For a hygienic track - CAG report on Railways - 26 July 2017 - The Hindu

Source - The Hindu

Among the most affordable transport systems in the world, India’s railway network carries millions of people every day, linking the remotest destinations. Yet, in a fast-growing country with rising ambitions, the system is caught in a time warp, unable to scale up its services to global standards and hobbled (walk in an awkward way) by inefficient management. Although the rot (gradually deteriorate) in passenger services has been repeatedly identified, it has only grown worse. The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on catering services for the year ended March 2016 provides further evidence that little has changed in the system: food unsuitable for human consumption, contaminated and recycled items, packaged articles past their use-by date, and unauthorised items are sold on trains, all endangering the health of passengers. Such gross (very obvious and unacceptable) violations are all the more glaring because the administration has instituted a mechanism to penalise agencies such as the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation and invites passengers to file complaints. Evidently, instances such as a Rs.1 lakh fine levied on the IRCTC for the presence of a cockroach in food supplied on the Kolkata Rajdhani Express three years ago have not resulted in any significant reform. Nor has private sector participation in food supply provided a panacea (a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases) for the problems linked to departmental catering. It is unlikely, therefore, that the recently unveiled catering policy will make a big difference unless the process of identifying caterers, fixing prices, and ensuring quality control is transparent and is monitored by external auditors. Independent oversight can potentially improve other aspects of service as well, such as the quality and maintenance of linen, which the CAG has found to be shockingly substandard.

The NDA government began its tenure with a focus on modernising India’s creaking (show weakness or frailty under strain) railways, and several major announcements have been made, including the setting up of a long-pending Rail Development Authority to recommend tariffs and set standards. In the area of passenger services, any reform has to contend (struggle to surmount) with the ‘open access’ character of rail travel in the country, since coaches are open to unlicensed vendors who sell food, water and other goods. Given the need for employment, it would be pragmatic (dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations) to broaden the network and enrol more local distributors of certified articles, while implementing the core idea of the IRCTC running modern base kitchens. Audit findings of contractors on railway premises overcharging users and selling packaged food items at prices inflated over the open market are serious, and require immediate resolution. The experience with different models of service on trains in India merits a comparison with France, where unhappy passengers on the popular, high-speed TGV trains wanted public sector catering back a few years ago. Now that the CAG has given an exhaustive critique, it is imperative that the Railway Ministry brings about a visible change through its proposed reforms.