Never mind the safety of bullet trains, CAG says railway food and water are not fit for consumption

The CAG report says that the food articles being provided on the railways, which is India’s lifeline for more than 8.6 billion passengers every year, are unfit for human consumption. Parliament should take note of CAG report on unhygienic railways food

editorials Updated: Jul 23, 2017 18:30 IST
Comptroller and Auditor General,Indian Railways,Food
An Indian railways worker cleans a coach prior to the trial run of a high-speed train between New Delhi and Agra . The railways are notorious for their poor levels of hygiene when it comes to food. Bogies are rarely cleaned given the volume of traffic and the indifference of the officials. This means that the coaches themselves are unhygienic and dirty especially on long distance trains.(AFP)

A question often asked when the issue of the introduction of bullet trains comes up is whether they will be safe in Indian conditions. Now with the latest Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on catering services in the Indian Railways, we must ask a more basic question – is it safe to eat and drink the fare on offer? Clearly not. The CAG report says that the food articles being provided on the railways, which is India’s lifeline for more than 8.6 billion passengers every year, are unfit for human consumption. Some of it is contaminated or past its shelf life. The fault apparently is in the compromises made on cleanliness and hygiene.

The Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC)  manages catering services, but does not cook or supply food that is served to passengers. This is done by private firms which are awarded the contacts after an open tender. The problem is that the same set of contractors has managed to get contracts for the last several decades. The railways minister has attempted to strike at the contractor nexus by encouraging the e-catering business. But this initiative has not fully taken off yet.

Apart from the unsuitable food, the CAG report found that the water was not purified, waste bins not covered and food stuff left to the depredations of flies, dust, rats and cockroaches. These are basic services and they seem to be neglected. Of course, there are other unaddressed issues too which include safety and infrastructure improvement. None of this is new. The railways are notorious for their poor levels of hygiene when it comes to food. Coaches are rarely cleaned given the volume of traffic and the indifference of the officials. This means that the coaches themselves are unhygienic and dirty especially on long distance trains. At all times, the private contractors should be held accountable. Though the minister has sought to bring in a certain professionalism, old habits die hard and the railways, much like the national air carrier, is treated as nothing more than a source of revenue. The tracks are aging, the coaches are often damaged and technology which can play a big part in rail safety has not been used as much as it should. From time to time, we hear of the need for a drastic overhaul but there the matter ends. The railways are usually seen in terms of how much freight it can carry and how much revenue it generates. The least consideration is the passenger who keeps the organisation afloat. She is not deemed worthy of hygienic food and water at the very least. For this, Parliament needs to take serious note of the CAG report and its alarming findings.

First Published: Jul 23, 2017 18:30 IST