Life is a journey of many colors, say our ancient Rishis.

For me, the journey of my life has been a life of journey. I have been a frequent traveler since my childhood. This much has been my fascination for exploring new places and things that only at the age of 10, I had fled to Bodhgaya alone from my home town Bihta, without intimating any of my family members, leading to a complete hurly-burly in my house. I repeated similar acts many a times in future too for different destinations, just to persue my passion of exploration.

The Indian Railways have been a constant companion in my life of journey, all credits to its extensive networks, spreading to a sizable part of the Country. I have always loved traveling in trains than in any other mediums of making journeys. This is primarily because it has been comparatively cheaper than any other medium of transports (though train-fares have considerably increased in recent times after Modi-Govt. came to power), and secondly because, you get the opportunity to have a glance at the Country’s countenance, its body and soul, at least fleetingly. Remember Mahatma Gandhi, who preferred train-journey for his cross-country travel to understand India?

I have traveled a decent-sized part of the Country through trains, in all classes. In my student’s days, I generally used to travel in general compartments, where many a times, 4-5 passengers accommodate themselves in the coach’s toilets. I had multiple occasions to cover long distances in general classes, such as Mumbai to Patna, Delhi to Patna, Patna to Udaipur etc. Later on, as I became little financially sound, I started travelling in Sleeper coaches and still preferably do it, though I do have the experience of journeying several times in 3rd AC, 2nd AC and even Rajdhani’s 1st AC too. This all I am not narrating as a prologue to an upcoming travel memoir book of mine, but just to let you understand that I do possess the adequate experience of commenting on something related to ground realities of Railways. In this article, I shall tell the tale of the overcharging of food prices in running trains, its ground realities of how it happens, the way passengers are manipulated, what happens if a passenger tries to fight for his right of getting the food at the fixed price and many more interesting facts. 

Despite being a Law Graduate, an RTI activist, a Columnist, a Smart phone holder, active on Twitter and Facebook, then also sometimes I feel defeated in my fight to get the food at the standard rate in running trains.

Recently, the Indian Railways came up with a policy of No food bill, no payment. It means, if you order food from the IRCTC catering in a running train, you can get food for free if the food server fails to provide you the corresponding bill. But, is it going to bring any change on the ground level? Is it going to save the ordinary people’ pockets in any way? I better leave its success and failure to the test of time but shall tell you how the things work on ground level.

Indian Railway Pantry

Under the Catering Policy, 2017, the Indian Railways has once again given the job of handling food business to the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).

I am a pure vegetarian, so whenever I travel in train, I prefer vegetarian food. Now, the rate chart of Standard Veg. Casserole Meal (Lunch/Dinner) that costs Rs.50/- includes, {Rice 150gms + 02 Parathas or 04 Rotis (100 gms) + Dal (150 gms) + Mix vegetable (100 gm) + Pickle Sachet + Curd (100 gms) or Sweet (40 gms) + Packaged water glass (250 ml).

On ground level, when a Pantry car man comes to take orders for food, and if you ask him how much the vegetarian food costs and what items does it include, he will respond that it costs Rs.90/- (sometimes they may also say Rs.80/- and Rs.100/-) and it includes, Rice, 4 Rotis, Dal, 2 varieties of vegetables, packaged water glass and a pickle sachet. Here, mark the difference, the curd or sweet gets disappeared from the list, but you get one additional vegetable item, and you are asked to pay an additional amount of Rs.40/- for this. It means, in Rs.50/- you are entitled to all the officially prescribed food items by Railways, but they will tell you that they offer the food with one more vegetable item in Rs.90/- that too without officially prescribed item of curd or sweet. So, in this way, they have found a new technique of selling the food with one additional vegetable item at an additional amount of Rs.40/-. I don’t know how they sell their own prescribed items at their own prescribed price, or whether they are allowed to do so at all or not, under the terms of contract with Railways, but one thing is clear, that they have been cunningly duping the common people through this newly derived modus-operandi. Suppose, even though they are allowed to sell the food with some additional items at an additional price then the Railways should clear the air over it and the price for such additional items whatsoever, too should be mentioned clearly in the rate-chart. If a passenger enquires about the food and its costs then the pantry car man is bound to tell him about the officially prescribed food items in Rs.50/- first, and then only he can go on to tell him about the availability of additional food items at an additional price. But, this does not happen in reality at all. You are only told about the availability of Rs.90/- food. For them, food at Rs.50/- does not exist under normal circumstances, unless you decide to fight for your right.

Now, suppose you know about the IRCTC rate chart, and you counter the pantry car man taking the order that the standard IRCTC rate of food is only Rs.50/- then the three possible situation arises:

  1. First, he may directly refuse to take your order leaving you in a confused state.                                                    
  2.  Second, he may brazenly say that Rs.50/- food is not available, only Rs.90/- food is available.                      
  3. Third, he may take your order reluctantly and aggressively, and bring you Rice, Roti, Dal, one vegetable and a pickle sachet. You can continue fighting with him for curd and packaged water glass for the rest of your train journey.

This all I am not narrating out of my one or two such experiences of fights for food at the standard rate but at least more than 100 such experiences of fights during train journeys. Every time, I have fought with them and I have proudly won, but at the cost of many things including my mental peace and facing humiliation on the part of fellow passengers that I am fighting for as little amount as Rs.30-40. But, money has never been a consideration for me, though their manipulations and cheatings have certainly been. You can just imagine, I am a Law Graduate, an RTI activist, a Columnist, a Smart phone holder, active on Twitter and Facebook, then also sometimes I feel defeated in my fight to get the food at the standard rate in running trains.

This is true that Railways have been doing a tremendous job by immediately responding to the complaint of overcharging on food but what for them who do not have the Smartphones and who are not that tech-savvy to be active on Twitter to get their complaints registered? Its toll free No. is not active 24 into 7 and not that responsive too.

In my next article in this series of Railways ground realities, I shall tell the tale of some of my interesting fights in the running trains to get the food at IRCTC standard rate, the hurdles and humiliation that I faced in the process and even a life-threat that I received from a pantry car man for getting a complaint registered against him on Railway’s Twitter handle. Under this new policy, the government says that don’t pay if you don’t get the bill, but it’s not that easy as it sounds.

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Rohit Kumar

Rohit Kumar is a law graduate, an RTI activist and a former SBI Youth for India Fellow (2017-18) Batch.