With a CAG report calling food served by Indian Railways “unfit for human consumption”, the Ministry of Railways has come out with a list of steps that it is taking to improve catering services. Stating that the provision of catering services for passengers with varied choices is an “onerous task”, Railways has said that structural reforms are being undertaken to help find a solution to the problem institutionally. Identifying the need for improving the quality of “food at source”, Indian Railways says it is taking steps that will permanently eliminate all problems related to catering services. According to Indian Railways, Suresh Prabhu has instituted a “Zero Tolerance policy” towards catering. “In the last six months itself, we have terminated 7 contracts, blacklisted 16 contractors, taken action against 21 officers and imposed fines in excess of Rs 4.5 crores,” claims the Ministry.
1) New Catering Policy 2017
Issued in February this year, the New Catering Policy aims to provide quality food to passengers by “unbundling of catering services on trains”. IRCTC has been asked to make a distinction between food preparation and food distribution to carry out the unbundling exercise. IRCTC has been asked to not only upgrade existing kitchens, but to set up new ones as well.
Only those vendors with good credentials will be allowed and Railways says that the economic viability of these kitchens is being worked out to make vendors avoid short cuts. Not only will the training of staff by vendors will be mandatory, but the eligibility criteria for vendors is also being relooked at. In order to make sure that customers are not charged arbitrarily, Indian Railways says it is propagating the use of technology. “Use of Technology is being mandated to prevent overcharging by issue of electronic receipts and tracking of food,” Railways said in a statement. Attempts will also be made to mandate pre-booking of food in all trains to avoid overcharging and linking performance of the vendor to feedback from passengers.
Indian Railways says that in 2015 it revamped its e-catering services to make them ‘station-based’ rather than train specific. As of now e-catering service is available on 357 railway stations and the average supply of meals is around 6000 meals per day compared to 400 in October 2015. This revamp also allowed food aggregators to join the initiative. IRCTC is also facilitating booking of meals through a specified phone number/website/SMS/ Mobile Apps etc.
3) Water-vending machines
A project in this regard was started in 2015 and the objective is to provide potable water at affordable rates to people. Water vending machines that dispense R.O water are being installed at stations across the country. Railways claims that the selling price of this water is less than mineral water rate.
4) Ready to Eat meals
Ready to eat meals such as poha, idli samber – with longer shelf-life – are being provided by Railways. IRCTC has also signed an MoU with DRDO for technology that will help in making better packaged ready-to-eat meals. ‘Dehydrated Meal Technology’ -similar to that used in airlines is being introduced in Railways.
5) Janani Sewa has been introduced to provide baby food, milk and hot water from nominated catering stalls at Railway stations. This is meant to make train journeys hassle free for mothers.
6) Self Help Groups
Empanelment of Self Help Groups (SHGs) to provide healthy, wholesome regional cuisine at an affordable cost to the travelling public through e-catering has been initiated, says Railways.
7) Optional On Board Catering
As a pilot project on two trains, Railways now gives passengers the option to ‘opt-out’ of catering, hence not paying the charges for food as a part of the ticket cost. This opt out option has also been recently provided in Tejas Express between Mumbai and Goa. Indian Railways in gauging response to the initiative to better understand whether people want to eat meals provided on board or not.
8) Third party audit
“Third Party Audit of catering services are to be conducted at periodic intervals by independent and reputed auditing agencies accredited by NABCB (National Accreditation Board for Certification Bodies) as empanelled by the Zonal Railways. The parameters for audit include all aspects of catering services like personal hygiene, infrastructure facilities, cleaning and sanitation, food safety, storage facilities, implementation of regulatory, statutory and safety regulations, quality of presentation etc,” says Railways in a statement.
9) Centralized catering grievance and complaint monitoring cell
A Twitter handle with the address of @IRCATERING has also been established to cater to the complaints/Suggestions. There is also a pan-India helpline number – 138 – for rail users in a moving train.
10) Indian Railways is also tying up with the private sector and getting on board companies such as Domino’s etc so that train passengers can pre-order pizzas and burgers for their train journeys.