By Akhil Akshok and Manu Halvagal
A Townhall Meeting, the second one this calendar year, was convened at CLT on August 5, 2014 as part of the administration’s efforts to facilitate healthy discussion with students. An online grievance collection form was recently circulated among the students by the Student Affairs Council in order to form agenda points for the coming SAC meeting this month. As many common complaints came up, it was decided to hold the meeting to directly address the concerns of the student body. The panel was constituted by Prof. Sivakumar (Dean, Students), Prof. Sethupathi K. (Chairman, Council of Wardens) and Lt. Col. Jayakumar (Dy. Registrar).
The meeting opened with the SAC Speaker, Pallavi Chakravorty, addressing common questions to the concerned panel members.
Poor conditions in hostels
These questions were directed to the CCW, who said that he was well-aware of the problems, having received numerous complaints. According to the contract with housekeeping staff, he said, they are supposed to clean the bathrooms and common areas every morning and evening, which was clearly not happening, as made evident by the poor condition of the hostels. He assured the audience that he was meeting with the Executive Engineer in order to quickly resolve the issue. He also added that a certificate of satisfaction is given to the staff by the hostel office and hostel council and can be withheld if students complain about their performance, resulting in non-payment of salary and acting as an incentive for good performance.
Further, he said that he had surveyed all the hostels and had found that while the ladies’ hostels and tower hostels were reasonably clean, most of the housekeeping staff in the quadrangles consist of aged people who are unable to properly carry out their duties. He said that he would try to get this problem solved in about a month’s time. He also suggested the appointment of student “wingmasters” in every hostel wing and “floormasters” on each floor, who would be part of the Health and Hygiene Committee. Their responsibilities would be ensuring that the daily cleaning of the wing corridor and bathrooms happens regularly. This would be implemented by them needing to sign a daily acknowledgement of the cleaning staff.
Prof. Sivakumar also requested students’ cooperation for improving living conidtions. He discouraged littering in and around the hostels (quite a lot of garbage thrown out of the windows has accumulated outside the hostels), warning that a penalty might be imposed on the hostel as a whole in case of further litter accumulation. When students raised the problem of monkeys raiding the dustbins, he replied that monkey-proof dustbins were being purchased and would be installed soon. At this point, he shared the disturbing statistics that hostels produce 700kg of plastic waste every day, and 2500 kg of wasted food every day coming up to 300g per student; he appealed to the students to reduce food wastage by at least ten percent.
Water shortages in hostels
The freshmen marked their presence with a few questions on the facilities provided at the hostel. They claimed that they faced water shortage a few days back and that the water coolers at their hostels are pretty small, considering that most floors house at least a hundred students. The CCW chairman said that they will look into the setting up of bigger water coolers at least on the ground floors of the two tower hostels allocated to the freshmen. The committee will also look into the automatic water level indicators, which are currently out of service.
Housekeeping staff cleaning students’ rooms and the possibility of fixing rates for such tasks
Being a recurring question, which has been asked by students over many years, the Dean of Students quickly responded that such an arrangement was rejected by the unanimous opinion of the Wardens that students should have the minimal responsibility of keeping their own rooms clean. Further, such an arrangement could possibly give rise to instances of theft and other security risks.
The new mess allocation system
This was the most common query and occupied the largest duration in the meeting. First of all, Prof. Sivakumar wished to clarify how the new random allocation system worked. After the filling of preferences over 4 to 5 days, students are selected at random and allotted their highest available preference, ensuring equality. Out of the 3200 students who registered, 98% got their first or second preference (with 85% getting their first preference) and the Dean of Students stated this as evidence of the new system’s effectiveness.
A few students had been allotted their 8th or 9th preference and quite a few of them had showed up at the meeting, understandably, to express their disgruntlement. The CCW informed them that this had happened due to a mistake in the office and not because of a problem with the algorithm used. He assured them that they would all be re-allocated to a higher preference within two or three days and also that this would never happen again.
The Dean further added that the new mess allocation is not “random” as people deem it to be. He also said the first-come-first-serve allocation system is totally unfair considering that the first year students (and some others) have no laptops, that different hostels have internet connections of different speeds, etc. Also, each month’s allocation data will be structured into a database which will be used to decide on the most favored mess, the preference of each student (South Indian/North Indian), the under-performing caterers etc.
In response, the students expressed their dissatisfaction with the new system. They questioned the validity of the 98% statistic, as this was the first allocation and many students did not register. They argued that the old system of first-come-first-serve was better for everyone: students who really wanted a particular mess would, most probably, get it, provided they register on time, while students who were fine with any mess would register later at their own convenience. In this discussion, the issue of the quality of mess food came up as well, with students stating the common opinion that certain messes are better than others. Once again, the old system would allow them to choose a mess where the quality of food is perceived to be better.
Prof. Sivakumar addressed all these complaints by justifying the implementation of the new system; he said that it was wholly MMCC-controlled, with zero student involvement, eliminating the opportunity for a few to take advantage of the system. Further, it solves the issue of some students being busy or off-campus during registration as the preference entry would happen over four to five days. He also pointed out that students no longer need to wake up at 5 am just for mess registration. He then addressed the question of quality of mess food by explaining the dynamic nature of the new system. This entails introducing entry to messes using ID cards like the system in place at the library. The statistics of mess usage will be used to make changes based on demand, like increasing the number of seats in food court.
He also advised students to make use of Eatitude, an alumni funded organization set up specifically for surveying the messes on a daily basis and reporting to the Hostel Affairs Secretary (HAS).
Group mess allocation
There were complaints that chances are fairly fewer that they get to eat with their peer groups/friend circles when the messes are allocated according to the new system. The Dean replied that a new option will be added to the mess allocation portal wherein students will be able to register as groups. The entire group will have to dine in their next preferred mess if they fall at least one seat short of their higher option.
In response to various queries, the Dean pointed out that the rates of the Food Court had been fixed and so was the quantity. The fixed rates and the quantity of food will soon be put up in a public space for students’ information.
Why is the mess mandatory?
The speaker took this question up herself and answered that there is a set of rules which every IIT has to follow (PAN-IIT rules) which make it mandatory that with IITs being residential campuses, the students must dine at the mess as they regard the hostel and the mess as a single entity.
Status of other food joints on campus
Students were also curious to know the status of the food joints now that Suprabaa (earlier Tiffany’s) restaurant above Vidhya mess was shut down to make room for the girls’ mess and Zaitoon (a non-veg restaurant near Saraswathi hostel) is still under renovation.
The food joints would be opened as soon as the stay on the construction activities by the Green Tribunal is lifted, clarified the Dean. He said that other eateries are planned too, and will be up and running soon. The Campus Café timings have been extended to make up for the lack of choices. He also claimed that Ramu’s tea stall at the Himalaya mess has been a good alternative.
Students, particularly the ladies, wanted to know why the left side of the new girls’ mess (Vindhya first floor) was unused. The DoST said that the caterers were totally in disagreement to opening up both sides and that they pointed out certain issues concerning the safety of the students (which the Dean did not reveal) to which the committee had to submit.
The floor was then left open for questions and a flurry of questions and complaints followed.
There was also the common opinion to increase the bus service during peak hours as most of them are overcrowded.
Monthly Subscription of Sports Facilities
When asked if the sports facilities subscription could be made monthly instead of semester-wise, the Dean replied that they have been working on a new system where the students needn’t register at all but just walk in with their institute ID cards and the student will be charged accordingly.
Questions by MS and PhD scholars
The Research and Masters scholars were mainly concerned about the lack of single rooms. They have to share rooms with their fellow scholars as of now. The problem is acute in Brahmaputra where single rooms are slightly smaller than the standard size (compared to the new block). Once again, the Dean said that his hands are tied until the ban on construction was lifted. He says that there are a few vacant single rooms at present which were not given as it would be unfair to the rest. The current system of giving single rooms first to the research scholars and then to the MS scholars on an age-basis was passed because of the opinion that the older people get, the harder they find it to adjust. He added that the MS scholars might have to wait till the next year for single rooms.
Some had concerns about the stray dogs that they encounter in the early mornings (many of them work in the research park overnight). The Dean claimed that most of the stray dogs are harmless. He also said that he will report the matter to Prakriti and follow up on whatever they decide. The residents walking their pet dogs without a “mouth-guard” was also an issue. To this he said that the residents will be informed of their concern.
On the whole, the meeting, which lasted a little over two hours, did answer the queries of many. However, many were left unsatisfied on the issue of the new mess allocation system. The committee remained adamant on its stance to continue with the new system at least for a few more months. If many still remain dissatisfied, they will consider reverting to the FCFS system, said the Dean. The attendance was modest at first but improved as quite a few postgraduates arrived later. On the other hand, students whose problems were addressed did not stay very long after their floor time was over, which resulted in the CLT being nearly empty towards the end of the meeting.
The Dean said that he was happy that such meetings are taking place, and encouraged the existence of a forum for students’ concerns. With that remark, the meeting drew to a close.