On December 5, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) received a phone call from the Union external affairs ministry, routed through the railway ministry. It was not a usual communication but a direction to pull out something as basic as drinking water to meet a diplomatic call.
A day earlier, the Maldivian capital of Male had experienced a crisis. Its only desalination plant, which supplies drinking water to citizens after treating sea water, had caught fire. It, indeed, was a disaster for the island nation; India offered help and so did China and Sri Lanka.
Since the sea route would take at least four days, the quickest relief was to air-lift drinking water from India and take it to Male. The need to rope in IRCTC, Indian Railways' government-owned catering and tourism company, was felt. IRCTC's corporate office instructed its Rail Neer plants at Delhi's Nangloi and Palur near Chennai to get the bottles of drinking water rolling, explained a senior IRCTC official who was part of the operation.
Two to three private transporters that in the normal course ferry the company's bottle cartons to sale centres at railway stations were asked to step up their fleet and report at plants. "In a day, 200,000 bottles of a litre each were moved to the Delhi airport, to be flown to Male. The next day, another 150,000 bottles were similarly transported from the Palur plant to the Arakkonam air base of the Coast Guards," explained the official.
Some 20 truck trips were made from each of the two plants. Once at the airport, the aviation authorities took charge of the cargo to be sent. All this while, a core team of about 10 IRCTC officials from both plants coordinated. Each time a truck would leave the premises, its number, the driver's details and the volume would be communicated to an official in the external affairs ministry.
IRCTC's four Rail Neer plants - at Nangloi, Danapur, Palur and Ambernath - have a combined capacity of about 610,000 litres of packaged drinking water a day, compared with a total requirement of 2.5 million litres on trains and railway stations. These plants do not run full capacity, though. Besides, the biggest Rail Neer plant at Ambernath, with a capacity of 200,000 litres a day, was added only last year. "We are constrained more by supply than demand," said the IRCTC official. According to the company's estimates, India's market for packaged drinking water has doubled to about 10 billion litres a year since 2004, when it was estimated to be five billion litres. Bisleri is the market leader; Aquafina and Kinley are the next biggest.
The Male operation replicated what IRCTC had done only three months earlier, when floods had washed off villages and towns in Jammu & Kashmir. It had supplied 366,000 litres of water at the time. "Male was a big exercise and a first one for us outside India; we had supplied water during the earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat, too" said the official.
Besides IRCTC's supplies, two ships from India reached the Maldives with their water-purifying plants, after four to five days of sailing. These were stationed there until the Male desalination plant was repaired.
Though both Male and J&K assignments were commercial ones, where IRCTC got some Rs 33 lakh from the external affairs ministry and Rs 39 lakh from the state government, respectively, Rail Neer's presence in these operations builds its brand identity and brings visibility.
What makes the job possible for IRCTC is the spirit of Indian Railways. "In the Railways, an emergency comes in the form of an accident. In such situations, we have to mobilise first-aid, food and water. That is the reason why we know how to react with urgency," he explained.
- IRCTC's four Rail Neer plants, at Nangloi, Danapur, Palur and Ambernath, have a combined capacity of about 610,000 litres of packaged drinking water a day, compared with a total requirement of 2.5 million litres on trains and railway stations
- India's market for packaged drinking water has doubled to 10 billion litres a year since 2004, when it was estimated to be five billion litres, according to the company's estimates
- Bisleri is the market leader in the segment; Aquafina and Kinley follow
- The Male operation replicated what IRCTC had done three months earlier, when floods had washed off villages and towns in J&K
- It had supplied 366,000 litres of water at the time
- Though both Male and J&K assignments were commercial ones, Rail Neer's presence in these operations builds its brand identity and brings visibility