The story of how Chennai’s suburban rail commuters got usable toilets

17,60,000 passengers travelling daily by the Chennai suburban railway had only nine toilets that they could use across 47 stations, till NGO Satta Panjayathu Iyakkam stepped in. The results hold important lessons for civic problem solving.

Most of us would be surprised to know that Chennai’s is the oldest city Corporation in Asia, only behind London in the world. It is also interesting to note that Chennai’s suburban Railways was started as early as 1931 to bridge the northern and southern parts of the city.

Since independence, the Chennai suburban transportation system has been operated by Southern Railways, the oldest operating zone in independent India. Suburban railways has evolved as an arterial system for transportation in Chennai and  handles 17,60,000 people per day. 

Yet, as the commuter load increased a critical gap began to be felt sharply — that of enough usable toilets. Only 20% of the stations along the routes had functional toilets. While there were no toilets in some stations, in others they were not in a condition to be used or locked for a good part of the day. For the lakhs of commuters using the suburban rail, this was a huge inconvenience.

This led Satta Panjayathu Iyakkam (SPI) – a leading Tamil Nadu NGO headquartered in Chennai to take this up with the authorities and implement a solution.

Not an easy journey

The first step however was understanding the magnitude of the problem, for which SPI undertook to inspect the conditions and functionality of the existing toilets in the stations in late 2014. Three teams from SPI, comprised of 18 people under the coordination of SPI State Secretary Jai Ganesh, conducted a ground level survey to check the conditions of the toilets and drinking water facilities available in 47 of the 60 odd stations.

The findings and results were shocking:

Route Name Total Stations Stations with fully functional toilets Stations with toilets in bad condition NO TOILETS (Locked or not usable) Percentage of stations with toilets available
Velachery to Beach 18 1 1 16 11%
Tambaram – Park 16 1 2 13 19%
Avadi – Chennai Central 13 1 3 9 30%
TOTAL STATIONS 47 3 6 38 20%


When the SPI Team spoke to the toilet operator at Mylapore station, he said that the toilets were open for use between 10 am  and 5 pm, but many people were hesitant to use them as they weren’t hygienic. 

As the findings of the survey became public and the news received considerable coverage in most newspapers, SPI approached the station masters with a request to look into and act on the issue. When this failed to produce any noticeable results, the matter was taken to the General Manager of Southern Railways. In spite of timely reminders, SPI did not hear back on this for the next 14 months, after which it escalated the issue to Madras High Court. 

SPI General Secretary, Senthil Arumugam, articulated the issue through a PIL and argued the entire case with the support of several lawyers who took this up as a noble, social cause.

Railway officials argued that there were no takers for the tender they had floated for ‘pay and use’ toilets.

SPI argued that the ticket fare includes the cost for basic amenities and hence questioned the faulty mechanism whereby the commuters were charged separately for toilets. It pointed out that the “Indian Railways Works Manual 2000, Chapter IV, Section 403 (Minimum Essential Amenities Passenger Amenities, Stations and yards) classifies Suburban Railway stations in the “C” Category and clearly defines that basic amenities like toilets and drinking water should be provided.

SPI also noted that the working models for the tenders were unfeasible as contractors could never earn anything and were bound to fail. Following these representations, Railways slightly altered the business model and toilets and drinking water facilities were made operational within a few months.

The then Chief justice immediately directed the concerned officials to take necessary actions with immediate effect. 

Months later, SPI, with the support of Loyola college students, conducted another survey to assess the situation. Though most of the toilet and drinking water facilities had been made operational, there were many glitches which were pointed out with visual evidences in the next hearings.

At this point, however, the interim Chief Justice took a different view of the issue and closed the case; he also dismissed SPI’s other pleas that included allocation of separate funds for toilets from the NDA’s flagship Swachh Bharat scheme and toilet maintenance funds. 

SPI nevertheless has been greatly appreciated by their peers and more so, by the common commuter for acting as a catalyst in ensuring availability of functional  toilets and drinking water facilities. The organisation has now presented its next set of complaints to railway officials after a ground survey in prime railway stations in Tamilnadu like Trichy, Villupuram, Erode and Nellai. 

Takeaways for problem-solving

Jai and Senthil meanwhile are elated over their success in solving this critical civic issue and say that it has been a great learning experience. They also put forth a 3-point formula for citizens which could solve a majority of problems that they face on a regular day-to-day basis:

  • Find, Record and Gather Information

Whenever you come across a pressing issue, it is necessary to record it immediately. With the current rate of smartphone penetration, it’s very easy to record these in the best possible way. After recording, try to gather some basic information about the issue.

  • Make a valid complaint

Reach out to the immediate supervisor who is directly responsible for the issue and post a complaint. Give necessary reminders, and if there is no redress even after that, the issue can be escalated to higher officials.

  • File a PIL

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) can be directly filed by an individual or a group of people in Indian courts. The purpose is to extend justice to deprived or aggrieved sections of society. It is for the benefit of the class and not any individual.

Given its long history of continuous efforts to bring about better governance and empower citizens, SPI is committed to supporting all such citizen’s endeavours.


  1. Vishwanathan Chandrasekaran says:

    Awsome..appreciate the efforts of satta panchayath iyakam

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