Friday, November 20, 2009


Jan Ahar, which is the new name given by Indian Railways to the 50 restaurants being set up in some important stations, probably means people's food and obviously it is targeted at the railway passengers who have the time and inclination to spend some time in an eating place before boarding or after alighting from a train. According to what has been reported, these restaurants are designed to make eating a pleasure with a congenial environment, yellow colored serving tables with green chairs and uniform wearing servers. The prices for various preparations offered at these outlets have also been fixed. Considering that most of the railway restaurants presently serving the traveling public in various stations do not have any uniform standard, the new move may bring in certain transparency in food catering.

One of the fundamental questions that is difficult to answer is whether railway passengers travel to reach their destination or eat and enjoy good food. It is understandable that during long haul travels, access to food is important and most of the major trains have delivery service or pantry cars for meeting the needs of passengers. There are many ordinary trains where passengers travel in crowded coaches, some time even standing and probably the eateries in railway stations do serve a purpose but whether the proposed Jan Ahar outlets can meet their needs is doubtful. Availability of a couple of minutes for snacking or less than 15 minutes for meals during halts at certain stations, does not allow any passengers, especially those traveling without reservation, to relax and eat, with apprehension upper most in their minds that train may leave while eating. A quick grab is always preferred under such circumstances and what is expected is clean food of tolerable quality..

Lot has been said and written about the Food Plazas established in many stations involving private caterers and no one knows for sure whether any thing has gone wrong or the type of response from the passengers. Jan Ahar seems to be positioned to hit the food plazas because their business is going to be adversely affected. The flip-flop in policies with change of ministers at the helm, does not bring any laurels to any body and elbowing out private players cannot be justified after inviting them to set up shop earlier. Obviously Jan Ahar can serve foods cheaper because it is run by the IR and unlike the Food Plazas, it does not have to pay heavy royalty and other charges for the facilities within the railway property. The scrapping of private catering system in running trains is another example of a government agency reversing the PPP policy apparently without any logical reason. According to IR sources, these outlets will be "managed" by IR but food will be sourced from private contractors, whatever that means. It is not clear how IR can fix the range of prices for the foods served at Rs 10 to Rs 35, if outsourcing is going to be done. Since the first outlet is going to be launched soon, one has to see how far this idea is going to be useful to the passengers.

A woman being the Railway Minister, it may be more appropriate if women's cooperatives are formed to run these food centers and the example of Lijjat Papads shows what such organized bodies can achieve if motivated. Added bonus is that the food is prepared and served by women who are supposed to have better culinary talent. IR must realize that it can also serve the society through such programs. While the intention behind the project, viz, to serve better and cheaper food, is laudable, the management and logistical restraints may still "derail" the plans. Consumer can only hope that "Jan Ahar" does not become synonymous with "Pashu Ahar", during implementation and operation of the new proposal.


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