Railway catering system, once completely under the in-house catering department of the Indian Railways, started taking a U-turn as a result of economic liberalization and greater appreciation of the role of private enterprises in delivering better service to the consumer. The volume of food catered also is increasing by leaps and bounds with new express trains and deluxe trains being introduced in greater numbers. Food is included as a standard feature in many trains, offered as a part of the tickets when passengers buy them. Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), set up as a dedicated service provider under the Railway Board is supposed to have good facilities for supplying part of the food requirements from their base kitchens located at some strategic stations. Private caterers are involved for augmenting the food services based on competitive bidding. Is the present system working efficiently? Is the traveling public entirely satisfied with the quality and cost of the foods served and the in-train service provided during the travel?
Here is an excerpt from a news report in some reputed papers on the subject."Inferior quality and overcharging of food and beverages served in trains and stations falling under the South Western Railway Division is an experience most of the train passengers have endured at least during some train journey". The response from IRCTC to such complaints is that they have so far 'slapped a fine of Rs 4.36 lakh on its franchisees and terminated the services of one contractor' for unsatisfactory performance during April 2008 to February 2009. It further claimed that only 73 complaints were received from passengers in trains like Sampark Kranti Express, Vasco-Nizammudin Express, Sangamitra Express and Karnataka Express during the last 3 months conveniently ignoring the reality that, being a Gandhian country, people stoically put up with such inconveniences without bothering to register any complaint, besides having no confidence on the rectification system that has to deal with complaints! Some of the complaints are of serious nature like serving stale foods unfit for consumption, lack of characteristic taste attributes, missing food items in the meals like roti, curd, sweet etc, cold foods, lack of hygiene and over charging.
According to IRCTC, the organization has deployed some quality control 'professionals' to monitor the quality of foods served in various trains, franchisees are being warned repeatedly for violations, surprise checks are carried out often and a minimum of Rs 20000 fine is imposed on guilty franchisees as a deterrent. The recent order insisting on only branded foods being sold inside the stations, does not serve any purpose at all because it is known that for every one reputed brand of a product there are at least half a dozen imitations from non-decrepit companies with no definite address! For example hardly 1% of the railway stations carry established brands of bottled water while others sell unknown and unheard brands and the thirsty travelers have no option but to buy these questionable quality products to quench their thirst!
Railway catering was a subject matter of one of the earlier blogs where a forceful plea was made to the Railway Board to auction the catering rights in each train to a reputed food company like ITC, Britania, MTR, Dabur Foods etc and the successful bidder can be provided with an exclusive pantry where pre-prepared foods can be stored and heated before serving. Unfortunately Railway Board is more concerned with revenue generation and profit making, sacrificing the comfort and health of its patrons, viz, the Indian Public. R & D Wing of the Railway Board is more interested in designing coaches that can accommodate higher number of passengers who feel more like chickens in a coop with literally no moving space! If passenger care is upper most in the minds of the authorities concerned, more meaningful efforts need to be made to innovate on the foods, their containers and delivery service.