By Towfeeq Wani:
On the afternoon of Friday, 18th September, as I sat on a bench nearby, five friends walked up to the counter of the central canteen in Jamia Millia Islamia and ordered five plates of chicken biryani. To their surprise, they had to pay 50 rupees more than what they usually paid. They left the counter dismayed after being informed that the price of a plate of biryani has been raised to 35 rupees. Now that maybe okay for a certain section of the students who pay the same amount at another canteen on campus which is run by a women’s self-help group and is not directly controlled by the University. However, everyone cannot be expected to be comfortable with the revised rates.
Conforming to their helplessness, they carried the plates (which are actually served in closed packs) and sat on a bench next to me. In a matter of few minutes, to aggravate the already disgusted looks on their faces, they found that the quality of food had further deteriorated, instead of improving with the price hike, as they had expected.
Hours later, what started as an impromptu protest by a few students turned into a major protest joined by hundreds of other students who were already looking for a way to vent their anger, something that Jamia Millia Islamia saw for the first time in many years.
Just a few days earlier, The Hindu reported that a PIL moved by the ‘Indian Council of Legal Aid and Advice’ on the behalf of the students of three schools run by Jamia, and staying in six hostels attached to the University who were getting unhealthy and poor quality food in their mess halls, has sought directions for an inquiry into the episode. Reportedly, when the matter came up before a Division Bench over the weekend, the counsel for Jamia Millia submitted that remedial measures had already been taken following a complaint on 20th February 2015. The Bench, comprising Chief Justice G. Rohini and Justice Jayant Nath gave time to the respondents till 30th October to act on the complaints.
Likewise, a student living in the Hall of Residence for Boys alleged that when he and some other hostellers discussed the issue with the authorities, they misbehaved and started mocking them about the kind and quality of food served in their ‘homeland’ (the said student is a foreign national). The hostellers are already paying two thousand rupees per month as their dining expenses.
Most of the students also allege malpractices in awarding the canteen tenders and that the tender for canteen is being allotted to the same people for more than three years without following the due process. However, Jamia spokesperson, Mukesh Ranjan, rejected such allegations. “As per my knowledge, there has been no major hike in food prices in the University canteen. I know that there were some issues in the functioning of the canteen but they were resolved by the administration.” However, it is noteworthy to mention here that the revised rate list of food items to be served at different Jamia Canteens (which includes Central Canteen and many other smaller ones, with exception of Dastarkhwan) was uploaded on the University website as early as July.
The protest on Friday was spontaneous and unplanned where the infuriated students kept pouring in and demanded that the price hike be rolled back. Chief proctor and officiating Vice-Chancellor promised the protesting students that the matter would be discussed with Vice-Chancellor Prof. Talat Ahmad who was in Thailand at that time to promote Jamia Millia Islamia among Thai school students.
Meanwhile, Jamia Students Forum, a loose collective of activist students revealed on Sunday through their Facebook page that ‘a peaceful protest would be held on Monday, 21st September at 12:00pm against the massive irregularities and fraud in the canteen tenders, against the price hike, against the poor quality of canteen food and many other issues of students,’ following which the students gathered outside the central canteen near the abandoned building of Jamia Students’ Union.
After about half an hour, Prof. Talat Ahmad arrived to talk to the protesting students. However, some students who had lead the protests on Friday had been cornered by the authorities in the morning due to which no one came forward to talk, following which the Vice-Chancellor proposed to talk to a student committee comprising of the representatives of different subject associations and some research scholars, therefore once again forcing the students to raise questions about the legitimacy of the subject associations.
A situation turns problematic when none of the parties is ready to meet the other in the middle. Students maintain that the price rise in food menu is unreasonable given the poor quality of food served and its inability to cater to the needs of the students belonging to different economic backgrounds; canteen management on the other hand, blames the University authorities, as the prices are fixed by a committee appointed by the University; and to complicate the things even further, the Vice Chancellor blames the protesting students for disrupting the peace on the campus for something trivial and easily avoidable.
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