| A girl holds a kulhar in her house in Mumbai’s Dharavi, home to hundreds of potters. (AFP)
New Delhi, June 13: Laloo Prasad Yadav’s decision to go to pot — earthen pot — has evoked a sense of déjà vu in the railways.
Two other railway ministers shared his passion for the pot — George Fernandes flirted with the kulhar in 1989 and Nitish Kumar in 1994. They have one more thing in common: all three are from Bihar.
The earlier experiments failed, but that has not deterred Laloo Prasad from issuing an order to the railways to start serving hot beverages and water in earthen pots.
Once all sections of the railways comply with the directive, over a lakh kulhars would be used at stations and trains each day across the country, said M.. Chopra, the managing director of Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation.
Daily, some 5,000 pots each will be required at major stations in New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai. Does it sound daunting' Not to Chopra.
Tenders have already been floated to buy pots. Never mind the higher cost, the fact that earthen pots are more expensive than plastic or paper cups is acknowledged by Chopra.
“We have not yet fixed a price as it varies in different parts of the country. In Delhi, the price of a kulhar is 55 paise while in Chennai it is one rupee and in Calcutta 32 paise. But we expect to procure it at 40 paise,” said Chopra.
Sources said the corporation purchases biodegradable (paper) cups at 7-10 paise per cup. The shift to pots will then imply an extra expense of at least 30 paise per cup. Multiplied by the lakh cups Chopra said would be used daily, the additional cost works out to Rs 30,000 lakh a day, or nearly Rs 1.1 crore a year.
Does it mean tea and coffee on the railways will cost more with the advent of the kulhar' That will not be a popular move and Laloo Prasad has already indicated his pricing predilection by saying he does not want to raise fares for lower classes, though there is a gaping hole in railway finances.
Some are, however, picking holes in the pots themselves.
M. Ravindra, a former chairman of the Railway Board, said: “First, the decision to scrap plastic and biodegradable cups leaves passengers with no option. Second, there is no mechanism to maintain the quality and standardisation. It was scrapped a couple of years after it was introduced by the railways in 1989 for the same reasons.”
The earthen cups are made on a potter’s wheel and neither their size nor their shape is uniform across the country. In some regions, they are conical, wide at the mouth. In others, they flare out in the middle and are narrower at the mouth.
“It has the disconcerting tendency to soak the contents very quickly. It also isn’t a ready-to-use product in the way biodegradable cups are; ideally, they should be washed and dried. Normally, we supply 150 ml of tea. When pour into the kulhar, it shrinks to only about 100 ml because of the high absorption rate. Moreover, the taste of tea or coffee changes,” Ravindra said.
Chopra has an answer to questions about standard size, shape and quality. “The tender evaluation committee has experts to deal with it. We have already floated tenders which specify that the kulhars should be able to contain 180-200 ml of tea/coffee.”
“We have kept the higher limit (200 ml) to deal with that problem,” he said in reference to the pots’ high absorption rate.
But the negatives had led the experiment being buried some 15 years ago. Some of the shapes were not considered safe for use on a moving train as the contents could spill easily.
“We have suggested to the railway minister to go slow on kulhars as experience has shown that not only consumers but also our operational and maintenance staff have complained of problems at railway stations and along the tracks,” Railway Board sources said.
They added that ragpickers will not pick them up and how will they, given the Indian’s penchant for despatching earthen pots to their place of origin — the earth, meaning concrete platforms — and preferably in several scattered pieces.
On the tracks outside stations, the rails are supported by stones and the broken pieces of the kulhar lodge between the stones. This reduces the grip between stones and undermines the support they provide to the tracks, said officials responsible for maintenance.
Even the green lobby, usually quick to jump to the support of anything earthy, is reacting with muted enthusiasm because of concerns about cleanliness.
Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, who took on the cola giants last year over pesticide residues, said: “It is a good move, but unless there is a system for collection and disposal, it will not be a success. The minister is advised to take this one extra step.”
For prospective suppliers, an advice could lie again in the past, when Fernandes was the minister. He had to cancel an order awarded to Khadi Gram Udyog after the railways refused to pay the Rs 2 crore that had been demanded.
Nitish Kumar dumped his plan on railway officials’ counsel.
The railway spokesperson defended the third fling with pots. “It will provide employment to more than 30 lakh potters across India. They were a forgotten lot, though their importance is mentioned in Tulsidas’ Ramayana and the Atharva Veda,” he said.
With pots making a comeback, a train to the Vedic age may also be possible.