Railways catering clean-up: Piyush Goyal’s crackdown is in right direction but urgent need is a complete overhaul

New Delhi: Travelling long distance on a train and scared to eat from the pantry? This has been the usual state of affairs on the Indian Railways, as rotten food routinely gets served on board, catering staff is invariably rude and often these workers also seek tips after inflating prices of eatables, illegally. Besides, in a clever ploy, they also sell less quantities of an item than prescribed, allegedly siphoning off the difference. Well, if newly minted Railways Minister Piyush Goyal’s latest diktat is any indication, at least eating on the train may not be so heavy on the pocket from today. Even if the minister has as yet given no hint on how the food will be made edible or underweight packets tackled, what he has proposed to do about catering is a good start. From today, Railways’ catering inspectors are supposed to fan out across the trains to check if the catering staff are asking for tips or over-charging for food. The Railways also promised to monitor social media platforms to look out for passengers complaining about overcharging and waiters asking for tips.

The minister wrote to all zonal units and put a 48-hour deadline on such malpractices, Action against the corrupt should start from today. Needless to say, this is a welcome move though only partially addressing the huge catering rip off that passes off for service on Indian Railways. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the catering business to make eating on trains less hazardous. In this tweet, the Rail Ministry put out a list of common eatables with their rates and suggested that passengers seek a bill each time they buy something to eat on the train. In several responses below the tweet, passengers said forget a bill, catering staff was regularly inflating prices and refused to share a menu card with the price list. The tea/coffee priced at Rs 10 was routinely sold at double the amount, said one, while another wondered when will Goyal begin addressing food quality.

In a report titled ‘Performance audit on Catering Services Reports in Indian Railways’, the Comptroller & Auditor General had said in Parliament in the just-concluded Monsoon Session that not only did it find food sub-standard and hazardous for passengers’ health, its audit also found numerous instances when the weight of the food item was less than prescribed. Basically, passengers were charged more for less. Standalone, one may not find a discrepancy of 5 or 10 gram disturbing. But remember, the Railways caters to over 22 million passengers on a daily basis. If even half of this travelling public is eating off the Railways’ kitchens or at the stations, imagine the kind of money being siphoned off by the unscrupulous contractors, vendors and staff by reducing minimal weight of food items!

As per Para 2806 Indian Railway Commercial Manual, the quantity of cooked rice, rotis, vegetables etc. served should be according to the standard measurement prescribed by Railway Board/Zonal Railways and the price list given out before meals are served on a train indicates the measurement (gram for solid food stuff and ml for beverages like coffee, tea and soup) per unit. Minister Goyal would do well to crack the whip on this aspect too, if he really wants to rein in corruption in the catering business on Railways.

The C&AG audit was conducted between July and October 2016. It found food stuff served was less than the prescribed scheduled quantity. So the weight of a piece of paneer was found to be 3 gram against the prescribed standard of 5 gram in one train, a reduction of 40 percent. In the Food Plaza of Gwalior station (NCR), against the scheduled weight of 175 gram, the actual weight of Poori was only 130 gram; a vegetable sandwich was lighter by 25 gram at all six stalls of licensee at Agra Fort station. 10 gram had been lopped off from dhokla and bread pakodas sold at Gwalior station. Quantity of ice cream (Vadilal) served was 90 ml instead of contractual quantity of 100 ml, ditto for curd. A sachet of 10 gram tomato ketchup was served instead of the standard 15 gram.

In the same report, the country’s chief auditor also said foodstuff sold at 26 stations/trains was “unfit for human consumption”. It also found rats and cockroaches in the pantries, uncovered food lying around and much more. Much of the blame has been laid at the door of unscrupulous catering contractors hired by the Railways, its inability to provide all long-distance trains with pantry cars and frequent changes in the catering policy.

The audit by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) found contaminated, recycled and shelf-life expired foodstuff, unauthorised brands of water bottles and much more being sold in trains and at stations. At Bokaro Steel City station, the shelf-life of the flavored milk sold had expired; at Agra, catering units were selling ‘petha’ which later tested positive for fungal growth. Deficiency in quality of malaipaneer, dressed broiler chicken and refined oil were found at another station; a 100 pieces of unsold paranthas – obviously for reuse – were found in the base kitchen of Zonal Railway for catering in train no.12033-34 (Kanpur – New Delhi – Kanpur). Goyal’s predecessor, Suresh Prabhu, had initiated work on a new catering policy, it now needs to be expedited.

In order to upgrade quality of food preparation, IRCTC is to set up new kitchens and upgrade existing ones. The salient features of this policy include the mandate to IRCTC to manage catering service on all mobile units – pantry car contracts awarded by zonal railway to be reassigned to IRCTC and meals for all mobile units to be picked up from the nominated kitchens owned, operated and managed by IRCTC. The policy discourages IRCTC from outsourcing catering services to private licensees, instead retaining ownership and therefore accountability for all the issues pertaining to setting up and operation of the Base Kitchens and quality of food. IRCTC will also be responsible for management of Food Plaza, Food Courts, Fast food units within the ambit of this policy. And Zonal railway to manage static unit (catering stall /milk stalls/ trolleys etc.) except base kitchens and kitchen units to be handed over to IRCTC.