By Apoorva Mandhani
The Indian Railways seems to be caught in the eye of a major corruption storm over its catering facilities. An official response to a recent Right to Information (RTI) application indicates that the Indian Railways has been buying catering supplies for passengers at prices much higher than the market price.
However, this is not the first time that the Catering service of the Indian Railways has come under the scanner. A Facebook post in February this year had opened a can of worms, alleging that pantry staff in the Yesvantpur-Howrah Express was selling food items at more than double the printed MRP. While the allegations in that instance were refuted for the loss of tangible evidence, the emergence of official documents through RTI could blow the lid off the mismanagement that plagues the largest and the most affordable long-distance public transport system in India.
Food for thought?
The RTI reply to a query filed by activist Ajay Bose has revealed that food items like 100-gram packets of Amul curd have been purchased at Rs. 14 crores for around 15336 units, which comes to Rs. 972 per unit for 100-gram curd. Similarly, refined oil has been purchased at Rs. 253 a litre, and tur dal, moong dal at Rs. 157 per kilogramme which is several times higher than the existing market price. Cold drinks and water bottles were also purchased at prices twenty to thirty times higher than their actual price. The reply also pointed towards poor record-keeping and a consequent mismatch in distribution. For instance, while 250 kg of flour was purchased for ?7,680, the railways claimed to have distributed 450 kg of flour.
Soon after the revelation, Central Railways issued a clarification claiming that there had been typing errors in the RTI response, which had led to the miscommunication. It then suspended three inspectors of Commercial Department for supplying the “misleading” information. Union Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has also ordered an immediate inquiry into the allegations. However, until the Ministry releases documents to back its claims, the RTI reply will continue to be viewed as the only official information regarding such expenditure.
A forerunner in accruing debts and corruption complaints
Notably, Indian Railways has earned the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt Government Department for the second year now, with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) having received over 11,000 complaints against railway employees. Besides, the news wire Reuters recently reported that the Indian Railways was set to miss its earnings target for 2016-17, the third year in a row. It has further claimed that debts have shot up and that railways’ operating ratio has slipped to the worst level in 15 years.
It has further been opined that one of the major contributors to the prevailing corruption is the fact that the catering department does not float any tenders. The food products are, therefore, bought at rates that are almost ten times higher than the actual market price. These are, however, sold to the canteens, trains and restaurants at the usual market price, resulting in huge losses for the railways.
Such figures debunk the assertions about hiking of fares and the introduction of dynamic pricing as being the only options available to keep the railways functioning. In such a scenario, the recent proposal by Mr Suresh Prabhu to digitally revamp the entire supply and procurement chain of the railways appears to be a step in the right direction. However, with the lid blown off the catering imbroglio, it would be worthwhile for the Ministry to first address the allegations with concrete proof. Only then would it be in a position to begin with a clean slate for realising its objectives of transforming the railways into a profitable venture.
Featured Image Source: The Better India
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