Sunday, June 21, 2009

Veg ya Non Veg : The Saga of Railway Food

Unlike most people, I rather love the train food and the elaborate ritual surrounding it – and no, I am not talking about the Rajdhanis and the Shatabdis. The exercise begins with a railway staff approaching you with the question “Veg ya Non Veg? although I don’t remember the train menus ever having changed , since the day I started using trains – which is quite a long while ago, some or the other passenger will always ask “ veg me kya hai ? “. After the waiter has rattled off the fare, orders are placed. Then the waiter disappears and after a couple of hours arrives with a tray full of food, brought either from the pantry car if the train has one or loaded from some way side station.

I look forward to this whole thing. And so, when the other day I went to the railway station in the evening to board my train and found that it was running about 10 and a half hours late ( that bit of railways , not one minister has been able to change !), I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting to have my dinner on the train and this unexpected wait meant that dinner had to be arranged some where. I made my way across the long and unending platform toward s the place where the vegetarian and non vegetarian refreshment rooms would be.

A Vegetarian thali along with an omlette was tasty, filling and at Rs 30.00 was extremely affordable. The railways ensured quality control by listing details of the thali on a notice board hung on the wall – 150 gm of rice, 100 ml of dal, and 50 ml of curd and so on. But looking around, it was with quite some surprise that I found that the familiar room where I had lunch and dinner innumerable times over the years was quite deserted and was being remodeled. A McDonald’s banner was put up in flaming red and signage proclaimed that I would be opening up soon. I thought that may be the refreshment room has shifted some where else, and having time on my hands, I looked around, but there was no refreshment room in sight, although I located a multi cuisine food court in another part of the station.

Though I love food and enjoy the variety of the food court and love my Mcburger as well, it was disappointing to see that the time honored railway run canteens and refreshment rooms have gone and replacing them are McDonalds and the other food courts, serving overpriced food, albeit of a much greater variety than was previously available and served in disposable plastic trays and accompanied by cheap paper napkins.

I am no socialist by inclination, but it seems that we are pursuing privatization with a rather unnecessary frenzy, dismantling even those pieces of the public sector that did work. The so called private public partnerships seem to be so often a sellout by the government to the private sector because so often in such partnerships, only the face and culture and share holder value driven culture is visible and almost always at the cost of the common public good.

Railway cuisine is obviously not gourmet food, but each railway refreshment room captures the local flavor and dishes in its menu, and so eating at the refreshment rooms in stations across the country is an interesting and varied experience and the diversity of the food in long distance trains as they pass through different states is a story in itself. I for one would hate to be served an alu tikki burger from McDonald as the vegetarian meal on my next train journey. I want my veg thali with the watery dal, the oily pickle and subzi and the curd to wash it down with. Just for this one reason at least, I protest against the Mcdonaldisation of the railway kitchen.

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