Gurinder Osan  /  AP
A worker sweeps the floor at a railway station in New Delhi, India on Friday. India's government ordered an ambitious revamp of cleanliness and service on its monolithic British-era railway service.  
updated 9/19/2005 8:59:52 AM ET 2005-09-19T12:59:52

From killing cockroaches to cleaning toilets, India’s government has ordered the state railway to accomplish the seemingly impossible: revamp the network, one of the world’s largest, and get rid of the bugs, rats, filth and surly workers.

On Friday, the day the order went out, the garbage lining the tracks and the litter carpeting the platforms at the New Delhi Railway station revealed how big a job it will be.

With waiting rooms full, hundreds of passengers camped on the rain-sodden floor of the filthy lobby.

Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest employers, with a staff of 1.6 million. It covers more than 40,000 miles, has 7,000 stations and runs more than 11,000 trains a day serving some 80 million people.

Tickets can cost as little as $2 for an overnight trip.

But the trains and stations are notorious for accidents, delays, overcrowding, poor sanitation and lazy and unfriendly employees.

The railway minister, who has in the past defended the railway’s performance, got a firsthand glimpse of the conditions when he took a train ride this month.

'Hellish' rail service
“My God, it was hellish,” Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav was quoted as telling The Hindustan Times. “The toilet is so dirty that I can still feel the stench.”

For others, a train journey can be far worse — a 16-year-old girl was allegedly repeatedly raped in the first-class car of a train Thursday as she traveled in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s most lawless. Police have arrested the ticket collector and four food vendors.

Yadav ordered regional rail officers to personally oversee the cleaning of the cars and stations and the disciplining of lazy and unhelpful workers. He told them to report their progress to him in a month.

The directives include ensuring that air-conditioned coaches are free of cockroaches and rats, cleaning and renovating toilets, providing better bedding and lighting, and giving stations a general facelift.

Managers were also told not to skimp on the disinfectant.

Skeptical of mass clean-up
The aim is “to make Indian Railways more aesthetic, comfortable and passenger-friendly with good quality of lighting, water supply, cleanliness and ... help every customer in need,” the minister said in a statement.

Passengers, who for generations have endured long, uncomfortable train rides, were skeptical.

“These government people are all thugs. They don’t want to do anything for the poor,” said Baijnath Paswan, a 30-year-old farmer from Bihar, India’s poorest state.

Paswan and a dozen fellow villagers squatted on the floor, wrapped in blankets as they waited for their train home from New Delhi.

“These orders are all on paper,” said Mahipal Chowdhary, waiting for a train to his home 85 miles west of New Delhi.

Customers need to clean-up act as well
Nearby, an old sweeper slowly cleared banana peels, cups, cigarette stubs and used rail tickets with a long broom. A packed garbage can overflowed, and customers at a fast-food shop threw wrappers and soda bottles on the floor.

“We keep cleaning all day. We do our best. But the passengers have to cooperate as well,” said the sweeper, Phoolchand, who uses a single name. “If we see them littering the floor and ask them not to do that, they shout at us and say: ‘Who are you to tell me?”’

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