A Strike Against Hunger

‘For over a year, a group of students have been taking up mess issues regularly with the Administration, who only seem to make minor tweaks to the system.’ With this statement from an organiser in the background, and the fact that mess issues are currently hot topics amongst the student community, it becomes easier to comprehend the events that unfolded on the 6th of September 2013. The aforementioned group, seeking redressal to a list of general grievances that they had drawn up, decided to organize a protest in front of Himalaya from 6 in the evening, which led to a series of events culminating in a two-hour-long open discussion with the Director in the Central Lecture Theatre.

A large number of students (750 by a conservative estimate) assembled at Himalaya lawns over the course of the protest. The organizers had several grievances including the food’s poor quality and lack of nutrition, and bad hygiene in the messes. They also claimed that the quality of the food offered for amount charged for it at IITM was not on par with what is being offered at other IITs.

There appeared to be far fewer students dining in the Himalaya halls than usual. This led to accusations that the organisers were picketing, but the organisers denied these reports, reiterating that their protest was completely voluntary.

The Dean and the MMC Chairman arrived and offered to hold a discussion with the protesters. This offer was rejected, and the protesters demanded a discussion with the Director, Dr Bhaskar Ramamurthy, but were told that he was out of the campus and would not be able to meet them that night. He offered to meet their representatives for half an hour the next day, but the protesters insisted on an open discussion with the Director as soon as possible. They decided to march to his residence and remain there until they were granted an audience with him. Left with no alternative, the Director decided to return to the Institute, and a discussion was organized at CLT from 9PM onwards.

The protesters first presented their grievances individually, all of which the Director tried to address. With respect to the email that was being circulated comparing IIT-B and IIT-K’s menu and rate to IIT-M’s, he outright rejected the statistic of Rs 43 per day at IIT-K that was reported, stating that it was ‘definitely impossible’, and conjectured that the price of food might be low because of several hidden subsidies. As for the Rs 90 per day that was reported at IIT-B, he said that if the daily price had been increased this year as well (from Rs. 82 to about Rs 90), we would have the same menu as them. The only reason we have a smaller primary menu, he said, was because our price has not been increased. Overall, he concluded, we are among the ’lowest of the low’ in terms of pricing.

He tried to clear the air over the ‘extras issue’ by revealing that there had been students who had approached the Administration and argued against a price rise, since they wouldn’t be able to pay any price higher than the current one. Keeping this in mind, the ‘non-essential’ items were pushed to extras, which would be available to anyone who can afford to pay.

As for the quality issue, he categorically stated that proper feedback was the only way to ensure quality, and that major steps towards better feedback mechanisms have been taken in the past couple of years. The MMC also has been working to ensure that the quality being offered is proportional to the price, he said. A student accused the caterers of intentionally reducing quality to make sure students don’t come to the mess, which he rejected, saying he was told that they make the same amount of food for lunch and dinner every day. Faced with a barrage of specific quality issues, he asked them to report these issues either in the complaint book or through some feedback mechanism and assured them that they would be addressed, the idea of which the students skeptically rejected.

When it was pointed out that only a few caterers were included in the tendering process, he pointed to the difficulties of the mega mess system. When asked if it was possible to get a North Indian caterer, he provided the example of a Kanpur caterer who served in the Institute last summer vacation. The caterer was able to serve for two months, but failed to accept an offer to continue at Rs 82 for a year, and ended up demanding Rs 95.

At this juncture, one student requested that of the sanctioned mess strength, there be 1% (77 total) professors dining in the messes, to ensure that the Administration understands the issues the students face. The Director retorted by saying that there were already a number of professors dining ‘now and then’ to ensure the same.

The organisers then presented their list of suggestions, which were scrutinized by the Director. Their demand for complete student control over mess affairs was summarily rejected. Their argument that the students were ‘paying customers’ was dismissed by the Dean and then denied by the Director. The Institute is supposed to control the system, he said, and there was no chance that this would be passed on to the students.

The Director approved of a proposal to increase student participation in the mess tendering system. As to the idea of bifurcating the messes at Himalaya, the Director said that while it was a possibility, there were logistics to be accounted for, including the impossibility of bifurcating the current kitchen.

The discussion with the Director was stopped at around 11 due to the lateness of the hour. The organisers seemed disappointed with the answers provided by the Director, the chief reason being his refusal to provide control to the students. Even without proper mobilization, they said, such a large number of people turned up for the protest, which indicates the need for a change in the current system. Since the Dean argued that the protesters were just a ‘vociferous minority’, the protesters have decided to continue efforts till they are able to reach out to the majority, which they claim is supportive of their cause.

There is also the question of why so few people attended the SAC meeting the previous weekend, which was convened specifically to address concerns about the mess system. The fact that so many people seem to dismiss the official channel for redressal of concerns and complaints, yet show their willing support for demonstrations of this sort, is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the student representatives or the official means of redressal of complaints, and is a matter that needs to be given some thought. Nonetheless, it is certain that attending the SAC meeting would have helped the protesters understand the background and intricacies of the issue more clearly.

Lastly, there is the matter of the administration is always falling back on the excuse that the messes at Himalaya are too large for most caterers to handle – the question of why this arrangement has not been changed in spite of student discontent for the past three years is still in the air.

Photo credits: The Hindu

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