Tejas Express food poisoning: Set priorities right for railways; implement new catering policy in letter and spirit    

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New Delhi: The Tejas Express was touted as luxury on wheels, India’s first semi high-speed, fully air conditioned train launched earlier this year. Its luxurious features included LED TVs, bio vacuum toilets, GPS-based passenger information display systems and tea/coffee vending machines. Even snack tables were placed in each coach.

But as is the case most often in our country, something new and shiny on the outside will not always fulfill its promise, thanks to lax quality standards. At least 24 passengers on this train learnt this the hard way on Sunday, after allegedly suffering from food poisoning from the breakfast served on board and having to be rushed to the hospital.

The Indian Railways, more often than not, has come to symbolise our misplaced priorities. We want high-speed trains costing lakhs of crores but cannot build basic infrastructure for the existing network, costing far less. Result? Multitudes of deaths due to safety-related issues, derailments and even stampede. We also want to launch luxurious journeys without first ensuring that basic hygiene on trains and in train kitchens is fixed.

Indictments like the recent report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) about rotten food and the rotten state of Railways’ catering are glossed over, in favour of a new catering policy, yet another spanking new train. This mindset – prioritising attention-grabbing features without first getting the basics sorted out – then leads to typical blame game like the one seen recently over whether we needed bullet trains or just about Rs 11-12 crore investment to prevent stampedes which occurred at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road railway station. In the same vein, perhaps someone will now pipe up about whether we need luxury trains or trains where at least the food is edible and safe.

This ‘either or’ debate will be largely missing the point though. India needs faster trains, it also obviously needs safer trains and those providing hygienic food for long hours of travel. To achieve both the objectives, perhaps a beginning can be made by acknowledging the fault lines and starting to correct these.

In a statement issued on Sunday, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) said, “A case of food poisoning was reported on train no. 22120 Tejas Express upon information from passengers. The train was stopped out of course at Chiplun railway station and treatment was given to passengers by railway doctor.”

It added that 24 passengers were admitted at Lifecare Hospital in Chiplun, Maharashtra where they were undergoing medical treatment. An IRCTC spokesperson said that all the hospitalised passengers were out of danger. The IRCTC had licensed the catering services to J.K. Ghosh company for providing meals on-board Tejas Express.

The report in The Hindu says passengers felt uneasy after having their breakfast meal that was served to 220 passengers – 170 vegetarian and 130 non-vegetarian meals. It went to add for good measure: “Most of the hospitalised passengers had consumed omelette in breakfast”, while quoting an unnamed IRCTC official. Another news story puts the blame on the tomato soup that was served around noon.

Anyway, food from the pantry on long distance train journeys has at best been a forgettable affair for most of us. Many have this vague suspicion that not everything is right with that cutlet and perhaps the piping hot tomato soup the attendant is offering before dinner tastes a bit off. That suspicion is rooted in fact. The scathing audit report by CAG noted earlier this year that foodstuff “unfit for human consumption” was being sold at 26 stations/ trains spread across the country. That soup was probably made from train water, not purified or filtered water, as mandated – the audit found unpurified water being used to make beverages. It also found rats and cockroaches in the pantries, uncovered food lying around and much more. Much of the blame has been laid at the door of unscrupulous catering contractors hired by the Railways, its inability to provide all long-distance trains with pantry cars and frequent changes in the catering policy.

The CAG audit had found contaminated, recycled and shelf-life expired foodstuff, unauthorised brands of water bottles and much more being sold in trains and at stations. At Bokaro Steel City station, the shelf-life of the flavored milk sold had expired; at Agra, catering units were selling ‘petha’ which later tested positive for fungal growth. Deficiency in quality of malaipaneer, dressed broiler chicken and refined oil were found at another station; a 100 pieces of unsold paranthas – obviously for reuse – were found in the base kitchen of Zonal Railway for catering in train no.12033-34 (Kanpur – New Delhi – Kanpur).

These shocking findings of the ‘Performance audit on Catering Services Reports in Indian Railways’ by C&AG, were laid in Parliament during the monsoon session.

So what has been the followup of the CAG’s indictment? For the Tejas Express incident, the Railways has issued a showcause notice to the contractor and has suspended two officials of the IRCTC.

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