Metro Railway has flushed one of the most basic of human necessities down the, er, toilet.
Calcutta’s transport lifeline has added kilometres, stations, air-conditioned trains and smart tokens in almost three decades of evolution but never felt the need to provide its 6.5 lakh daily commuters a washroom at every stop along the 25.13km route.
Finance consultant Sujan Roychaudhuri hadn’t thought about it until one Ashtami night a couple of Durga Pujas ago. “I was seeing off my friend at Tollygunge station and I desperately needed to use the washroom. I spotted one, only to be told that it was meant only for the staff. No amount of pleading helped,” he recalled.
From a 10-minute ride in 1984 to cover the 3.4km stretch from Bhowanipore to Esplanade, the journey time from one end of the Metro to the other has increased almost five times to 49 minutes. That’s long enough for someone or the other among a trainload of commuters to need a visit to the washroom.
But a rapid transit system with cutting-edge technology at its heart still hasn’t found a way to jump a technical hurdle that had prompted its founding fathers to omit the humble toilet from their plans.
“The underground stations are at a lower level than the city’s sewer lines. Since the waste cannot be pumped out to the level of the sewers, having washrooms might create a lot of stench,” said Protyush Ghosh, deputy general manager of Metro Railway.
Tathagata Roy, a former state BJP president who was the chief engineer of Metro Railway almost three decades ago, confirmed that the idea of having toilets was rejected because it wasn’t feasible.
“It was discussed and rejected during the construction phase in 1977-78. We would have had to pump up toilet waste, which is fraught with risk. Waterlogging on the roads above would have triggered backflow in the tunnel,” Roy said. “Maintenance expenditure would have been high, too.”
So what are commuters supposed to do when they need to visit the washroom?
Roy said there was always the option of allowing commuters to use toilets meant for the staff in the event of an “emergency”.
But deputy general manager Ghosh said even Metro Railway employees were “trained” to work without visiting the washrooms as frequently as they needed to. “In any case, if we allow one commuter to use a staff toilet, the rest will make similar requests. We are not equipped to deal with such a situation.”
Engineers said connecting the waste pits of toilets at lower levels to sewer lines on higher ground without creating a problem wasn’t rocket science. The parkomat at New Market has toilets in the basement. A sump pit has been constructed where the waste accumulates and is then pumped up to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s sewer line.
“A valve has been fitted at the upper end of the pump tubes to prevent the backflow of water,” said Nilangshu Bose, director-general for projects and development in the CMC.
South City Mall’s basement has washrooms four metres lower than the CMC’s sewer line. The mall, of course, also has its own sewage treatment plant.
Metro rail networks in other cities also have washrooms in their underground stations. Delhi Metro did not have them when it started operating in 2002 but went on to build one at each station.
“As the routes became longer and people had to spend more time travelling by the Metro, we started setting up toilets,” said a spokesperson for the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.
Every station has a pay-and-use toilet in a non-ticketed area within the premises. Publishing house employee Romila Saha, who used to travel by the Calcutta Metro regularly before shifting to Delhi, can see what a world of difference it makes to the commuter.
“The absence of washrooms at any Metro station in Calcutta was always a problem, especially when the wait was long. The Sulabh toilets at the Delhi Metro stations are clean and a much appreciated amenity, especially for senior citizens,” she said.
The Tube in London has toilets at most stations, underground and overground. Singapore’s Metro network has them at all stations.
In Calcutta, Metro Railway has no immediate plan to build toilets even in the overground stations, where matching levels with the sewer lines isn’t a problem. Officials cited space as a constraint for not having washrooms at the overground stations.
“I saw a child relieving herself on the platform one day when trains were delayed because of some problem,” said Sushmita Ghose, a regular commuter.
Retired schoolteacher Namita Mondal, 63, often takes the Metro from New Garia to visit her relatives in Dum Dum and worries about finding herself in “an emergency situation”.
“It is a long journey. All Metro stations must have washrooms. Many need to use it, especially those who travel from one end to the other. I have heard many commuters complaining about the lack of this basic amenity,” she said.
Doctors say not being able to use a washroom when needed is unhealthy. “Diabetics and those with a prostrate problem need to use the washroom more frequently than others. It can be a very painful experience for them not to be able to visit one,” said Amitabha Roy, a general physician.
Deputy general manager Ghosh put the onus on the civic body to come up with pay-and-use public toilets outside every Metro station.
CMC officials said no such proposal had ever come from the Metro authorities.
Junior railway minister Adhir Chowdhury wasn’t even aware of the problem until Metro contacted him over the phone. “I didn’t know the Metro stations don’t have washrooms. I will look into the matter,” he promised.
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