Meals in trains enough to derail passengers’ health

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August Kranti RajdhaniAt a time when there are talks about world class facilities at the railway stations and bullet train projects using Japan’s Shinkansen technology underway, the recent report of Comptroller and Auditor General of India pointing out that food served in the Indian Railways and at the railway stations is not fit for human consumption, is shocking. Naturally, one has to see with a pinch of salt that bullet trains could be running at a speed of 320 km per hour by 2023 in India and ultra modern railways stations to be functional. The Comptroller and Auditor General report has found the food served by the Railways in trains and at railway stations unfit for human consumption with passengers forced to buy contaminated and recycled food. Packaged and bottled items past their shelf life are available for sale as also unauthorised brands of water bottles, indicating poor monitoring. The CAG came out with these findings after conducting a joint inspection at 74 railway stations and on 80 trains. Besides, the report has found a lack of cleanliness at the catering units at stations and on trains. Indeed providing services to a huge population is a big challenge but that should not be an excuse when it comes to the health of the people.

The report mentions that the Indian Railway carries about 22.21 million passengers per day. Passenger traffic of this magnitude needs the services of a well managed catering and vending system for supply of healthy and wholesome food at reasonable prices. Railways provide the catering services departmentally, through Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation and by engaging outside agencies at stations and in trains. An audit was carried out to assess the adequacy and availability of good quality and hygienic food to railway passengers at affordable rates. The audit also assessed the management of contracts awarded for providing catering services at stations and in trains for ensuring good quality catering services.  It mentions that frequent changes in catering policy and the consequent transfer of responsibility to manage catering units from railways to IRCTC and back, have created a state of uncertainty in the management of catering services provided to the passengers over the years.

As the quality of catering services was not enhanced as expected, Railway Board has formulated a new Catering Policy 2017, which has been issued on 27 February 2017. As per the new policy, a number of catering activities, which were assigned to IRCTC in 2005 policy and then transferred to Zonal Railways in 2010 policy, have now been assigned back to IRCTC. According to the report, the policy of progressive switch over from gas burners to electric power equipment in pantry cars was not followed while manufacturing the pantry cars in Integral Coach Factory, Perambur.

Lack of quality checks

The requirement of catering facilities on stations and trains were not assessed comprehensively for each station in the form of Master Plans (Blue Prints) by all Zonal Railways. A large number of base kitchens were located outside the railway premises, not subjected to quality checks and thus, did not provide an assurance of quality, hygiene and cleanliness. In the new Catering Policy 2017, the responsibility of setting up and operation of base kitchens has been given to IRCTC. Though a time frame has been fixed for the whole process of setting up of base kitchens and responsibility of Zonal Railways and IRCTC has been defined, penalty has been prescribed only for the delay on part of IRCTC after handing over of the site by the Zonal Railways to IRCTC. As such, accountability of Zonal Railways to carry forward the new Catering Policy of 2017 needed to be clearly demarcated. Zonal Railways did not ensure the provision of pantry cars in a number of long distance trains. Alternative services through train side vending base kitchens were also not provided in some of the trains checked in the audit.

Withering Janta meals

Audit observed that the availability of Janta meals on stations was also not adequate. As the new Catering Policy has transferred the responsibility of the management of Jan Ahaars to IRCTC, Railways need to ensure that an adequate number of low-cost Janta Meals is provided by IRCTC to passengers. The continued presence of hawkers and sale of unauthorized food on trains also indicated that the catering services provided on trains were not adequate. It was seen that the railways on stations and in trains did not ensure hygiene and cleanliness in respect of the food served. Unfair practices were being followed in the execution of catering services at stations and trains. These deficiencies indicated that the contractors compromised on value for money in respect of food items served to passengers and action taken by Railway Administration for the deviation from the quality standards was not effective.

Hygiene takes back seat

The report observed after a joint inspection of selected 74 stations and 80 trains over Zonal Railways, that cleanliness and hygiene were not being maintained at catering units at stations and in trains. Unpurified water straight from the tap was used in the preparation of beverages, waste bins were not found covered, not emptied regularly and not washed, food stuff was not covered to protect them from flies, insects and dust, rats and cockroaches were found in trains etc.

Unfair practices were being followed in the execution of catering services at stations and trains. Bills were not given for the food items served in mobile units in trains. Printed menu cards with the tariff for the list of food items sold in the mobile units were not available with waiters and Catering Managers in trains. Foodstuff served was less than the prescribed scheduled quantity, unapproved packaged drinking water was sold, Proprietary Article Depot (PAD) items were sold at the railway stations at maximum retail price (MRP) with weight and prices different from the open market and per unit price of food articles sold in railway premises is significantly higher.

Expiry date food served

Deficiencies in respect of quality of food served were noticed. Articles unsuitable for human consumption, contaminated foodstuff, recycled foodstuff, shelf life expired packaged and bottled items, unauthorized brands of water bottles, etc., were offered for sale on stations. Audit observed that though a complaint redressal system has been put in place, there is no reduction in the number of complaints over the years. It was also seen that the major share of complaints pertained to overcharging and quality issues.

The report has recommended that the ICF may be directed to keep in view the policy of switch over from gas burners to electric power equipment in pantry cars, while manufacturing pantry cars. Provision of pantry cars may be considered in case of long distance trains as per policy. Railways may facilitate the smooth transfer of catering units including base kitchens to IRCTC by ensuring that the obligations on part of the Zonal Railways are fulfilled and accountability of Zonal Railways to carry forward the new Catering Policy of 2017 is clearly demarcated. The IRCTC may be obligated to provide low cost Janta meals on stations and these should be effectively advertised amongst the passengers. Railways may ensure effective checks and controls to stop unfair practices such as, overcharging, serving foodstuff less than the prescribed quantity. The CAG report is an eye opener and one hopes that Railways abide by the recommendations in the interest of passengers.

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