Human faeces is scattered across India’s 64,400 kilometres of rail lines.
One of the world’s largest surface transport networks, carrying 30 million people and 2.8 tonnes of goods daily, is being downed by those using it.
A government panel report this month said that human waste from open-discharge toilets used by passengers is damaging tracks and associated infrastructure.
The report recommended that toilets with nil or harmless discharge be installed within the next five years in all 43,000 carriages used by the railways.
“Apart from the issue of hygiene, this has several serious safety implications arising out of corrosion of rails and related hardware,” the report said.
Waste is dumped directly on to the tracks through small holes from western-style and squat toilets inside trains.
Only a handful of luxury tourist trains like the “Palace on Wheels”, running between New Delhi and Rajasthan, have bathrooms with well-built toilets.
In a country where millions lack access to basic sanitation, it is not unusual to see people urinating and defecating in public near train lines, particularly in suburban areas.
Many passengers ignore requests to not use toilets when trains halt. Apart from the unbearable stench it creates, the practice leads to clogging of rail lines at busy stations.
The safety review committee appointed by the railway ministry and led by top Indian scientist Anil Kakodkar estimated that 30 billion rupees ($609.5 million) would be needed to fit new toilets over the next five years.
Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi will present the annual railway budget on March 14. A fare hike, vital to generate more money to invest in improving the creaking system, may be on the cards, although Trivedi’s political boss Mamata Banerjee is pushing against higher prices.