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Railway food

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  25 July 2017 12:00 AM GMT

Complaints about the quality of food served in trains are nothing new, at least for people living in this part of the country. Despite the media here occasiolly highlighting such complaints, these have been mostly cries in the wilderness. The Railway authority awards contracts for preparing and supplying food to private parties after open tender, with the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC)?responsible for maging the catering services. As in many government departments, the contractor-official nexus works here too, so the same firms mostly keep getting the contracts. The outcome is that pernicious ‘chalta hai’ attitude with which rail passengers are so well familiar. To be fair, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has been pushing for reform across several fronts, which include a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards faulty catering, station-based e-catering services, installing water vending machines in stations, involving DRDO for better food packaging and empanelling self-help groups to serve regiol cuisine. However, these and other initiatives are yet to make significant impact on the ground to help improve the passengers’ lot. And now comes a report by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) painting a most unflattering picture of food and other amenities provided on trains. After auditing a sample of 74 stations and 80 trains last year, the CAG report has detailed utter lack of cleanliness and hygiene in food served to passengers, as well as several unfair practices. The auditors found food ‘not fit for human consumption’, foodstuff lying open to flies and dust in stations, unsold food items recycled carelessly in base kitchens, unpurified water used in cooking, pantry cars infested with rats and cockroaches, uncovered and unwashed waste bins full of leftovers. “Articles unsuitable for human consumption, contamited foodstuff, recycled foodstuff, shelf life expired packaged and bottled items, uuthorised brands of water bottles, etc., were offered for sale on stations,” the report has noted.
This apart, the auditors noted that neither printed menus with price lists, nor bills were being given for food items served in mobile units in trains. They discovered unfair practices like serving smaller food portions than quantities prescribed by Railway authority. Passengers received 17 gm almonds instead of 20 gm, 90 gm dal instead of 100 gm, 90 ml ice cream or curd in cups instead of 100 ml and pooris weighing 130 gm instead of 175 gm. Why? The CAG report says that vendors cut corners and overcharge because ‘high licence fees’ charged by zol railways leave them with little option. The Railway authority has reportedly blacklisted contractors, termited contracts and taken action against errant officials; it has also claimed that while 11.5 lakh meals are served every day on various trains, only 24 food-related complaints are received on average per day. But the CAG believes Rail Bhavan’s frequent policy changes have contributed to the catering mess — like IRCTC being given all catering contracts in 2005, then divested of all contracts in 2010, and again given this charge last February under the new catering policy of 2017. Clearly, such policy u-turns have created needless confusion, so that vendors are not being held as strictly accountable as they should be. Surely, the onus is now on the Central government to ensure that the Railway authority improves its monitoring mechanism and puts in place effective controls to improve cleanliness and prevent unfair practices. The Railway Minister has spoken about bullet trains, track modernisation and improved passenger amenities to do justice to the country’s lifeline that is estimated to have carried 860 crore people last year. With the rail budget being subsumed in the general budget from this fiscal, the focus in coming years will be even more upon how much revenue the Railways will be earning and the freight it will be carrying. But there can be no compromise with safety and basic services, with the CAG report also finding issue with dirty linen in trains, late timings and slow progress of electrification. Above all, cleanliness and hygiene come with a state of mind, what with the entire country presently in the midst of Swachh Bharat mission. We need to ask a question here — when states, cities and villages are vying to be open-defecation-free, how is it that we are still putting up with train stations where human waste lie openly on the tracks? Without elimiting this filthy practice — by changing train bogie design to incorporate green toilets and installing rigorous mechanism to keep rail tracks clean — it will remain a losing battle to push for clean food in stations and trains. Cleanliness does not come in piecemeal fashion, it is a total package.

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