Mumbai: Catering, which is an important arm of the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), is set to be whisked away by Indian Railways.
The Railway Board, through a March 14 order, has asked IRCTC to withdraw its long-term catering tenders of five years and to not renew ongoing contracts.
The step has been taken chiefly to address passenger complaints regarding the quality of food, overcharging by contractors, cleanliness, stinking linen and unclean toilets in long-distance trains. The Rail Madad app of Indian Railways has received innumerable complaints of this kind; according to official figures, 1.22 lakh complaints across 16 zones were received between April and October 2022.
According to senior railway officials, the solution the Railways has come up with is to create a unified policy, where a single contractor will take care of catering, washing and distribution of linen and on-board housekeeping for upkeep and cleanliness. The policy, called ‘Yatri Seva Anubandh’, is under finalisation; under it, 245 premium trains like Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Tejas Express connecting Delhi with other cities, including Mumbai, will get composite services from one entity.
On March 9, the railway ministry issued a circular to IRCTC regarding the catering services in trains. ‘A comprehensive policy, Yatri Seva Anubandh (YSA), is under finalisation in the Railway Board with the objective of facilitating passengers to avail of composite onboard services in trains, including catering,’ said the letter. ‘It has come to our notice that IRCTC has invited open tenders for engaging private licensees to provide catering services in trains on a long-term basis ie five years. Accordingly, IRCTC is advised not to go ahead with such long-term tenders to enable the smooth implementation of the YSA policy for providing passenger services in trains.’
In a follow-up on March 14, the Railway Board issued another letter to all general managers on Indian Railways on the finalisation of railway contracts under YSA. ‘…It has been advised to IRCTC not to go ahead with long-term tenders for catering. It is proposed to implement YSA initially in 245 trains originating/terminating from Delhi,’ read the letter from the Railway Board. Hindustan Times has copies of both letters.
“The majority of contracts for washing and distribution of linen inside trains as well as on-board housekeeping will end by April and June this year,” said a senior official from the Railway Board. “After this, we intend to smoothly implement YSA in these 245 trains.”
Under YSA, the contractor chosen for the composite services will generate revenue through advertisements on trains. However, the new policy could hit IRCTC hard, as catering is a major activity of the public sector undertaking that has been providing ticketing, catering and tourism services to Indian Railways.
Passenger associations, meanwhile, are unsure about composite services vesting with one contractor, and say s/he should be in a position to do justice to all the activities and not simply focus on generating revenues through advertisements. “Catering and pantry are specialised activities,” said Subhash Gupta, president, Rail Yatri Sangh. “If a common contractor is selected for all these tasks, it should not end up compromising the quality of food and services.”