Tuesday, October 21, 2014


With new government in charge at Delhi and a brand new Railway Minister taking over the portfolio of railway "administration", citizens had a ray of hope that things would look up and better days are ahead for the hapless passenger community. When the quality of foods served in premium trains was under attack during the last few years, there has always been wishy washy response from the babus who rule the roost in this government sector organization with no perceptible improvement happening at the ground level. In this context one is shocked by the attempt last year by the Railway Board to bring in "foreign" auditors to prepare a "report" on the quality of foods served in the trains! It is rather ingenious on the part of the Railways to bring in "experts" from abroad who will have no clue regarding the needs of Indian consumers vis-a-vis food quality especially the eating quality. May be they would be able to point out the safety deficiencies based on standard tests and investigations but why foreign experts? Why cannot Indian agencies like CFTRI do the same job and Indian institutions not only would have done a diagnosis but also are capable of suggesting solutions appropriate to the domestic situation. It is interesting to listen to the rationale of the Railways in bringing foreign experts as stated by agency last year.   

"Fed up with complaints about food served on trains, Railways has decided to deploy international food auditing firms who do quality checks at five star hotels to do its quality assessment. On Thursday, it abandoned its one-week-old menu on Rajdhanis and Shatabdis following constant passenger complaints. As a pilot project at present, a Swedish company is carrying out third-party audit of the food and hygiene on the premium trains on the Mumbai-Howrah route. It will present its report to the Railway Ministry on November 5. "There are renowned multinational auditing firms who do quality audits for five star hotels. Once we get the report for this one, we will formalise this policy and call for tenders for all trains. And we will recover the cost from the vendor who serves food on trains," D P Pande, Member (Traffic), Railway Board, told The Indian Express. The firms will not only check quality and quantity of food served but will also assess the condition in which the food is made and served, the hygiene standards and the like, he said. In the past one week, two catering vendors have been fined Rs 1 lakh each based on complaints from passengers. "We will revise the upper limit of the fines to be charged from errant vendors so that the heavy fine becomes a deterrent," he said. After rolling out a new menu with reduced food items and at the same time jacking up their prices on Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto trains on October 17, Railways quickly reverted to the old menu on Thursday because passengers had been complaining of getting "too less for more money".

Not much was heard about the report of any foreign auditors but the new government's efforts to address the issue is are interesting. in a major announcement recently the concerned Minster announced a series of measures to "improve" food quality and one such attempt is to bring in on-line ordering and delivery of foods from star hotels on some trains if the passengers are computer savvy and after all most travelers in the upper class should have smart phones with 2G/3G facilities and credit card payment provisions. Also being brought in is a system where packed foods from reputed branded processors like ITC, MTR etc would be offered though cost could work out very high. These are good moves but it begs the question regarding the inability of in-house Railway Catering service to meet the aspirations of the traveling public, in spite of decades of experience in this field. It is still not clear why Railways have not made any attempt to use this opportunity where it has millions of captive consumers to build up a thriving public-private partnership in catering with the help of food technology institutions like CFTRI, DFRL, NIFTEM and Universities to back up the safety and quality credentials. Probably this will never happen unless there is a dynamic management cadre with vision, foresight, dedication and commitment. The new government should not fritter away this golden opportunity for a long term effective solution to the serious quality problems being faced by the Railways for the last few years!


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