Food is not just an important for human survival, but is also an important source of non-core revenue for the transport sector such as Indian Railways. During 2020, catering alone contributed 30-35 per cent to the non-core business of the railways. The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism established in 1999 is an important institution involving itself in non-core activities such as catering and tourism and later into ticketing in 2006. Despite an objective to streamline the catering process and improve catering choices for the public travelling by the railways, the catering sector has been a challenging sector for the railways' non-core activity with complaints ranging from limited food options, overcharging for the food provided to passengers and quality control.
To address the string of complaints received by the railways, the government adopted measures such as building and maintaining pantries and adopting standardized hygiene practices. In 2010, the government transferred catering rights from Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation to zonal railways making them responsible for choosing competent players in the catering and hospitality sector for catering on long and short-distance trains, while a smaller percentage of trains were still under the control of Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation giving a massive blow to its thriving business. The problems related to catering did not end here. Rather the challenges compounded with a few players having the monopoly and overcharging passengers without bringing any changes in the food options. A stem report from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India stated that the food sold at stations and in trains was unfit for human consumption and catering standards were below average standards of catering establishments. It found that raw tap water was used in the preparation of beverages, opened and unwashed trash cans, food left outside, and rats and cockroaches in train stations and train stations.
This prompted the government to reconsider the catering policy of 2010. In 2017, the government proposed a new catering policy targeting greater participation of private players to provide food through E-Catering, building new modern kitchens and maintaining the highest levels of hygiene. Even before the pandemic struck, the government has been mulling over possibilities of providing packaged food to passengers through private player participation such as Haldiram, Dominos and KFC promoting a Public-Private Participation model in the catering segment.
Policy Highlights and the Future Ahead
The government further reversed the handling of catering facilities from the zonal railways to IRCTC. The policy underlines that all the mobile pantries will be managed by IRCTC along with submission of the business plan within 30 days to be approved by the Board. IRCTC has also been given the power to engage with the private players in the hospitality industry for the service of food in trains. Following the path, IRCTC has discontinued licenses of 24 caterers and ordered 47 to relook their current quality of services.
The policy further calls for greater accountability through the deployment of supervisors for redressals and public grievances. One major step is a third-party audit by the IRCTC to keep a check on the quality of food and hygiene in pantries. CCTV cameras have been installed in kitchens to ensure the utmost levels of hygiene and services. Despite the implementation of measures under the new catering policy issues related to quality and pricing continue to plague the railways except for private trains currently run by IRCTC as it involves a greater stake and is the key determining factor to the success of private train operations and attracting passenger flow to improving the market share of the railways in the passenger segment. There has also been a growing resentment by the railway unions against the use of pantry cars pointing out the possibility of the pantry cars being converted into passenger coaches to improve revenue generation. The onset of the pandemic further put a stop to the onboard pantry services, resulting in greater penetration of private players with packaged food being provided in trains over long distances marking a shift in the way Indian Railway approaches the key passenger amenity of catering which has been frowned upon by passengers in the long run due to repetitive nature. The railways should therefore explore engaging private players on the lines of the aviation sector and expand the spread of choice it has to offer. Private participation in Indian Railways is the first step, though there is a lot more to achieve before we can boast of a true world-class culinary experience onboard India’s trains excluding elite tourist trains.
Chitresh Shrivastva – firstname.lastname@example.org
Aruushi Gupta – email@example.com