CAG slams Railways
Right from April 16, 1853, when the first 14-carriage passenger train – carrying 400 passengers and hauled by three steam locomotives named Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan – ran between Bori Bunder and Thane, Indian Railways has been considered as the most affordable transport system in India. But, despite carrying millions of people every day while linking the remotest destinations of the nation, it is yet to scale up its services to match global parameters. Tottered by inefficient management, the passenger services have further deteriorated. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on catering services for the year ended March 2016, categorically mentioned: food unsuitable for human consumption, contaminated and recycled items, packaged articles past their use-by date, and unauthorised items are sold on trains, all endangering the health of passengers. And, these blatant violations are all the more glaring because the administration has instituted a mechanism to penalise agencies such as the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation and invites passengers to file complaints. But, it seems that the recently unveiled catering policy will never make a big difference unless the process of identifying caterers, fixing prices, and ensuring quality control is transparent and monitored by external auditors. Independent oversight can potentially improve other aspects of service as well, such as the quality and maintenance of linen, which the CAG has found to be shockingly substandard. The CAG report clearly mentioned that foods – served by railways are 'not fit for human consumption'. Flavoured milk, juices, sandwiches, biscuits, and other snacks served inside trains don't even match the basic hygiene standards. During an inspection at selected 74 stations and 80 trains, little cleanliness or hygiene was found at catering units. Purified water was not available at 21 stations across 11 railways zones. Dirty water was being used for beverages like coffee, tea, and soups in 22 trains. Unsold food items are often recycled carelessly in the base kitchen. Not only that, even the railways charge extra for faster travel in the name of Superfast trains, there is no guarantee of reaching the destination in time. Railways levied and collected Rs 11.17 crore from passengers as 'superfast' surcharges. But 21 super fast trains were late for 3,000 days out of a total 16,804 as they failed to attain the 'superfast' speed, says the CAG report. Even the blankets provided during overnight travel had not been washed for months. CAG says washing and sanitation of linen, as well as blankets, is not done as per the norms established by the railways itself. Washing of linen should be done after every single use and blankets are supposed to be dry-cleaned every two months, but that never happens. The CAG report further slammed the railways on its dilly-dallying approach in electrification: "The objective of saving time for deciding whether or not to take up a section for the railway electrification is not being fulfilled due to delays in processing the proposals and preparation of abstract estimates, which was up to 59 months in 24 projects."
The CAG also found unfair trade practices at stations and in trains. Bills were not provided for the food items served on trains; waiters and catering managers on the trains did not carry printed menu cards with tariffs; the food served was less than the prescribed quantity; unapproved packaged drinking water was sold; and Proprietary Article Depot items were being sold in railway stations at their maximum retail prices. The report also found that the weights and prices of the items sold at railway stations were different from the open market and that the unit price of food articles sold in railway premises was significantly higher. It may be noted that Narendra Modi government began its tenure with a focus on modernising India's creaking railways, and several major announcements have been made, including the setting up of a long-pending Rail Development Authority to recommend tariffs and set standards. In the area of passenger services, any reform has to contend with the 'open access' character of rail travel in the country, since coaches are open to unlicensed vendors who sell food, water and other goods. Given the need for employment, it would be hard-nosed to broaden the network and enrol more local distributors of certified articles, while implementing the core idea of the IRCTC running modern base kitchens. Audit findings of contractors on railway premises overcharging users and selling packaged food items at prices inflated over the open market are serious and require immediate resolution. The experience with different models of service on trains in India needs a comparison with France, where unhappy passengers on the popular, high-speed TGV trains wanted public sector catering back a few years ago. Now that the CAG has given a meticulous evaluation, it is essential that the Railway Ministry brings about some noticeable change through its intended reforms.