Curd for Rs 927, Refined Oil for Rs 1,241? Railways Blames RTI Reply, Denies Scam

RTI reply points to a catering scam but the railways says the high prices shown are a typographical error.

The railway scam may well be the reason behind the massive losses that the Indian railways have been operating under. Credit: Reuters/Files

New Delhi:  An official response to recent right to information (RTI) application indicates the Indian Railways has been buying catering supplies for passengers at prices much higher than the market price. The RTI reply provided to activist Ajay Bose stated that the central railway’s catering department stocked up its warehouses with goods purchased for a price several times higher than their actual market price.

A report first published in The Hindu said that the catering department purchased 100 gram cups of Amul curd – which sells at Rs 25 – at an astronomical price of Rs 927 per kilogram, a litre of refined oil at Rs 1,241, and a kilogram of Tata salt for Rs 49, instead of its market price, Rs 15. Similarly, the reply said that water bottles and soft drinks were purchased for Rs 59 per bottle by the central railways.

These items were bought by the division’s catering department in March 2016 and were stocked at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CSTM) station in Mumbai. They were distributed to IRCTC’s Jan Ahar canteens, railway base kitchens and several trains that pass through or originate in Mumbai.

Bose filed his application when he learnt that the catering department was running huge losses. But getting a response from the railways soon became an uphill task.

“I filed the application in July 2016, but didn’t get a reply from central railways. It appeared they wanted to cover something up. I filed an appeal and the appellate authority show-caused the railways asking them to provide the information sought by me within 15 days. Despite this, there was no reply even after several months,” Bose told The Hindu.

Bose said that he realised the department was deliberately ignoring his appeal and, thus, he filed a second appeal as per the rules of RTI Act. The railway officials replied to his second appeal, but with shocking details. Barring items like samosas, potatoes, and onions, all other purchases – including chicken, tur dal, moong dal, besan and even tissue papers – were made at highly inflated costs.

According to the reply, around Rs 1.55 crore was spent by just one catering warehouse at CSTM for purchasing select food items in March, 2016.

The RTI reply also pointed towards poor record-keeping and a consequent mismatch in distribution. “While 250 kg of flour was purchased for Rs 7,680, the railways claimed to have distributed 450 kg of flour (90 kg to base kitchen and 360 kg to the IRCTC-run Jan Ahar canteen). Similarly, 35 kg of maida was shown as distributed, though only 20 kg was purchased. It also bought 255 kg of Basmati rice, but said it distributed 745 kg to the base kitchen and Kurla-Hazrat Nizamuddin Express,” the report in The Hindu said.

Bose said that the RTI reply gives the actual picture, contradicting the reasons previously given for the losses made by Jan Ahar canteens and stalls.

It appears that the central railway officials have not taken the RTI reply seriously enough. Responding to the RTI reply, Ravindra Goyal, divisional railway manager of central railways said, “This must be a typing error, but I will look into the matter.” Another former general manger of central railways, Subodh Jain, told The Hindu, “There is a proper channel for purchasing the items. The purchase committee finalises the rates.”

Soon after the news broke, railway officials have said that the RTI reply was wrong and actual figures were different, even as union railway minister Suresh Prabhu ordered a probe. The central railways also suspended three officials and transferred one for “providing wrong” information.

The central railways also tweeted what it claimed was the real figure for curd.

Though the railways ministry released one invoice – for curd – to back this claim, the full range of commodities for which the RTI reply indicates over-invoicing cannot be put down to a  “typing error”. The RTI Act provides for adequate penalties and disciplinary action against departments and officials for providing wrong or misleading information. It remains to be seen whether the railway ministry – which was quick to dismiss the RTI reply – probes the matter further or not. There are also provisions for the appellant to raise the matter again.

Quite a few railway officials who spoke to The Hindu expressed no surprise to the information received by Bose.

Subhash Gupta, member of the Zonal Railway Users Consultative Committee and president of Rail Pravsi Sangh said, “This is a very serious issue and needs to be looked into by senior railway authorities. So many items being purchased at higher costs and a difference in procurement and distribution cannot be typing mistakes. This has been happening since long and passengers are always the losers. Due to such scams, the railways claims it is running at a loss, increases fares and decreases passenger amenities. Action should be taken against officials involved.”

The ministry of railways has been saying that hiking fares and introducing dynamic pricing were the only options available to keep the railways functioning. However, scams like this show that corrective measures taken by the ministry to turn the railways – the largest and the most affordable long-distance public transport system in India – into a profitable venture, may well be misplaced.

Note: The story was edited to incorporate the Railways’ tweet of an invoice for curd purchases