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Mamata undoes Lalu’s food legacy

In her first act as railways minister, Mamata Banerjee has taken charge of the kitchen. Moving in to address complaints about poor catering on trains, she has given the Railways Board the authority to monitor the quality of food served by pantry cars. And for her Bengali constituency, she is adding machcher jhol (fish curry) on the menu on some trains, reports Srinand Jha.

delhi Updated: Jun 04, 2009 01:51 IST
Srinand Jha

In her first act as railways minister, Mamata Banerjee has taken charge of the kitchen.

Moving in to address complaints about poor catering on trains, she has given the Railways Board the authority to monitor the quality of food served by pantry cars.

And for her Bengali constituency, she is adding machcher jhol (fish curry) on the menu on some trains.

At the moment, mobile catering services are run by a small group of 31 contractors for the 264 trains that offer pantry-car facilities. The annual turnover from the business is estimated at Rs 300 crore.

Banerjee’s orders, issued on May 30, indicate a marked shift from the pro-privatisation thrust of her predecessor Lalu Prasad.

During Prasad’s tenure, the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation Ltd (IRCTC) had held complete responsibility for all catering activities.

The IRCTC, a railway subsidiary, was set up eight years ago to supervise the outsourcing of passenger services.

Since 2003, the corporation has been increasingly outsourcing such services.

Besides catering, these include ‘on-board services’ such as providing linen/bedrolls in air-conditioned compartments and the cleaning of coaches and stations.

Last year, the ministry prohibited the IRCTC from running its bedroll and train-cleaning services.

The latest order comes as another jolt to the corporation. “The IRCTC doesn’t have the wherewithal to conduct effective monitoring of food quality,” said ministry spokesman Anil Kumar Saxena. “Hence, the move to involve the zonal railways in such activity.”

On May 29, at her first meeting with the chairman and members of the Railways Board, Banerjee ordered the immediate restoration of the old food menu in trains.

“Fruit drinks, vegetable cutlets with finger chips, soup with bread sticks and butter, salads and green vegetable items have been restored in the food menu on all the 264 passenger trains that offer pantry-car services,” Rakesh Tandon, IRCTC’s managing director, told the Hindustan Times.

During Prasad’s regime, some food had been removed from the menu and egg curry was the only non-vegetarian option in most trains.

Also, the ministry was flooded with complaints about poor and unhygienic food.

Responding to demands from Trinamool Congress MPs and some others, Banerjee has also decided to introduce machcher jhol in the Howrah- and Sealdah-bound Rajdhanis.

“Over the past decades, despite the open tendering system launched in 2002, most of the catering contracts have been monopolised by a select few,” a ministry official said on the condition of anonymity, as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Documents available with Hindustan Times show that companies with similar sounding names — such as RK Enterprises, RK Agarwal and RK Associates — have licences to run catering services on 18 trains. Other biggies include Hakimchand D and Sons (21 trains) and Ms Poorvachal and Ms Brandavan Food Products (13 trains each).

“Under the minister’s directions, steps are being initiated to draft a new catering policy,” said the official.