Cleaning Up a Mess


Last semester was witness to widespread agitation and dissatisfaction among students regarding mess issues. In this article, T5E takes a look at some of the things that went wrong, why they happened and the improvements we can expect this semester, with inputs from Hostel Affairs Secretary Kranthi Kumar.

The story, in a nutshell

There were multiple causes for the unrest among students last sem. For one, mess registration, scheduled for before the start of the semester, was delayed multiple times, finally occurring in September. For over a month, students ate in randomly allotted messes. When it was finally scheduled to take place, a series of failures plagued the registration system, which had been moved to the new iKollege portal, resulting in widespread frustration. A system of biometric identification was slated to be put in place, and this was cited as the reason for delayed registration, but biometric identification wasn’t put in place either. Additionally, a change had been made in the menu – to keep costs low, certain dishes were slashed out. Students alleged that the food was of bad quality, and the decision to exclude nutritious items like fruits from the diet drew widespread flak.

In this background of mounting dissatisfaction, there was an emergency SAC meeting. A week later, 700-odd students staged a protest conveying their disapproval of the mess management. Protests took place through informal means as well. When mess registration failed for the umpteenth time, students took to social media to register their discontent. Facebook was aflutter with unflattering posts, statuses and hashtags, lampooning the secretaries and administration for not working well enough. All in all, it was a rough semester as far as messes were concerned, for both the concerned secretaries as well as students.

Why iKollege?

Until last year, mess registration was done using the students’ portal. A year ago, a decision was taken by Secretaries to incorporate a more advanced portal to monitor students’ mess activities, and this year its implementation was attempted. The portal was conceptualised keeping in mind the introduction of a new system called Meal Billing, where a student pays only for the meals he or she actually eats. A rough estimate of the percentage of registered students dining in a particular mess is seventy five percent, which means that the introduction of such a system will result in significant savings for students.

Kranthi Kumar adds that this system will also reduce the amount of wasted food in the messes. Under the current system, caterers are unable to estimate the amount of food to be cooked. They usually end up cooking in excess, with the result that about twenty percent of the cooked food is wasted every day — food that the student pays for. This can be prevented to some extent by meal billing, as the caterer will be aware of the approximate number of diners; further, a student will also have the benefit of not paying for the meals he/she doesn’t have. “Our vision for the future is to have a system like a restaurant where you pay with a card for every meal. This requires a unique identification system, for which we are using fingerprint enrollment. We needed professionals to build a portal to use this data; since iKollege was within our budget, we turned to them.”

Fingerprint enrollment failure

The login issues and the failure of the fingerprint enrollments last sem owed themselves to bad database management. About 2000 of the 8500 students in the academic database are missing in the CCW database (designed with the voluntary help of Prof. G. Phanikumar and some students), which also includes a few graduates, and does not account for branch changes, degree extensions, MS to PhD conversions etc. On the other hand the students’ portal uses the same database used for LDAP access. The process, however, is not automated – students who get an extension have to go to the Computer Center and register for LDAP, which they often fail to do. Sufficient information regarding these matters isn’t made available to the students. In addition, Kranthi says there is no mechanism in place yet which can accurately map a student to his/her hostel. “Right now I am working with the Institute Webops team on this,” adds Kranthi Kumar.

A major problem is that the staff who are in charge of handling data are not in favour of digitizing this data – this was reflected in their slacking off when it came to updating the data of students who were unable to login. Dissatisfied with their work, the Secretaries filed a report against them.

The mess registration fiasco

iKollege claimed to be capable of handling mess registration, and did a reasonable job at the trials. The problems in the trials were largely due to the aforementioned database issues. In the subsequent registrations, a provision was made for those students who were unable to login.

The first mess registration fiasco happened because of a blunder by iKollege – they didn’t incorporate the upper bound of the number of registrations in each mess, due to which every student was allocated the mess of his choice. “As the time stamps were available, a suggestion was made to do a manual allocation, but it proved to be infeasible,” says the HAS.

The second time, the algorithm was taken care of and a virtual server was allocated to ensure sufficient availability of resources. However, no one was able to login, due to an error in the configuration of the server and the database. After two failed mess registrations and the ensuing student outcry, it was decided to revert to the students’ portal – it was exactly then that the server was hit by a hacker attack from Australia (our more astute readers will remember that this attack affected T5E as well, hosted as we are on the same server) which resulted in it being shut down, delaying mess registration again. Finally, the fourth mess registration through the students’ portal was successful.

The vacation mess registration was done using the iKollege portal and went smoothly. “We are planning to go ahead with the iKollege portal and use the students’ portal in case of failure,” says the HAS.

Last semester, the volume of traffic immediately following the start of mess registration was huge; according to the HAS, the Food Court got filled in 70 seconds, while certain other messes were filled within minutes. The high demand for food court, the fact that there was no transparency in the system (timestamps for registration weren’t released, for example) and that there were a bunch of curious coincidences when it came to the allotment of the food court, further ignited resentment within the student body, who claimed that certain secretaries had misused their power and done favours for their friends to get them messes of their choice. This semester has seen an increase in transparency, and the timestamps of registrations were released soon after this round of registrations.

Changes in the menu made and the public dissent

In the previous academic year, food was priced at Rs. 82 per day. But in the subsequent year, due to inflation, the price of food was quoted at Rs. 87 when bids were invited last summer. To keep prices low, a decision was made to charge only Rs. 82 per day, by removing a few items from the main menu which were subsequently made available as extras. Extras, it was specified, would have to be booked a day in advance.

Predictably, most students did not take kindly to this change, as it violated the notion that food could not be compromised on. Kranthi supports the extras system, saying, “This way, students who can afford it can always avail the extras facility.”  He also expresses his disappointment that the extras system was totally rejected by the students. Of course, the argument that students respond with is that it is not possible to estimate on one day what extras one would want to eat the next day — or indeed, whether one would even eat in the mess the next day.

The menu degradation and the perceived drop in food quality were the principal causes behind the protest. A bulk of the protesters were undergraduates demanding better quality, even if it would mean higher prices, a stance many postgraduates disagree with. “I have been insisting on keeping the price low but as the students are against it, I am now backing out of the idea,” said the HAS. “After this decision was taken I received mails from students saying that they want it back down. For their benefit, Krishna mess will be operated at Rs 82.” He adds,  “I also wanted to impose a limit on the quantity of the main meal, so as to reduce wastage.” This did not find favour with the protesters, however, who raised the question: “Will rice and water be extras now?”

In comparison with other IITs

In other IITs, each hostel has its own mess. “No mess below the capacity of 500 fails in IIT,” remarks Kranthi Kumar. When the capacity of a mess is around 1500, as is the case with Himalaya, the quality of food reduces and wastage increases. It is also difficult for caterers to take feedback and act on it, he claims. All of these contributed to the problems of last semester, and exacerbated an already bad situation.

“This semester we are planning to conduct a survey on the mess systems of other IITs and work on the aspects where we can improve,” says Kranthi Kumar.

Looking Ahead

Two weeks into the even sem, and things have been so far, so good as far as the messes are concerned. For the second half of January, messes were allotted hostel-wise; mess registration was done for the month of February through the students’ portal, and transpired without any hiccups. In addition, the menus followed have been the vacation mess menus, rather than the reduced menus of last semester.

Owing to bad feedback, ISS caterers were relieved of their contract, and replaced by Sri Karpagham caterers. Further, finally succumbing to popular student demand, the Mandakini mess hall was reopened to host a non-vegetarian mess, which begins operations in February, and is priced higher than the other messes.

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