The cuppa and the stuff on the trains

Years ago the tea served on the trains were 180 ml in porcelain cups, never mind if they were chipped. Sorry, make it decades ago. Somewhere down the line, the railways stipulated that for Rs 3 per cup, a passenger should get 150 ml of the beverage.

If you have travelled in the past few years by any train, chances are you have been served tea which was about a peg and a half in a thimble-like thin plastic cup which are so soft it could get dimpled and spill the restorer at the slightest pressure. A peg and half is 90 ml, each standard peg of booze being 60 ml.

Food fraud in Indian Railways. Reuters

And all along we have been paying Rs 5 per shot of tea and over Rs 7, sometimes even Rs 10, per that ‘cup’ of coffee, not the fragrant filtered but the over-boiled instant variety. The worst part is that all along you believed that it was the Indian Railways own official caterers. In some cases yes, but mostly, no.

The Indian Railways’ current specification is that the 150 ml of the beverages should be served in containers which have a capacity of 170 ml, probably to ensure that when the trains lurch, the delicately held cup does not spill the contents. Some genius had worked out the details nicely.

Now, as the Indian Express reported today, the stuff sold to passengers both on board and at stations would cost higher by half to double of the present prices. That means tea at Rs 5 instead of Rs 3 per cuppa and coffee at Rs 7 as against Rs 5. No disputing that cost escalations since the 2003 price warrant it.

The actual part of the story, however, is that the guys who served you your cooked edibles and the tea and coffee are mostly not part of the railway’s official catering system, which one must concede never has led, to my memory, to a case of food poisoning. They were all freelancers who, thanks to their generosity, were winked at by the railways staff. No need to wonder for there is always a pay-off in these rip-offs. To be on the take, one has to be benign to let the scam happen first.

They tricked you into assuming they were official by wearing shirts that gave the impression of a uniform. Unless you were smart, you would not have noticed that these odd-coloured—what else does one expect of the Indian Railways, aesthetics?—did not ever have a logo. Or even a label with a name.

Let me explain this by a personal example. On a train from Ahmedabad, I had asked for a meal with the guy who came around taking orders and when it was served, the rotis turned out to be leathery and the dal watery and quite unappetising, even inedible. The sabzi was barely passable.

Cornering a train inspector—they are called TTEs—I complained. He promised to act. A few minutes later he popped back giving the impression he had conducted an investigation and said, "Sorry, I can’t do anything. This train has no catering arrangement at all." He helpfully added, "They must be private fellows."

If they were, how come he had allowed them access to the free coach? What I failed to notice was that the official Indian Railway caterers normally collect the charges only after you have consumed. This smart freelancer had done that even as he delivered the parcel neatly packed in aluminium foil. I had already been fooled.

The old rate card of the Indian Railways, specifying weight and numbers for the solid stuff like idlis, chapattis, upma, rice is instructive about what you are supposed to get in numbers and quantities by weight and volume and what you are expected to pay, and is neatly set out in tabular form, specifying that service tax would be extra except for tea and coffee.

With prices going up, what about the freelancers who have been running their business on the trains? What about those who, despite food outlets as kiosks at major stations and no stalls at wayside stations cater to your needs of cooked items and the teas and coffees? Would they also jack up the prices, or being close to what is official rates, keep it there and cut back on quality?

Time alone would tell, but the official price hike is effective immediately.

But here is my wager: if someone adds up the total turnover of the foodstuff and beverages that these freelancers, private operators in the informal, unorganised sector is toted up, it could be higher than what the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation sells on board on stations and on board the trains.

Updated Date: Dec 28, 2012 15:30 PM

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