The Indian railway system has always been a jewel in the country’s crown. A spectacular feat of engineering, it connects the nation from end to end, offering affordable travel to virtually all segments of the population.

At the same time, India’s trains are among the worst afflicted by the nation’s greatest challenge: trash.

Waste and waste management are among India’s most pressing problems, a state likely to degenerate further as India’s economy continues to grow. Indians produce more than 55 million tons of solid waste every year, a figure slated to increase to an astonishing 240 million tons by 2047 according to the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi.

For India’s railways – whether it’s trash on trains themselves, or garbage thrown onto tracks and platforms – the sheer amount of refuse poses huge problems.

“There’s real beauty to traveling by train in India, yet the waste and the poor hygiene standard of the trains and stations are very real,” says Shammy Jacob, founder of the Saaf India Foundation.

Clearly, there is a strong need for change and Jacob launched the Saaf India Foundation together with Dinesh Sonak in order to effect that change through innovative solutions for trash and waste management in India’s public spaces.
With this in mind, Saaf’s first order of business is the Saaf Train program, using India’s railways as a platform to tackle the gargantuan waste challenge and to bring about widespread social change.

According to Jacob, the railways are a great place to start. “Trains never run empty – in fact, they’re always full and there’s talk of adding more carriages and even bringing in double-decker trains, so this is a great time to tackle the waste problem,” he says.

At the same time Jacob, who was sought out by THNK, the Amsterdam-based school of creative leadership, and who enjoys years of experience in design thinking, most recently as head of sustainable business practices for Nike, knows he faces a complex challenge.

Making the railways a zero-waste operation by 2020 won’t be easy. It is going to require end-to-end solutions that go way beyond scrubbing train tracks and station platforms or placing ‘don’t litter here’ or ‘don’t spit here’ signs on trains. The foundation’s concerted efforts call for comprehensive solutions to minimize unsustainable waste generation, maximize the collection, processing, and recycling of waste, and to ensure that there is no waste entering and exiting trains and the spaces – urban and rural – around them.

“Right now, we are at the prototyping stage and in the process of gathering feedback from experts to ensure that the prototype is robust and scalable,” Jacob says. “The solution will encompass innovative passenger education schemes to bring about behavioral change as well as solutions to separate and collect all the waste generated on trains and in stations so that it can be processed responsibly by the railways.”

Saaf, which means ‘clean’ in several Indian languages, has enlisted some of the greatest minds in creative design thinking today and put together a top-notch team of stakeholders at every level, including industry leaders and the Indian Railways itself. The team’s strengths cover both technical/infrastructure aspects and inspirations: among others, Rahul daCunha, whose communications company has brought innovative and inspiring messages to the Indian public, serves on Saaf’s board as does Jack Sim, founder of the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization.

However, trains are just the first step for Saaf.

“We want to inspire a positive revolution to bring about long lasting, societal change in India,” Jacob says.

header image: A modern fully air-conditioned fast train at a station in India, photo: Hans Vivek