In recent developments, several serious issues have been uncovered with respect to the functioning of the messes in the halls of residence. A meeting was conducted with the Vice President of Technology Students’ Gymkhana and the Hall Presidents on Saturday, the 27th of February, regarding this. The precipitating event for this was the resignation of VS hall’s private non-local contractor and subsequent threats to quit from private non-local contractors of other halls.
Timeline of Events:
- HMC invites tenders where 5 external contractors applied.
- HMC invites tenders again for reasons unknown where 6 local contractors who had not applied earlier did so now.
- Per day cost of mess increases from Rs 75 to Rs 82 with VAT cited as reason.
- VS contractor left. New MS contractor has left and earlier contractor has returned.
- HJB students have decided to sacrifice their evening snacks in order to deal with cost increases.
The VAT Parade
Under pressure from contractors threatening to shut down messes citing no profits, the per day cost of mess food was increased. This was presented to the General Secretaries as a non-negotiable offer and a state government mandate under the supervision and recommendation of Prof. Arun Chakroborty, Coordinating Warden, Mess. General Secretaries of all halls except one (RLB) signed this and by rule of majority, it’ll will be in effect from March 1st. Under this, the price of mess food was proposed an increase to Rs. 87 per day from an original Rs.75. However, this was negotiated and brought down to Rs. 82 per day.
The Scholars’ Avenue fails to understand how levying taxes can at once make messes profitable and who actually receives the tax-apportioned money: the government or contractors? We also fail to understand how taxes can be negotiated. Additionally, a lot of items in the mess are pre-packed, and their MRPs are inclusive of all taxes; wouldn’t those items be doubly taxed under this measure? This VAT increase clearly seems to be a half-thought-out deal. We spoke to a number of Hall Presidents and there does not prevail enough clarity on this matter, which is quite alarming given that the price increase is already in effect from this month.
Unless, and it is quite plausible that, VAT is merely an excuse to increase the mess prices, make messes profitable and please contractors. The fact that General Secretaries of all, but one Hall (RLB), were made to sign this document, paraded as a government mandate speaks volumes about the lack of due process, and a serious gap in communication between the GSecs and the HMC. And by a majority decision, the 7 Rs per day increase is in effect, be it private or government mess. It is to be noted that this meeting, in which such an important decision was taken, was the first one (regarding mess issues) where the Vice President was not invited. It surprises The Scholars’ Avenue how such an important document was signed by General Secretaries (for many of whom, this was the first meeting) without consulting the Hall Presidents and/or the students of the respective halls. And it surprised The Scholars’ Avenue more why the authorities did not allow the General Secretaries more time to consider the proposed changes.
In spite of all this, they could not bring an iota of difference to the quality/quantity of food.
The Problem of Extra Workers
Issues with the mess workers’ union were also cited. Under compulsion from the union, most halls are over employed. The prescribed number for a privately operated mess is equal to the number of boarders in the respective hall divided by 25, plus 1 (For government messes, the numbers are decided by HMC) .This estimate accounts for both the morning and evening shifts. One cannot fail to notice that in most halls, the number overshoots by a staggering 80%, even 100% in halls like MS, LLR and HJB. Let that statistic sink in, we pay double the number of employees and an increased price for the pitiable amount and condition of mess food. This is without taking into account all the hoarding by employees.
One reason cited for over employment is that occupancy of several halls has reduced over time as double rooms being converted into single rooms. The change in number of occupants has not translated to a corresponding change in number of mess workers. This is surely not difficult arithmetics. One can contend the formula prescribed by HMC, but as long as that holds, the numbers surely do not make sense.
*Data for privately operated messes shown
The Hold of the Union
Further, the unions exert massive control over the functioning of the messes. The Hall Presidents have received complaints regarding severe shortages of food in the messes of late. The complaints state that many hall and mess workers were spotted carrying food away even when students didn’t have enough to eat. No matter how bad or how uncooperative the mess workers are, contractors cannot fire employees. Employees here, given the nature of how things are run in West Bengal are organised into massive unions with political backing. Any effort to fire extra workers or substitute them are met with threats to the contractors. This leads to a tough quagmire when cooks turn uncooperative. Sometimes, contractors are forced to bring their own workers without firing the existing ones to run the mess. This leads to higher overhead costs and lower food quality. In some cases, contractors were left with no option but quit burdened with severe losses. VS Hall’s contractor, who is a non-local has cited these issues as the reason for resigning. Other non-local contractors, including MS hall’s contractor have also expressed similar concerns and threatened to resign. Questions were also raised about the tender system; the cooks and workers remain the same even when the tenders are revoked, leaving very little control in the hands of the Hall Councils.
The consensus in the meeting was that no improvement in mess quality can be achieved in the current system, with the unions exerting unreasonable control, and with the ineffectual tender system. Due to the political nature of the issue, the authorities have been procrastinating to act. It is saddening that the pleas of the student community has fallen on deaf ears, especially on a matter as fundamental as decent food. Despite their nonchalance, the Hall Presidents have decided to pursue this issue with authorities in meetings that are scheduled in the near future. Important developments are expected on this front, in the coming days.