Friday, May 13, 2016

One train engine has been equipped with a bio-toilet, but is that enough to improve the working conditions of over 60,000 loco pilots across India?

Posted by   Kaushik Chatterji | May 11, 2016 


Imagine having to work, often for over a dozen hours at a stretch, in a cubicle on the move without a place to answer nature’s call. That’s what life on the job is like for over 60,000 drivers of train engines, or loco running staff as they’re known, of the Indian Railways network.

Being an engine driver is like working in a war zone. Prolonged exposure to the noise of engine horns – at 140-150 dB, it’s comparable to a jet engine at takeoff – leads to hearing impairment, and spending long hours in the heat (of the order of 55 degrees Celsius in electric locos, 60 in diesel) isn’t particularly comfy.

However, the more pressing problem is attending to nature’s call – and not just because it might lead toinfrequent voiding syndrome or nurses’ bladder. Lack of toilets in engines is a long-standing issue that rears its head periodically, only to be addressed by the powers-that-be in highly publicised affairs that, until now, have not amounted to much. In the latest effort to placate loco pilots, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu flagged off a goods train hauled by an air-conditioned diesel engine that comes with a vacuum bio-toilet at the Delhi Safdarjung railway station on Friday.

The initiative is being marketed as a first-of-a-kind measure that is a great advertisement for both Swachh Rail Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – a subset of the Modi government’s piece de resistance – and Make in India (it was manufactured by Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW), Varanasi, at a cost of over Rs 17.5 lakh). But there’s more to it.

Weeks after the new government was formed at the Centre, the National Human Rights Commission, responding to a petition by the Indian Railway Loco Running Men’s Organisation (IRLRMO), had directed the Indian Railways to look into the loco pilots’ complaint regarding toilet breaks. Also, this is not the first time that efforts have been made to introduce toilets in train engines.

Engine drivers on the Indian Railways network start off as assistant loco pilots (ALPs), working alongside senior running staff for over a decade, mostly on goods trains. Thereafter, they become senior ALPs followed by Loco Pilot (Shunting), which is when they finally prove their ability to handle an engine all by themselves by moving locomotives in sheds and yards at speeds of less than 15 kmph.

The next rungs on the ladder are Loco Pilot (Goods), who work 13-hour shifts aboard freight trains, and Loco Pilot (Passenger), who are in command of low-priority passenger trains that stop everywhere. It is only once they have risen through the ranks that they are promoted to Loco Pilot (Mail/Express). While this means better pay and prestige, there is a payoff – the time between stoppages is usually four to five hours. The option, then, is to exercise restraint until, well, shit hits the fan; at which point you improvise. (And if you are squeamish, please skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

Ask anyone at one of the loco pilots’ lobbies at the New Delhi railway station about that critical moment when exercising restraint is no longer an option, and the answers are initially coy. “Desh svatantra hai par humein svatantra nahi hai bolne ki,” quipped one. (“It’s a free country but we’re not free to speak.”) Another asked if there is “Modiji’s permission”. It was only when they were convinced there are no cameras around that the drivers loosen up a bit. Once they do, there is no dearth of toilet humour, tinged though it is by the embarrassment of being forced to urinate or defecate in the open, often in full public view.

“Baahar mooh karke kar lete hai, koi dikh jaye toh mooh andar ki taraf kar lete hai,” said one, laughing. (“We relieve ourselves while facing outside, unless we see someone, in which case we quickly turn around.”) Another says that they make the best of a red light, quickly alighting and doing their business next to the tracks – sometimes on the tracks in front of the stationary train – and carry a mug or a bottle in the engine for this very purpose.

Rushing to the nearest coach is an option only in theory. “They are almost always occupied”, said C Sunish, general secretary of the South Western Railway zone of the All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA), over the phone from Bengaluru. “Besides, halts these days are usually not more than a minute or two, especially in case of superfast trains.”

Loco running staff attending nature’s call in a tearing hurry might seem hilarious, but it is no laughing matter, especially for women loco pilots whose numbers are on the rise. If anything, it is potentially fatal – in 2007, the assistant loco pilot of a Dibrugarh-bound Rajdhani Express was mowed down by the Amritsar Express when he got down to relieve himself at a crossing. The incident led to an intensification in loco pilots’ demands for better working conditions.

The inauguration of an on-board bio-toilet has been welcomed by loco pilots as well as railway union representatives, but the consensus is that much more needs to be done. Sunish feels that things will only change once existing locomotives are retro-fitted with toilets and wash basins when they go in for periodic overhauling, which happens once every eight years for diesel engines. “Whatever announcement they have made is applicable only to newly-manufactured engines, not existing ones,” says Sunish. “As of now, it seems as if this inauguration was conducted only for publicity.”

With each new engine costing a bomb, and the Railways aiming to provide similar vacuum bio-toilets in only five more diesel locomotives by the end of the financial year, there is also a concern about the costs. “It [introducing bio-toilets in engines] is a good step but very costly. It should be done on a large scale so that the prices come down,” said Shiva Gopal Mishra, general secretary of the Delhi-based All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF).

Another potential issue is maintenance — even of the newly-inaugurated bio-toilet, whose bio-digestion mechanism ensures nothing is discharged onto the tracks. While engines are cleaned at loco sheds and contracts are awarded for cleaning coaches, engine toilets are a grey area. “Who will clean them?” asked Mishra. “They’ll say the running staff should do it.” Sunish said, “The contracts of cleaners should be modified to include engine toilets in addition to those in coaches.”

It is this question of cleanliness that has kept earlier engines equipped with toilets (regular, not the bio kind) off the tracks. Almost five years ago, a 5500hp locomotive from the WDG5 class, nicknamed Bheem for being India’s most powerful diesel engine, became India’s first locomotive with a toilet on board. Occasionally, existing engines have been retro-fitted. Sunish remembered an engine belonging to the Erode shed of the Southern Railways that was modified to provide a place to empty one’s bladder but discontinued after a month due to lack of cleanliness. “Cleaning staff would not come to the engine, and the smell would stink up the cab (drivers’ compartment),” he said.

Yet another loco pilot, this one from Northern Railways, remembers an electric locomotive of the WAP7 class belonging to the Ghaziabad shed that was equipped with a toilet soon after a woman loco pilot hired by the zone rightly raised the issue. “If you are hiring women, you have to provide them with these facilities,” says the pilot who, like every other engine driver at New Delhi railway station, did not wish to be identified.

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