most trash recycling is accomplished by the informal system of rag-picking. The poorest-of-the-poor sift through the piles of garbage in India’s streets, and along its rail lines, to collect the plastics that can be sold. It is nasty, unhealthy, back-breaking work, which barely earns the rag-pickers a subsistence income.

Indian Railways Trash Indian Railways Trash

None of this ever crosses the mind of people like the woman with whose story I began this post. And if it did, it wouldn’t bother them in the least. Their trash is someone else’s problem.

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12 Responses to “Trash on the Tracks”


  1. 1 Shveta 11 January 2007 at 1:18 am

    I had similar experiences and feelings on a recent trip to India. I found trash the single most troubling thing. I am really looking for a way to bring more awareness and action to this issue, let me know if you have any ideas:)

  2. 2 Fred 11 January 2007 at 1:24 am

    Kudos to you Mark for taking such a bold move, and hopefully opened the eyes of a few passengers in the process.

  3. 3 gayathri 17 January 2008 at 11:10 pm

    wowww….Mark!! are u amazing or what? i have myself felt this seething indignation on many of my trips on the Indian Railways. I have watched out and stopped people from throwing garbage. I soo agree with every word of yours.
    love your write-ups…so succinct, simple and clear. love your actions- so meaningful, purposeful and loving.
    Very Best wishes and Good Luck to you!
    take care
    gayathri

  4. 4 mbjesq 18 January 2008 at 10:53 am

    Or what, I’m afraid.

  5. 5 sonam 14 February 2008 at 10:59 pm

     Parliament of India – Lok Sabha Secretariat

    The Committee on Public Accounts invites suggestions on
    “cleanliness and sanitation of Indian Railways”

    The Committee on Public Accounts headed by Prof. Vijay Kumar Malhotra, M.P., has taken up the subject “Cleanliness and Sanitation on Indian Railways” as a subject of study for detailed examination and submitting a report to Parliament. The subject is primarily based on Chapter II of the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) of India for the year ended March 2006, No. 6 of 2007 (Performance Audit), Union Government (Railways) related to “Clenaliness and Sanitation on Indian Railways”. The contents of the C&AG Report are available on the website http://www.cag.nic.in

    2. Considering the importance of the subject, in addition to C&AG’s inputs, the Committee have decided to invite memoranda containing suggestions/views/comments from the interested organisations/institutions/individuals on the cleanliness and sanitation in Indian Railways with a view to improve systems for maintenance os sanitation and related infrastructure in the Railways.

    3. Those desirous of submitting memoranda to the Committee may send their written memoranda, either in english or Hindi on the baove subject to Shri Brahm Dutt, Director, Lok Sabha Secretariat, Room No. 43, Parliament House Annexe, New Delhi 110001 (Tel. no.: 23034403 and Fax 23010756) or can email at compac@sansad.nic.in or bdutt@sansad.nic.in within fifteen days of publication of this advertisement.

    4. The memorandum submitted to the Committee would form part of the records of the Committee and would be treated as confidential and would enjoy the privileges of the Committee.

    5. Those who are willing to appear before the Committee, besides submitting memoranda are requested to indicate so. However, the Committee’s decision in this regard shall be final.

    12th February 2008
    You can send a cc to info@karmayog.org for follow up.
    http://www.karmayog.org — for concerned citizens

  6. 6 Dr Sangeetha 27 July 2010 at 1:02 am

    DearSir
    I travel by train very often and this trash on the tracks is something that I have always thought needed looking in to. Could we not have a system where a vendor is sent from one end of the train to the other on the platform of course with the sole task of collecting waste. Creating awareness among passengers I think would also help.

  7. 7 shammy jacob 6 August 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Dear all,
    I will be embarking on a social project to study and design a waste management system for the Indian railways. I am doing it on my own time and funds will and hope to get support from companies and eventually the government along the way. I will start this journey of mine on August 15 2012. Would appreciate any support or thoughts. Sonam , great tips.

    • 8 Swati Sharma 27 March 2015 at 12:53 am

      Hello jacob
      I am doing a similar project of finding ways of waste management inside indian railways/trains . The larger goal is make a change in behaviour and attitude of people. Would love to know how project moved forward and if you are still working on it.

  8. 9 mbjesq 6 August 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Awesome, Shammy!

    When design your waste management system, remember that there are two distinct constituencies who much be taught to do things differently: Indian Railways and the train-riding public. Better downstream systems for the collection, segregation, and management (recycling, composting, disposal) of the trash is one thing, getting passengers to stop throwing their crap out the window or onto the floor (for some other poor slob to pick-up for them) is quite another. Getting Indian railways to rethink their waste handling practices will be challenging because they are an extremely entrenched bureaucracy. The political path in, via the Railways Ministry, may be advantageous. But getting the Indian public to stop defiling its public spaces may make changing behavior at Indian Railways look like child’s play.

    Best,

    MBJ

  9. 10 archana 11 November 2012 at 11:46 am

    hiii ….I am a product designer student working on social issues, the problems u framed here are very true i will love to contribute something for this problem as a product designer student….

    • 11 mbjesq 13 November 2012 at 2:20 am

      Good luck, Archana. I’m certain that, with a little creativity and diligence, you can create an efficient system that produces the cleanliness and corresponding element of social justice; the hard part will be to get the administrative and political structures to do the right thing. They seem congenitally allergic to ever doing the right thing.

      MBJ

      • 12 shammy jacob 13 November 2012 at 2:46 am

        Thanks Archana, I welcome you into the community.
        http://saafindiarocks.wordpress.com/about/

        Please check out my back ground at http://nl.linkedin.com/in/shammyjacob

        @MBJ, thanks for your tips. We are on the same track [pun intended]

        We are currently setting up an organization in the Netherlands [that’s where I am based] and putting together timelines to do an extensive sensing/research phase till May 2013.

        We have the support of the THNK – The Amsterdam School of Creative leadership in terms of methodology and network.

        Lets start the journey to bring back memories of a beautiful India into reality


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