Very few of us “normal” citizens of India have eaten there, but reports from the Delhi circle, especially those from the exalted media lot with access, indicate that the food at the Parliament Canteen is supposed to be excellent, more so as the catering is done by the Indian Railways. This is one end of the spectrum.
Most of us “normal” citizens of India who travel by the same Indian Railways, however, tend to find the Railway food a rather sad burden that has to be tolerated, especially on trains where it is included in the fare. (Only in a few specific trains is the food is reasonable and sometimes good. The examples are Mandovi Express (Mumbai – Madgaon), Deccan Queen (Mumbai – Pune) and Brindavan Express (Chennai – Bengaluru). This is the other end.)
In the middle, somewhere lies the reality of railways food, leaning somewhere between the rancid and the tolerable.
Food poisoning, much in the news lately because of the recent Tejas Express episode, may well be rare. But un-hygienically prepared and served food on trains is the rule rather than the exception, even more so because the lowest bid sub-contractor system ensures that the people actually at the last point of delivery are more often than not untrained, underpaid and ill-motivated.
A similar situation exists on platforms and stations, where again the fairly obsolete processes involved in tendering for food outlets, and the huge corruption that the vendors, stall-operators and restaurants face from the vast variety of authorities involved, now also in the name of security, mean that the eventual loser is the customer.
So what brought about this situation, given that till a few decades ago, railway food was considered safe, freshly cooked, and reasonably priced too?
1) Plain and simple, corruption top to bottom gnawed away at every point in the supply chain, which then like a termite infested pillar, simply collapsed under its own weight. From palming off contracts to favourites and disabling the Indian Railway’s own catering arm, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corp (IRCTC), to meddling with local menus in the name of standardisation, everything went under.
2) Hygiene and sanitation in pantry cars went spiralling downwards, again, for multiple reasons. Lack of adherence by Indian Railways to basic guidelines from Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is the major flaw in the system here. They simply do not recognise any form of regulatory compliance over their catering services, on board or on platforms and anywhere on Indian Railways property.
3) A total mess was made of red and green dot regulations, resulting in complete mix-up of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, which in turn caused huge problems because refrigeration on- board especially long-distance trains was minimal if at all. A simple solution that food be totally vegetarian, as implemented in trains in some parts of the country, was not implemented on an all-India basis.
4) Take egg dishes, for example. On some routes, the Indian Railways have moved towards a simple solution, boiled egg in shell. On other routes, however, they still insist on serving cooked egg dishes at hugely enhanced rates, and cooked in conditions, which are best left undescribed, with ample room for a fiddle in quantities.
5) In the name of standardisation of menus on the Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto class trains, where food is part of the ticket price, we get a menu, which is no longer representative of anything other than a lack of imagination and bits and pieces of junk food. In addition, some elements, like single-serve corn flakes served with open milk, are invitations to disaster considering the truth about milk in our hinterlands.
6) With tighter seating and more berths inside railway coaches, the sheer number of passengers who need to be served especially when reservation against cancellation (RAC) is also taken into consideration, easily rises to 120% of the booked capacity of a train. The storage, serving and then removal of food trays in such situations becomes a disaster; toilets have been known to be used for this.
7) The preference and insistence on the part of Indian Railways to continue to serve watery curries, which spill all over the place is another reason for catering mishaps. A drastic change towards dry options, or thicker gravy items if they must be served, is essential. Daals, lentils, that essential component of Indian food, are never as watery as served on our trains. Naturally, it will flow, all over the place and mess things up even more.
8) If you are unfortunate enough to have the saloon coach of a free-riding ‘Higher Officer’ or any other elected or selected representative hooked on to your train, then the overall food quality for the rest of the paying passengers will come crashing down. This is because the budget for the meals and snacks and more served to the free loaders and their entourages come from your share of the raw materials and prepared food.
9) As is often said, ‘in the good old days’, unconsumed food on the Indian Railways (if still fit for consumption) was despatched post-haste to orphanages or other charity institutions. This practice, to the best of my knowledge, was discontinued after the Emergency and has never been restored. Now the unconsumed food goes towards either making the “janata thaali box” or is sold further.
Over the last few decades, food on the roads in India, especially South and West India, has certainly improved. Quality at reasonable prices, mostly basic vegetarian, clean toilets, secure parking, polite and trained staff, all this and more, is more the rule than the exception. Add to that the vast number of franchised fast food restaurants, stand-alone as well as chains, and you have a recipe for safe victuals as an integral part of travel.
By contrast, the Indian Railways, despite a huge move towards modernisation and avowed safety in kitchens after a few spectacular fire incidents in the last few years, has not really kept up with being customer centric in its approach. Being a monopoly, the “take it or leave it” attitude with food on our trains goes right up to the top and then comes crashing back again to the customer facing staff.
So what are possible solution?
1) Encourage passengers to bring their own food especially quick heat and eat. Frankly, if the Indian Railways do it like in Chinese trains, where they provide access to a hot water boiler for tea, coffee and noodles, a large percentage of the travelling public will be satisfied.
2) Multiple vendors should be encouraged to provide food on trains, either by app-based order system to supply food at scheduled halts or by small independent vendors selling officially, what they can carry on their persons – like the so-called “illegal” vendors do anyways. This should be purely quality of food and local delicacies based, and not as a profit unit for the Indian Railways.
3) A typical pantry car is deadweight being towed overnight. The same kitchen or pantry car can be a static base kitchen at a railway station, and be used for supplying food for trains passing through with scheduled stops there – and also to supply healthy food for people waiting on platforms.
Most of all, food will improve if Indian Railways gets back into the business of safe transportation from A to B, instead of trying to be everything for everybody, and then making additional money out of it too.
Done properly, local and regional food can do wonders on railway trains, as it used to. Sadly, we have come to a point now where, for example, even the vadas at Karjat and Lonavala are no longer a shade of what they used to be.