How about using Indian Railways to promote Swachh Bharat!

Author: Anand Shekar, February 11 2015 - Mahatma Gandhi had a long relationship with the railways. The railways were instrumental in the conversion of the lawyer M.K. Gandhi into the Mahatma as he traveled by trains through the whole country in his quest for independent India. His book Third Class in Indian Railways is an eye-opener on the sad state of the third-class compartments and the suffering of passengers during those days.

The Indian Railways could pay a real tribute to the Mahatma’s vision of universal sanitation by launching a La-Train or Swachata Express in this year’s budget. There is historical evidence that the railways have been able to substantially contribute towards creating awareness on social issues - first through the Red Ribbon Express to promote awareness on HIV and AIDS and again for promotion of science in rural areas.

The reach, infrastructure and association of Indian Railways are overwhelming! It is one of the world's largest railway networks comprising 115,000 kilometers of track, over a route of 65,436 kilometers and 7,172 stations. In 2013–14, Indian Railways carried over 8 billion passengers or more than 23 million passengers daily through the year. Indian Railways is also the world's seventh largest commercial or utility employer, by number of employees, with over 1.3 million employees. All of these can contribute greatly to the cause of sanitation if the Government of India considers using the railways to raise awareness on the issue.

A Swachhata Express equipped with live and animated models of various technologies necessary for different hydro-geological zones of the country could address the prevalent knowledge gaps on use of appropriate and responsive technologies on sanitation. Short films on successful ways to promote open defecation free environments would be of huge interest to people who want to improvise their village sanitation. Sanitation experts and specialists could interact with people at stations on the benefits of improved sanitation, responsive technologies and successful approaches. This inter-personal communication at railway stations would be very effective in disseminating key information and messages on improving the challenging national sanitation scenario.

Government of India has a unique opportunity to spread the sanitation message to their riders and the communities they serve through the following activities:

Developing and disseminating Public Awareness Products:  A series of education material and advertisements has been developed by Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and State Governments detailing the dangers of open defecation. These could be reviewed and appropriate education materials could be distributed to the visitors of Swachhata Express! Dissemination of learning products and education materials to common people has always been a problem.

Newsletters and Activity Books for Schoolchildren: These could be used by the train managers to engage children in “on-the-spot train activities” that help children realize the importance of having toilets at school and home. Newsletters carrying messages from prominent teachers from different schools could be developed and given to school children visiting the Swachhata Express.

Video shows: Short videos on different aspects of sanitation can be played – for example, appropriate hand washing at critical times, safe disposal of solid and liquid waste etc. CDs of such films could also be made available for sale for NGOs and other institutions.

Sani-Talk: The Swachhata Express could consider inviting famous celebrities, experts and politicians, well-known in the region, to engage with the people in “Sani Talk”. Sani Talk episodes could also be aired while the train is in a particular region for reinforcement of key messages and to attract local people to participate in the discussions facilitated by experts or celebrities.

Quiz games: Quizzes on sanitation and health issues could be organized for school children at stations on the day the Swachhata Express arrives. Concession passes could be considered for winners for traveling a distance on the train.

Sanitation Park: One coupe of the Swachhata Express could be converted into a sanitary park where all possible technical options could be demonstrated. Visitors would be made aware on different technologies, their designs, costs, operation and maintenance aspects. This could help people understand the available options and make informed choices.

The Indian Railways deserve appreciation for commemorating Mahatma Gandhi by naming trains after his life’s work, which mark and highlight his contribution to our Independence struggle. A Swachhata Express to promote a cause close to Mahatma’s heart would be a befitting tribute to him.

The Mahatma said: "Conservation of national sanitation is Swaraj work and it may not be postponed for a single day on any consideration whatsoever." Trust Indian Railways will consider Swacchata Express La-Train in this budget to attain the national mission of making India “Open Defecation Free”.