Our Mess (written for college magazine, July 07)

Our Mess….

Ours is an institute where even for talking to a fresher I can get a sem drop. Ours is also an institute where workers are beaten and harassed to get back from them a part of their rightful wages. When the Supreme Court says ragging is banned we can see anti-ragging posters all around… When the same court says minimum wages should be ensured, it’s almost as if the law falls on dead eyes and ears. When we are getting world class facilities…. These workers are sleeping on the floor of our messes. We all see the beautiful parks and gardens in our hostels and in campus… do we ever see a gardener who perhaps cannot afford two meals a day for his family? We praise the institute for giving good housekeeping facilities… do we ever bother to ask the cleaner how his/her day was? The question is not whether we have sympathy for the deprived sections of society… the question is whether we still regard these sections as belonging to our species and also to our society? There is a small difference between sympathy and empathy…. almost all of us have sympathized with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the old and given away food, clothes and even money. But how many of us have actually pictured ourselves in that life… where you work for 16 hours a day and still have to depend on some middle class conscientious person to provide you with warm clothes?

I read a lot on new economic theories and their development prospects. I read how privatization and liberalization have mobilized our economy and put us on the fast track. I look at myself graduating from a famous institute in the country. Then I look at these workers in the mess and think… is it true that the fruits of ‘progress’ actually ‘trickle down’? What is trickle down supposed to mean – donations, or systemic changes which remove disparity? I can imagine my friends protesting … saying more jobs are being created, more people are getting employed…. but being science and engineering students, do we think that if the aim is equitable distribution – our systems are performing at utmost efficiency? Let’s take our messes for example… out of the money the institute pays to the contractor per student per day – around Rs. 10 is the wages of 35-40 workers employed, while the contractor gets around Rs. 7 per student per day as profit. The institute subsidizes food for the students who are coming from middle class families, while the contractors cut 1000 rupees or more per month from the workers’ salary as the cost of eating food in the mess. I do not remember my mess bill exceeding Rs. 1000 in the 3 years I’ve studied here. Still many of us believe privatization is the best option for the messes.

Why?

1. Most of us, especially those eating in institute messes, feel that the taste and menu in private messes is better. Some say even the quality is better.

Let’s examine this claim. In Hall 6 mess, the food has been found containing grass, hairs, etc. apart from the usual eatables. To improve the quality of their food the mess committee swung into action. They faced two kinds of problems – poor quality of raw materials and poor quality of the cooking. Both were solved by regular intervention by the mess committee – samples were taken of the bad quality rice and sugar, the contractor was confronted in front of the wardens and was penalized; the workers were trained and hence now retained to ensure that the quality of prepared food remains high.

This is one example which shows that the mess secretary and the mess committee have a lot of say in the menu and the quality of food. In our hostel for example we’re told that giving tomatoes daily or even lemons will increase the bill by 1-2 rupees daily. But the other day a former Hall 3 resident told me that they used to get salad, including tomatoes, daily. And the food was also good during his stay. Hall 4 has three types of breakfast and a lot of variety in lunch and dinner. So does the problem lie in the mess being institute controlled or in lack of initiative among the students to participate and improve the menu and the food?

2. The administration and even most of the students believe that private messes are more efficient.

Reality: In a recent survey done in Hall 1 with a resident population of about 450 students there were a total of 44 mess employees (including the manager) and per shift the no. of workers was around 35. In Hall 5 the mess runs with 50 workers through the day. In a study done by some students two years back… in Hall 1 the food cost was around Rs. 22 per student per day. In Hall 5 students had to pay around Rs. 24 for one day while the manager claimed that the actual cost was Rs. 34 (He also claimed that Vihaar Ahaar was running at a loss just to earn a good name by working in IIT!). Where Hall 1 used 3.5 cylinders of gas, Hall 5 used 7 cylinders. Still Hall 1 mess was privatized this semester. Why?

The reason is that by making the job of a worker permanent he becomes an institute employee. He’s then entitled to free health care, PF, periodic pay increase etc. The regular employees in the institute became permanent when there was a workers’ movement during 1970s with participation from the then daily wage workers, students and faculty members. These workers formed the Class IV employees. (How are these classes different from the actual social classes etc? So much for equality!) But fresh recruitments to this class are not being made.

After privatization of Hall 5 mess in 2001, the next institute mess to be privatized is Hall 1 mess. To accommodate the regular and daily wage employees from this mess into the institute-run messes, a total of 28 workers who had been working in Halls 2, 3 and GH mess have lost their livelihood. On top of that, they were not even given a week’s notice when lawfully they should’ve continued to work and earn money and in the meantime look for another job.

Beginning with this new semester a set of 5 contractors have been empanelled by the institute to run the hostel messes. All the new halls will have private messes. The remaining institute messes will be privatized in the years to come. The empanelment of contractors was done by the HMC where mess secretaries (most of them acting on behalf of the actual secretary) were invited. Most of the students were out of campus. But even then there was no GBM in any hall (with the residents present) in which this new way of awarding mess contracts and its fallouts were discussed. What kind of democracy is this that the students who have to use the mess, their opinions were not sought?. In fact the Minimum Wage Monitoring Committee (MWMC) and its volunteers took an initiative to at least talk to the HEC and the wardens about the workers’ problems in private messes. But what about the rest of us? Is our concern only eating – no matter what is the quality, the taste and the hygiene level of the food served? Even after so many complaints against Vihaar Ahaar in Hall 6 and by MWMC, it got No. 1 position in the empanelment process (contractors were given grades!). The Hall 6 complaint register never appeared before the committee. With all this happening around us – what are we doing here?

It’s an important question from our perspective. Everyone seems to believe that the level of interaction and cultural involvement has gone down. Some of us don’t have friends to talk to in distress while some of us succumb to the pressure here and take extreme steps. We all look for ways to counter these problems. But forceful restriction on facilities such as LAN may not be the solution to the problems we are facing. What needs to be changed is the attitude towards our institute, our academics, our councils and our halls. We’ve to participate more, try and reach out to people with similar thoughts or hobbies. We can be more active in our hall committees, especially mess committees because good food is a priority for all of us. Do some collective studies, compare our mess with those of other halls and point out the loopholes. We can even manage a mess by hiring workers and manager from a workers’ cooperative and taking things in our hand. Everyday a student will have a mess duty where he/she will have to open and close the store and do some other work like taking workers’ attendance and giving out wages. With over 300 students in almost all halls, this duty will come only once a year. The buying of vegetables, grains etc. can be done in collaboration with mess committees of other halls. We’ll know the prices; we’ll decide the basic mess bill. It’s such a transparent and fair alternative. When we can manage big events like Antaragni and Techkriti it should not be so difficult to manage our hall mess.

In our perception, the task of managing one’s own mess may not rate as high as working for Hospitality Cell or P.R. Cell in Antaragni. But the former would be a continuous involvement, right through our stay here. It can give us tremendous opportunities to learn from the managers and workers and get back to them with our own suggestions. When we learn some cost saving technique in a course or some other kind of model… we can fine tune our own mess model. Of course such a perfect system might seem far fetched now. Nevertheless, we will gain as much organizational skills, time management skills and others in this work, as in Antaragni work. The economics and accounting work of messes will be learning experience for all of us. And when we’ll give out fair wages we’ll improve the lives of many workers on campus… thus leaving a legacy behind, not in the bricks of buildings or stones of the parks, but in the hearts of the people who served us for so many days.

I’ve not read either Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Maoist policies. I don’t claim that capitalism is bad or communism is good. In fact I want to stay away from these ideological musings. There are places where public sector works while there are others where private sector does the job. BUT most importantly, there are also places where work can be done by the hands and brains of the users themselves. When users are integrated in the process of production they’re empowered – they have a say in what they want, how they want, when they want and how much they want. They know the fair price of the product, they also know the fair price of labour. But to get to this empowered state an initiative is needed from the users, in this case, the students.

Legally Prescribed Minimum Daily Wages: Rs. 111.49

What A Mess Worker Actually Gets: Rs. 50.00

Rs. 1500 – a family’s sole income for a month
– a student’s food expense for a month

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