Toilets can be good kitchens too, or so believes the Indian Railways, one of the world's largest rail networks.
The Railways gave an affidavit to Lok Adalat in Kochi on Saturday, admitting that it had converted some of the lavatories on the Thiruvananthpuram-Kannur Jan Shatabdi Express into mini kitchens.
Although the Railways claimed that the mini kitchen was equipped with water purifiers, zinc wash basins, coolers and mini fridge, none of them existed on a majority of trains. The affidavit submitted by the Southern Railway food commissioner even claimed that strict action had been taken to check recurring food poisoning.
However, he admitted that some toilets were doubling up as kitchens on some of the trains, including Jan Shatabdi, and even gave a detailed description of how the conversion was not "affecting" passengers because there were enough toilets on the train. He reasoned that the toilets were properly cleaned and disinfected before being used as kitchens.
The adalat was hearing a petition seeking better hygiene and quality food in pantries of long-distance trains following an uproar a couple of months ago when it was found that on the Jan Shatabdi Express coffee and tea were being prepared in toilets using bathroom water and rusted electric coils.
"We cannot afford filtered water for cooking," a railway engineering official said on condition of anonymity. "In some cases, pantries store pop-up cans. Once they are exhausted they refill with bathroom water."
And how are toilets refurbished to serve as kitchens? "We remove the closet, seal outlets and lay fresh vinyl flooring," said the official. "Taps remain the same and in some cases small stands are fitted to keep essential things such as tea dust, coffee powder, sugar and milk powder sachets."
Apart from the Jan Shatabdi incident, in August, 30 passengers of Ajmer-Ernakulam Maru Sagar Express had fallen ill after eating stale food. Food authorities later seized four-day-old unrefrigerated chicken and other food material from the pantry.
"In every Budget, Railways earmarks crores of rupees to improve passenger amenities; but things remain the same - leaking taps and toilets, bug-infested berths and stale food," activist D Binu, who had moved the permanent Lok Adalat, said. "Since the Railways has admitted it, cooking of food in toilets should end now," he said. "With safe travel it can't give a bouquet of diseases to passengers."
Railway officials said they were unaware of the affidavit.
The affidavit does list several steps to check food poisoning. "We've formed special squads under the divisional deputy medical officer to conduct random checks on trains," it reads. "We've made health cards mandatory for pantry staff and provide them training on hygienic practices." The next hearing is on December 9.