The first open SAC meeting of the semester was held on the 31st of August, 2013. It was an emergency meeting, convened to discuss the concerns of students regarding the messes. The meeting lasted a marathon four hours. Throughout, the SAC body maintained a very broad-minded approach while receiving and answering the queries of non-SAC members, including a few who were decidedly belligerent. Lengthy discussions were held pertaining to the decisions which have led to the recent surge in Taramani’s economy, and to what the near and far future hold in store for us.
The meeting was started by the SAC Speaker, who played the role of the arbiter. A presentation of frequently asked questions about the mess situation was displayed, after which the HAS and the SGS attempted to account for the events of the preceding month. The duo began their presentation with the changes incorporated this year, which include the 24-hour IRCTC canteen and the dosa stall at Gurunath. They closed it with the announcement of a Biriyani stall at Himalaya and a cycle repair shop near Sharavati, also bringing to an end the largest stretch of time without any interruption from the audience. A strategy for serving a few food items on the tables in the messes was announced, to reduce the queue lengths, and the implementation date has been announced as September 10th.
Next the discussion turned to iKollege and the fiasco of mess registration. The iKollege portal, it was learnt, was far from a sloppy decision when it was taken. When in full-fledged running mode, it is expected to offer registrations for the mess, film club and all other activities, effectively converting the equation to zero visits to the CCW office (an uplifting promise). It will also increase the transparency of the CCW accounts. However, the execution of this plan proved extremely problematic. Since the idea is a long term one, the database is being thoroughly updated, which was the cited reason for the twenty-day-long delay in registration. The problems during the planned registration occurred due to an inaccurate estimate of the traffic from the Institute and insufficient deployment of computing resources, which have since been upgraded. There was no satisfactory answer to the question of why these problems were not anticipated in advance (since the number of students registering for the messes is well known). However, revised estimates have been sent, and the final database is soon to be updated, once and for all. Going by the second failed registration after the meeting, it is evident that the contingency plans didn’t work well either, and to solve the short-term problem, mess registration was finally conducted on the student-built mess registration portal.
The discussion then started to shift towards the menu and the quality of the food, and Prof. LSG, Dean (Students) took the stage to answer these questions. In response to a student’s question on whether there might ever occur a day when high quality food is served in our messes, the Dean confessed that there is no short-term system in place, but assured the audience that he would work towards a long-term solution. He stressed on the importance of feedback from students as a system to hold caterers accountable. According to the Dean, constant feedback is the most effective way to ensure that messes run as they should, and that mess caterers are (as they have been in the past) penalised if they get bad feedback on the quality of their food. Also, students complained of a communication gap between the hostel mess secretaries and their electorate, and the hotel mess secretaries were given an official reprimand for not apprising the hostel residents of the importance of the feedback system, and were asked to start updating their electorates about their activities more frequently. The Dean also said that it isn’t possible under the current rules to de-register from the mess unless one is a day-scholar living with parents. Following this, the issue of the ‘mega-mess’ system at Himalaya was raised, and the Dean emphatically stated that he too disliked the idea of such a system, saying, “A mega-mess system where 1500 students dine under one caterer is a managerially foolish decision.”
With regard to the menu, students complained that the quality of food has deteriorated substantially ever since the menu was changed. It was felt that the menu lacked variety, and that there were problems with basic items (common complaints were that rasam was too dilute, sambar and dal were practically impossible to differentiate, phulkas were cold and undercooked). The importance of feedback was reiterated, and Prof. LSG said that they could not take any action against caterers without enough feedback.
There was plenty of dissatisfaction over the fact that nutritious items like fruits and popular ones like sweets have been knocked off the menu. The HAS stated that the shrinking list of items was due to inflation in prices. Many students disagreed, and felt that the food in the mess is not worth Rs 82, but the Dean stated that the monitoring agency disagrees, and that it is satisfied with the quality being provided at this price. This met with mixed responses – a certain section of students felt that they were willing to pay more for good food. Most students, according to a survey conducted by the HAS, are willing to endure a modest hike in the daily mess fee (between Rs 2 and Rs 5), but it is unclear exactly what changes to the menu that hike would translate to.
It was revealed that IITM had had just seven applicants in the tendering process for the six messes. This left CCW with little choice, and one avenue for improvement is for the CCW to direct more efforts into ensuring that more bids are attracted to the tender. Next, the MMC Chairman, Professor Gopalakrishna, shared his view on the mess food, stressing on the distinction between tasty food and good quality food (but the majority of the students were of the opinion that the food they were getting was neither). The process of a culinary expert being appointed and regularly monitoring the food was explained, along with a few steps taken during tendering. Apparently, a heavy reluctance from caterers to operate a food court has led to just a single caterer offering the service.
The topic of Zaitoon was among the last to be raised. The closing of Zaitoon is for the purpose of building a two-storey building (with a dining facility on the ground floor) in its place. This is projected to be completed by December, in time for the Silver Jubilee reunion of the batch of 1988 which is funding the construction of this building. While the IRCTC Canteen is a replacement in the interim, the loss of Zaitoon has definitely left a gap in the institute.
The MMC body had lofty goals while it set out on its tasks this year, and it is unfortunate that things have not worked out. We do have the Dean’s word that the members are giving it their best, but it remains to be seen whether a student from a world class institute can get three satisfactory meals a day in the time to come.