The pandemic had already dealt on a body to the laundry industry as a whole; worse hitting the Build-Own-OperateTransfer (BOOT) laundries in conjunction with the Indian Railways. These between laundry operators — who used to wash several tonnes of the linen supplied to passengers daily — had zero income from the moment lockdown was imposed.
The second blow by the Railway Ministry deciding not to supply passenger linen even once train services resume in a limited manner’ shook the laundry operators even more.
These operators have made significant investments in machinery and manpower, setting up laundries that cater exclusively to the Railways. Some of them were about to begin operations; they are now staring at an uncertain future where — unless the Railways decides to resume linen supply — they will be unable even to recoup their investments, leave alone make a profit.
To understand what the future holds for them, Mrigank Warrier, Assistant Editor – Clean India Journal interviewed Alok Kumar Tewari, retired Principal Executive Director, Environment & Housekeeping Management, Indian Railways. During Tewari’s tenure — which concluded during the pandemic, the Railways set up an Executive Director-level Committee at the Ministry level with representatives from concerned departments to look at the issues from all aspects and suggest remedies.
In this forthright conversation, Tewari delineated the nature and scope of the problem, the reason behind it, how operators’ troubles could be solved for the duration of the pandemic, what the future of existing and future BOOT laundries looks like, and more:
Q. Please give us an idea of the total quantity of linen owned by Indian Railways.?
A: It would be difficult to say how many units of linen the Railways possesses. Before the pandemic, 425 tonnes of linen per day were processed in-house. Some linen was also outsourced, roughly totaling to 430 tonnes per day. One linen set consists of two bedsheets, one hand towel, and one pillow cover; this weighs almost a kilo. So, 430 tonnes roughly accounts for 4.3 lakh bedrolls washed and supplied on a daily basis. If we consider a turnaround time of three days, plus two days as – the linen has to come back to the laundry, be sorted, get washed, and then re-enter the system – the total cycle time for a single 430 tonne batch is around five days. Since linen has to be supplied everyday, the total amount of linen in possession of the railways must be 430 tonnes multiplied by five or six – roughly around 24-25 lakh linen sets. Apart from this, we used to keep fresh stock to replace perishing linen. Blankets – which were not washed after every trip – also need to be considered, although they will be much fewer in number.
Q. How was soiled linen cleaned before the pandemic?
A: The 430 tonnes of linen I mentioned earlier are processed by two kinds of laundries – departmental laundries and BOOT type of laundries, some of which have been operational for a period of time and are now nearing the end of contract, whereas some were just awarded and some about to be commissioned. Departmental laundries were operated on short-term contracts; the BOOT laundries have 10-15 year contracts.
One or two railway divisions also have composite own-supply-and-wash linen models, in which Railways doesn’t own the linen; the operator does, and he brings the linen to the trains, supplies it to passengers, collects used linen and washes it at his own premises.
Q. What was the rationale for suspending linen supply to passengers once trains restarted after lockdown?
A: Suspending linen provision is one of the measures of the railways to interrupt Covid transmission. If you have travelled in a train, you will have noticed that there is rather limited space to keep and store linen in each coach. In some categories of trains, the linen attendant has to keep linen on seats and berths at the very beginning of the journey, so that the passengers can use it immediately; the limited space available for storage is another reason why this has to be done. From Mumbai to Kolkata; on the way, three or four passengers may successively occupy the same berth, and the Railways has to provide a fresh set of linen to every passenger. You can imagine how much clean linen needs to be arranged, and how much used linen needs to be collected and kept separately. If we have to guarantee that the used linen never comes into contact with fresh linen, Railways will have to create capacity accordingly.
Although Railways has made arrangements to screen passengers before boarding, we can never be fully sure about the Covid status of each passenger; there may be asymptomatic carriers. It is difficult to track and trace train passengers.This is why we decided to suspend the supply of linen for the foreseeable future. This was advertised and communicated to passengers before train services were reintroduced after lockdown. For the safety of our passengers, we also increased temperature settings in AC coaches. Earlier, the summer setting used to be 21-23 degrees, and winter settings were 19-21 degrees. By increasing these, we also reduced the general requirement for linen.
Q. What is currently being done with the Railways’ unused linen?
A: We own 99.99% of the linen we supply. We keep procuring linen to replace damaged linen. We have our own storage facilities, and our trains also served as temporary storage, because a large amount of linen was on board and in transit.
Many railway hospitals have been given over to state governments as Covid hospitals; some part of this hospital linen was also provided from railway linen.
We had converted 5,000-plus coaches into Covid-care coaches, with capacity for 80,000 suspected patients and
those having mild symptoms; some linen was earmarked for this. However, storage capacity for unused linen will have had to go up six times.
Q. What possible scenarios do you foresee for the resumption of railway laundries?
A: As an outsider, and hypothetically speaking,there are a few approaches that the Committee must be looking at. We can allow BOOT laundry operators to bring in linen from other non railway sources, and supply after washing. Hotels and some other facilities have started to reopen in a limited capacity; it will be expensive for them to operate their own laundries for such limited quantities of linen.
A laundry integrator would be of help to the hotel industry as well as to the railways, with whom a part of the revenue
would be shared. Although power and other utilities will have to be borne by the operator, it will be railway land
that is being utilised. This model may have some issues. BOOT laundries have been set up under rules and
regulations that do not permit commercial exploitation of the setup; they are supposed to be exclusively for Railways. If they are opened to others, amendments may be required to the regulatory framework.
Commercial exploitation may even need Cabinet approval. I am sure the Committee will have taken suggestions from field units as well from the operators. There may be some laundries that have been in operation for a long time. Laundry contracts have a clause that quantities can vary by +/- 25%. For example, if a laundry with a contract for a ten-year period has already worked for eight years, roughly speaking, it is already in the above bracket.
Such contracts can be short closed as per terms and conditions, and the railways can take over.
Many laundries may not fall into this bracket. Railways can do an assessment of the investments undertaken by
operators, and buy them out, which will require its own set of approvals. There are some laundries which had just been set up, some were waiting for inauguration; we can’t find a shoe which fits all, so we’ll have to find various shoes to fit various feet. That is what the Committee must be doing, and that is why we constituted a multi-disciplinary committee consisting of people from Environment & Housekeeping Directorate, Finance, Land
Q. When linen begins to be supplied again, what do you think will change?
A: Until some clarity about the Covid situation emerges, with the existing space available in coaches, it may not be possible to restart supply of linen. When this eventually happens, there will be increased focus on hygiene, with possible additional costs. In pre-Covid days, linen sets were highly subsidised to just 25 rupees per set; hypothetically speaking, Railways may need to revise these rates. Linen cost may no longer be integrated in the cost
of the ticket, and may be made available to passengers only on demand, as was the case when linen first began to be supplied in AC coaches. My feeling is that sometime down the line, linen will make a comeback.
Q Post-pandemic, which system will be more viable, in-house laundries or BOOT laundries?
A: It still makes more financial sense for the Railways to have the present laundry operator system; this was the reason we switched from our own systems to BOOT laundries. This has resulted in great improvement to the quality of linen supplied to the passengers, as well as the life of the linen. Earlier, we didn’t know how and under what conditions linen was being washed by the dhobi. Personally, I feel all the laundries set up under the BOOT model are excellent laundries; they are models for how a laundry should be set up and operated. It will be difficult to say which laundries will be retained; those whose contracts are approaching completion may be on their way out, and
newer ones – which invested a lot relatively recently – may continue.
Q What will a post pandemic BOOT laundry contract look like?
A: This period has been a learning experience for both operators and the railways. Some contracts had a guaranteed quantity clause; if the laundry set up was of five tonnes, a minimum four tonnes would be offered on a daily basis. With the total shutdown, the Committee will have to look into each contract, which is a standalone document guiding both parties. These lessons will go into drafting contracts on the commercial side.
There may be changes on the technical side too. We were supplying linen to 3-AC coaches in unpacked conditions, because volumes were huge here. During my tenure, we had tried to implement packing for all linen; not only does it ensure hygiene, it also reassures passengers that the linen they are getting is fresh. Such stipulations – including using disinfectant while washing – may have to be built in. I am sure all this will happen with the passage of time.
While the entire laundry industry awaits the Committee’s report with bated breath, one hopes that it will take into account the hardships suffered by laundry operators in the past year, how any decision will affect the entire future of each operator, and how the existence and financial health of established, reliable operators is integral to restarting the supply of railway linen, which is bound to happen sooner or later.