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Food served on trains in In­dia are in dire need for strict hy­giene stan­dards prefer­ably en­forced by a third agency

Business Standard - - ISSUES AND INSIGHTS - JY­OTI MUKUL

While fly­ing a low cost air­line re­cently, it took at least three re­minders to get a glass of wa­ter. Short haul or long, it is worth know­ing whether serv­ing bot­tled wa­ter is a free or a paid ser­vice on a low-cost flight where meal is charged sep­a­rately.

Food is an im­por­tant if not an es­sen­tial part of travel es­pe­cially if the jour­ney takes more than two to three hours. There could be many rea­sons for it, rang­ing from killing bore­dom to en­sur­ing that the meal time is not dis­rupted just be­cause it co­in­cides with one’s time of travel. Trav­ellers, there­fore, con­sider both qual­ity and quan­tity of food served dur­ing their jour­ney an im­por­tant de­ter­mi­nant of their choice of air­line or train. There are many who travel by premium trains, like Ra­jd­hani and Shatabdi, but pre­fer to carry their own food sim­ply be­cause they are not sat­is­fied with the qual­ity of food served on these trains or they have some doubts about its hy­giene.

From the per­spec­tive of air­lines, paid food ser­vice is one of the ways of gen­er­at­ing an ex­tra source of rev­enue while try­ing to keep fares af­ford­able. News plat­forms on Wed­nes­day said Air In­dia will carry food all the way from In­dia for its re­turn jour­ney on some of its routes. These don’t in­clude the non-stop flights to the US. It might not be to­tally in­cor­rect to say that this is akin to cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties pre­fer­ring to carry pack­aged ready-to-eat In­dian meals to over­come food is­sues while trav­el­ling abroad; though the rea­son in the case of Air In­dia is cut­ting costs. Un­named air­line of­fi­cials quoted in me­dia re­ports said the loss mak­ing air­line spends around ~600-800 crore on ca­ter­ing ser­vices and sourc­ing food from In­dia is both cost ef­fec­tive and more to the taste of In­dian palates.

A few months back, Air In­dia had halved the quan­tity of cheese boards served in the premium class on in­ter­na­tional flights which helped it save ~2.5 crore. It had ear­lier stopped non-veg­e­tar­ian meals for econ­omy class pas­sen­gers on do­mes­tic routes. De­spite its losses, the na­tional car­rier does not want to charge pa­trons for the food if they travel econ­omy class. Per­haps, this is the rea­son why some of its cus­tomers pre­fer to stick to the air­line.

There aren’t any rules that make it oblig­a­tory for air­lines to serve food if the travel time is be­yond a spe­cific pe­riod. All that the Direc­torate Gen­eral of Civil Avi­a­tion says is that for flights de­layed less than 24 hours, air­lines have to serve food and re­fresh­ments to the pas­sen­gers at the air­port. Be­yond that, ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion and trans­fer fa­cil­ity are to be pro­vided.

By way of guide­lines there are in­ter­na­tional food safety stan­dards for on­board ca­ter­ing ser­vices that have been framed by var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing In­ter­na­tional Flight Ser­vices As­so­ci­a­tion. These gen­er­ally lay down norms like the dis­tance be­tween air­port and kitchen, keep­ing premises free of ro­dents, and so on.

Largely, air­line ca­ter­ing ad­heres to these norms. Even if the fare of­fered by them are not great these days, rarely are they found want­ing in food hy­giene un­like the case with the In­dian Rail­ways. In a scathing re­port in 2017, the Comp­trol­ler and Au­di­tor Gen­eral cited an in­ci­dent when a pas­sen­ger on a Lucknow–Anand Vi­har dou­ble decker train had or­dered a cut­let but no­ticed an iron nail while con­sum­ing it. Cock­roaches and rats were seen in the pantry car in train num­bers 12260 (Du­ranto Ex­press-ER) and 12269 (Du­ranto Ex­press-SR).

Though food is still not op­tional on trains like Ra­jd­hani and Shatabdi, it has to be bought in other trains that have a pantry car or from ven­dors that board at var­i­ous sta­tions if there isn’t a food coach. In that re­spect, the food busi­ness for the rail­ways is more seg­re­gated and widely spread com­pared to flight kitchens. But this surely can­not be the rea­son for sub-stan­dard hy­giene con­di­tions. Un­like the air­lines, the Rail­ways, have a pre­scribed weight and vol­ume for food served on-board to give pas­sen­gers value for money. But while meals and wa­ter bot­tles on air­lines are get­ting smaller by the day, those on rail­way routes are in dire need for strict hy­giene stan­dards prefer­ably en­forced by a third agency.

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