On Mess Food and Services


My dear Students,

Thank you for your e-mails. I appreciate the more specific points that so many of you have made.

Also, you must bear with my long write-ups because the onus of explanation is on me, and I must do full justice. I hope you’ll find the information content useful. In any case, the documentation we could have will be useful to many others in the future, and discussions/debates can be had with greater detail and finer analyses.


Let me clarify that your (students’) expectations of food (nutrition and taste) are NOT unrealistic (assumption is that quality and raw materials + cooking will be acceptable/good). Here’s my take on this. If we want a certain daily menu involving:


(A) Cornflakes or Oats, Milk (undiluted), Sprouts (all common on every day of the week) plus,

(B) an Indian serving (rice idli, rava idli, kuvalai idli, medu vada, masala/paruppu vada, kal dosa, masala dosa, rava dosa, aappam, pesarattu, adai-aviyal, uthappam, upma (different varieties, one chosen per breakfast), South Indian kitchadi (quite different from the North Indian one usually given to nurse people back to good health), pongal, all with chutney and sambar; idiappam-veg stew, kozha puttu-kadalai curry, poori-bhaji, poha, etc.), all unlimited except when specified;


(C) Bread-Butter-Jam, Boiled Eggs/Half-boiled/Omlette (2 eggs), tomato sauce; cut seasonal fruits (banana (different varieties, one chosen per breakfast), papaya, mango, guava, chickoo, apple, etc.) all unlimited except when specified.


North-Indian: Chapathi/Roti, Dhal (different varieties, one chosen per meal), servings of Subzi (many varieties of vegetables – green, white, orange/red, paneer, soya nuggets, etc., one or a combo of two chosen per meal) with/without gravy, veg Salad (one or two from among onion (the price has gone through the roof now), cucumber, tomato, beetroot, carrot, radish, boiled potato/beans, etc.), white Rice, Curd, Pappad, Pickle. All unlimited! Extras as per specifications.

South-Indian: White rice or Flavoured rice (any one of tomato, tamarind, lemon, coconut, pudina, coriander, vegetable mix, etc.), Sambar (with different vegetables, one chosen per meal) or Pappu (Andhra style)/kaara Kozhambu/mor Kozhambu, Rasam (different varieties, one chosen per meal), vegetable Poriyal/Curries (many varieties of vegetables – green, white, orange/red, paneer, soya nuggets, etc., one or a combo of two chosen per meal) with/without gravy or Koottu/Aviyal, Curd, Appalam/Poppadam, Pickle. All unlimited! Extras as per specifications. Also, for South-Indian menus, we could add various kinds of powders (Andhra or Tamil style), chutneys/thogayals to substitute some of the items mixed with white rice.


North-Indian: Variations of Dhal-Roti-Chaval-Subzi + Pappad + Curd + Pickle. All unlimited! Plus Milk (undiluted)/Sweet and cut fruits (limited). Extras as per specifications.

South-Indian: Variations of Rice-Sambar/Pappu/Kozhambu-Rasam-Poriyal/Curries/Koottu + Appalam + Curd + Pickle. All unlimited! Plus Milk (undiluted)/Sweet and cut fruits (limited). Extras as per specifications.

Then, to the best of my knowledge and experience, it is not possible to have a per student per day (pspd) mess rate of less than Rs.95/- at the prevailing prices for the above menu specifications across any of our old IITs. Please note that I have left out “TEA” being served with or without snacks in the evening. In fact, I’ll not be surprised at all if contract caterers quote at least Rs.110/- for the above specifications. Then we will have to negotiate hard to get down the pspd mess rate anywhere between Rs.95/- to Rs.100/-. For an identical menu served across all the old IITs, especially the three located in metro cities, the pspd mess rates will be within a range of plus minus Rs.5/- of each other, primarily caused by local variations of prices/rates.

I’ll be very sceptical if a lower pspd mess rate is quoted anywhere, and would be too happy to dig deep and find out more about input costs, fuel/LPG costs, labour costs, the location of the mess, the mess size, the total number of bidding contractors, contractor experience, length of relationship between a contractor and the Institute, etc. There are many factors that must be considered while arriving at a pspd mess rate in a given situation.

B. DIET and NUTRITION: Implications to the Cost of our Food

In India, there are explicit and clear specifications for the recommended nutrition requirements (calories/energy, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, iron, zinc, fats, antioxidants, etc.) for “average” young adult males and females [National Institute of Nutrition, 2009]. Now, our bodily nutrition requirements at a given stage of our life do not change much with time. However, the dishes we could prepare with the various vegetables, cereals, pulses, spices, flavour sources, etc., do change with time to some extent depending upon availability of raw/processed forms, prices, socio-cultural factors, kitchen creativity, etc. Also, keeping in mind the need for variety in diet and taste, we normally aim for balanced nutrition over a period of, say, one month. This we can achieve, but with the thought that as days go by, prices will change – usually they increase – and we will sometimes be forced to make “compromises” to retain non-negotiable, minimum or subsistence nutrition for our bodies.

So, even if we keep our diet descriptions without much change (in order to fulfill our nutrition and taste requirements), we’ll have to reckon with changing prices, which will in turn dictate changes in our menus, at least in the short-run. Our challenge then will be to identify that combination of menu items that will provide us with an acceptable balance between nutrition and taste, on the one hand, and cost, on the other. Of course, in large-scale dining systems such as ours, this “balance” is quite elusive, but unavoidable to keep. So, how do we meet this challenge? One method I’d suggest to resolve this issue is to link our pspd mess rates with a composite index comprising food, LPG fuel, labour, and transportation indices at least once a quarter or, if not, at least once a semester. This way, at the least, we will know that there is an economic logic behind the changing pspd mess rates, and the contract caterers also will have little choice but to accept such grounded logic.


The food poisoning incident that happened a couple of years ago in IIT Bombay was very sad. Let not such an event happen anywhere else. We have had frequent complaints during this semester about the quality of cleanliness of dining plates, katoris, and tumblers. With full coordination and cooperation, we can bring down that risk to zero and pin it down there in our messes. However, as i’ve always maintained “No one can guarantee anything at all in this world. At best, we can be fully confident of the results of our actions, but no guarantees can be given that can be held true indefinitely.” This bitter truth is captured by Murphy’s Law: “If anything CAN happen, it WILL happen”, and its corollary, “When we don’t want it to happen!!!”

This semester’s incidents of worms (or foreign objects) found in food are true and a cause for grave concern. We have levied heavy penalties (Rs.25,000/- to even Rs.50,000/- per incident) on the contract caterers and swiftly too. These financial penalties are channelled into the Students’ Welfare Fund, from which we provide special financial assistance to some of our students (you may read a couple of e-mails I’ve sent earlier about this SWF). Alternatively, we have had the contract caterers serve a compensatory item (say, an apple or fruit salad) at their cost to students of the concerned mess. Other constructive suggestions/ideas are always most welcome.


It is true that the total number of contract caterers who will respond to our tender notice will be more when the mess enrollment size is less, and vice versa. Past data clearly reveals that we do not receive bids from more than about a dozen contract caterers when we specify a mess enrollment size of 1500. So, it is clear that there IS a cartel, or at least potential for a cartel. It should be wiser to go for smaller mess enrollment sizes (say, 500) and more stable mess enrollment populations (i.e., specific messes for specific Hostel groups; this will need some explanation, which I will avoid here). Then, the number of potential competitors in our tender will definitely be more in number, and a semblance of competition can be realized. Cartel formation will not be so easy then.

In our original mess system, each Hostel had an attached mess serviced by the Office of Hostel Management, and was run using the “no loss, no profit” principle, and a sharing system of fixing pspd mess rate. The mess enrollment size was certainly not more than 200 in the quadrangle Hostels, and a little less than 250 in Krishna and Cauvery. We did not have the four tower Hostels then. It is easy to visualize the “stable mess enrollment population” I’ve mentioned above. Quite simply, such an arrangement can lead to greater decentralized control over each mess, and even permit some scope for positive experimentation with menus. I recall that Krishna and Cauvery used to have higher pspd mess rates compared to the quadrangle Hostels, back then. The PG students and Research Scholars in those two Hostels could afford a slightly costlier pspd mess rate then, primarily since they received scholarships. I wish to add quickly that many of my friends in those two Hostels actually supported their families with a part of their scholarships, and this practice has continued over the years till now, and can be expected to continue in the future too. I recall that items like appalam, fruits and additional curd cups were charged as extras in the quadrangle Hostel messes, while these were an integral part of the menu in Krishna and Cauvery, back then. Now, we’ve moved a lot away from the older mess system and are now dealing with contract caterers and negotiated menus and prices. We’ve really moved a long, long way, and are also paying a price (pun intended!).

Anyway, the lesson for us is to lower mess enrollment sizes asap for two reasons, viz., (a) better control, and (b) chances of having tastier food being cooked; I’ve observed consistently that contract caterers did much better when they served smaller number of members in their messes (there is hard evidence in support of this observation).

This brings us to the point of exploring the possibility of making structural alterations in the kitchens in Himalaya to enable at least two distinct contract caterers to operate on a one-per-wing basis. While this is not infeasible, we must not forget the amount of modifications/remodelling that will be required structurally in the kitchens. It is certainly not a “fit-a-screen-divider-and-get-on-with-it” case. The kitchens have a certain configuration and the law requires that some standards shall be conformed to. We have to create separate cooking spaces, ducting systems, stores, processing areas, walk-in cold rooms or floor freezers, waste disposal systems, supplies/services access means, interior wash areas, etc. One visit to the present kitchens will quickly reveal the daunting challenges to accomplish such a clean split there. It is certainly possible, but not as easy as one would wish it to be. In any case, it is virtually impossible to have two or more contract caterers share one kitchen. That, if it happens, will almost certainly end up as a tragi-comedy.

1. National Institute of Nutrition (2009), “Nutrient Requirements and Recommended Dietary Allowances for Indians”; a Report of the Expert Group of the Indian Council of Medical Research, Hyderabad.

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