Railways to end flip-flop journey of Catering Policy, orders nation-wide Crackdown on Train Food that’s not up to mark

NEW DELHI: In a crackdown on poor food dished out in long-distance trains, Railway Board has asked senior officials of Zonal Railways to carry out extensive checks on the quality of food, prices and hygiene.

The move comes after passengers began complaining regularly about deteriorating quality of food served on trains.

While Zonal Railway authorities launched a massive drive to check food quality and overpricing recently, the railway board’s strict directive sent on July 26 to all zonal railways to check ‘serious lapses’ is now being viewed seriously, sources said.

A zonal Railway has had an instance of poor food served on trains, including the most recent one a week ago where a cockroach was found in canteen food. All the railway zones put together receive close to 200 complaints each day on social media alone.

Given the scenario, general managers have been asked to pay personal attention to the issue, oversee checks and send a report after the ‘rigorous drive’.

“In view of large-scale lapses reported in hygiene, over charging and poor quality of food, the minister of railways has directed a 3-week joint inspection drive. It requires personal attention of the GM. All base kitchens, Jan Ahars, refreshment rooms on railway premises as well as outside should be inspected by officers of all levels, including chief commercial managers,” read the letter.

While the railway board has advised authorities to dole out strict punishment against unauthorized hawkers and defaulting contractors, insiders believe that the food quality issue is largely due to the privatization of food catering and slack in checks by Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).

“Almost all stalls at the railway stations, except one or two Jan Ahar stalls, are managed by IRCTC, which is basically outsourced to private caterers. However, there are no checks on food or even water bottles,” said a top source.

The Railway Board has also asked zonal authorities to collect food and water samples for testing. “The samples must be collected and sent for analysis at officially approved labs. The drive should be taken up with all seriousness so that that there is a visible improvement in the Indian Railways catering and a message goes to all the contractors that any slackness will not be tolerated at any level,” the letter said.

A flip-flop journey so far!

Ever since the Railways was set up, catering on trains and at railway stations was entrusted to private contractors. The selection of vendors from among the numerous applicants was done by a panel very similar to a job interview.” However, there was no transparency in the process and the same contractors kept getting the contracts repeatedly, said a top catering official while explaining about the Railway Catering Policy.

Finally, in 2000, the Railways decided to change the selection process by bringing about transparency. “Only the highest bidder and the most qualified technical bidder would be given the contract under the changed policy,” he said. The contractors went to court against this new selection process. It took till 2005 for the verdict to delivered in favour of the Railways. In the meanwhile, the contractors continued to serve food.

“The catering contract for Railways was entrusted to the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation in 2006 and this continued up to 2010. The Corporation also hired contractors to carry out the job, but it was done in a transparent manner,” he said.

In 2010, the then Railway Minister Mamta Banerjee wanted IRCTC to hire at least 60,000 catering staff and run the whole catering business within the Railways without contracting it outside, the official said. “IRCTC expressed its inability to manage the show by hiring such large numbers and Railways took back the catering responsibility,” he said.

Food complaints

Complaints have flooded the Railways in the last six years over the poor quality of food served on trains and at stations. Social media was used by passengers to lodge complaints even with the Railway Ministry. The Ministry announced in the 2016-2017 Railway budget that IRCTC will take over catering responsibility in a phased manner.

The new catering policy announced in February 2017 states that the food will be prepared at state-of-the art base kitchens and distributed through service providers from the hospitality industry. Cooking and distribution have been delinked to professionalise it.