Mumbai’s suburban railway network, also known as the ‘local train’, is famous across the country for its robust network. While it connects the entire city, its expansion has also added pressure to existing infrastructure. Overcrowded trains and station platforms are a common sight, especially at busy stations like Dadar, Kurla and Thane. Trains on average carry 2.6 times more than the official capacity carrying 7.5 million passengers every day. When it comes to railway station infrastructure, safety, hygiene and accessibility become paramount for women and children who use trains regularly. Railway toilets form an important part of this infrastructure.
This is why the students of the History Department at St. Xavier’s College conducted a survey of toilets at multiple stations on all three lines of the suburban rail network; the Central line from CSMT to Mulund, the Western line from Virar to Churchgate and the Harbour line from CSMT to Vashi. I guided the students throughout the process and believe that this study is an important and neglected topic as toilet infrastructure is not given enough attention while studying the transportation system.
Need to survey toilets at railway stations
A well-functioning toilet with a continuous water supply, clean stalls, basins and changing rooms is important for all passengers, especially women, who go through multiple health issues due to the unavailability of clean washrooms. Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs), upset stomachs and mental stress are common among women due to this lack of access. Movements such as ‘The Right to Pee’ have tried to push for women’s dignity by highlighting the absence of safe and hygienic public washrooms across Mumbai.
This campaign has been demanding adequate public washrooms for women in Mumbai from stakeholders responsible for urban sanitation. The survey we have conducted has substantiated the demands of this campaign by analysing the conditions of toilets at railway stations through data collected from primary and secondary sources. Through 1000 responses, the students covered the perception of the passengers towards the conditions of toilets.
Findings from the survey
Among the respondents, students were the most frequent users of trains and a majority of respondents used the Western line trains. What is alarming is that more than half the respondents replied that they do not use the public toilets at the train stations. Only 8.5% of the respondents felt that the washroom facilities meet hygiene requirements. The study also revealed that a jarring 32.5% of the respondents did not find water in the toilets, dustbins, sanitary napkins, soap or any other facilities. This reveals that basic necessities like water supply are not available to the passengers.
We found that unclean, unsanitary toilets with a defunct flushing system and broken latches are major reasons for not using the toilets. When asked whether they would use these toilets if a higher fee is demanded for cleaner toilets, 43% of the respondents responded in the affirmative and 91% agreed that it is the responsibility of the government and not the general public to fix the toilets and keep them clean. The railways currently charge Rs. 2 for using the urinal and Rs. 5 for using the bathroom as per a 2012 guideline.
The findings from the survey show that there is an urgent need to assess the conditions of the toilets today. Increasing the availability of clean, safe and accessible toilets will improve passengers’ experience as well. Dustbins, tissues, sanitary napkins and tampons should be supplied in adequate quantities to all public toilets. Regular refilling must be ensured to ensure passengers are not affected. Changing rooms and breastfeeding stations should be installed at the toilets to help women with children.
Without a continuous water supply and well-functioning taps, a clean toilet cannot be imagined. In addition, frequent cleaning and female attendants can help women as well. Safety can be improved through a well-lit toilet and signboards along with CCTV cameras installed at the entrance of the toilet. A well-functioning toilet is incomplete without proper drainage, sewerage system and garbage disposal facilities, these must be paid extra attention to.
Need for sensitisation
Moreover, the staff and authorities need to be sensitised towards the need for special attention to women’s toilets and the issues women passengers face. The government should collaborate with civil society organisations and consult passengers through a participatory model to ensure complete transparency. Apps should be launched to evaluate the cleanliness of these washroom facilities and ensure regular inspections. The railway authorities should rely on adequate funding sources like CSR-based programmes to improve toilet facilities. The government should ensure that funding for this infrastructure be unaffected by corruption.
Top management of railways is to be made accountable for deteriorating services. We need drastic and strict measures to help weed out corruption and mismanagement, a larger problem that plagues all aspects of all welfare initiatives of the government. The washrooms are very cramped and usually used without any manners (littering, wet seats, etc). It is the responsibility of the department that runs these toilets to increase ventilation, and lights and clean the toilets. With this, even the users will make a conscious effort to maintain cleanliness.
Our dream toilet in public spaces including railway stations would be a brighter, cleaner, well-maintained door, with better taps, soap dispensers, toilet rolls, mirrors, hand driers, and air purifiers and a responsible person to see that people use it judiciously. These must be affixed to the toilet and adequate care must be taken so that they are not stolen. The overwhelming responses from the survey indicate that users expect the government to do better and take up the responsibility of maintaining clean toilets for a better and healthier Mumbai.
We hope that the railway authorities take cognisance of our findings, devise a comprehensive plan under the Swacch Bharat initiative and improve the toilet facilities and build more toilets keeping in mind the needs of women passengers.