Plastic cups out, clay cups in at 400 Indian train stations

BENGALURU, INDIA—The Indian railways is the largest rail network in Asia. Every day 12,617 trains run along the length and breadth of the country covering 7,172 stations. On a normal, non-Covid day, they would collectively ferry 23 million passengers.

A month ago, the Indian Railways announced that they would replace plastic cups with the kulhad, as an attempt to reduce single-use plastic and replace it with the eco-friendly kulhad. The project is being launched at 400 railway stations to begin with.

Indian potter making small pot or Diya for Diwali with clay on potters wheel in his small factory. Manufacturing traditional handicraft with clay.

A kulhad is quite simply a terracotta clay cup, unglazed and without any handles. Replacing the plastic cup with the kulhad offers a more eco-friendly alternative. But it can generate employment and income to potters across the country – said to be potentially in the range of 2 million potters. And it is viewed as bringing back something inherently Indian – terracotta utensils that date back centuries!

But this is not the first time that the kulhad has been considered in place of plastic cups. Nearly 20 years ago, then railway minister had introduced the kulhad for the same reasons. It fizzled out rather quickly. Reasons were that it cost more, many customers didn’t find it appealing or hygienic, and finally, demand outstripped supply.

Still, something’s got to be done. Because even if every passenger drinks only one cup of chai on a train journey, that’s a mind boggling amount of plastic!

Jaya Jaitley, politician and an expert on handicrafts, was quoted in the Guardian as saying, for the idea to work this time around, the government must allow for the design to vary across the country, ensure a steady supply of clay to potters, and provide feeder centres near major railway stations.

However, the kulhad is not without detractors. They argue that it, too, is a single use cup, and that terracotta can take decades to degrade. So unless reused, the kulhad too will add to the landfill.

Tea and trains in India, are one of those classic pairings. What remains to be seen is if the kulhad endure and add to the charm of a cuppa on the train? And if it really is the alternative to plastic.

Aravinda Anantharaman reporting, Bengaluru, India

Writer, editor, columnist, tea reporter, and running Copac Media, a creative consultancy. Her interests are history and literature, and their influence on contemporary society. Aravinda has published with Penguin Random House (India).