Man VS Wild: Surviving the Insect Infestation

There has been a long standing general perception of getting bad food when it comes to hostel life in engineering colleges. The thought may or may not be a fact in case of the halls of residences of NITR, but the recent wake of events certainly project as an alarming situation.

On 27th of November, students of VS Hall of Residence were jolted out of their exam fever when they were served dal filled up insects. The chicken served was under-cooked. In the chaos that ensued, the Food Inspector, Mr. Rajesh Behera along with a few other HMC (Hall Management Council) members were called. The existing batch of dal was thrown away and a new batch was prepared. Upon investigation, insects were found in raw dal packets. Around twenty students fell ill after this incident.

Once again on 4th of December, students reported insects as well as rat droppings in the food. Once again the authorities were called and upon inspection of the raw material, insects were found in the sack of pulses. According to the report by two professors of Department of Life Sciences, the inspection concludes that there were no insects in the given sample, and the suspicious looking objects were in reality fried onion, red chili flakes and some white particles which were ground pulse grains.

Team MM tried to get to the root of the matter by talking to every person related to the incident, the first person being the General Secretary of VS Hall. The following is an excerpt from the conversation that took place.

The General Secretary:

A complaint was given to the Chief Warden’s office on 27th November regarding the insects in the dal and it was requested that the mess caterer should be fined. When a fine was sanctioned it was hoped that the conditions would be improved and the same mistake won’t be repeated again. When the same thing occurred again on the 4th of December, the warden was contacted who asked me to handle it myself. A sample of the dal was taken and when tested, no insect remains were found. But the sample taken was not from the serving bowl where the insects were found instead the students gave the sample where some white particles were visible. 

The formation of a committee comprised of general boarders is due to the reason that on 4th a few students complained about the food while others were fine about it. It can be safely said that out of 1300 boarders a few will not be satisfied with the conditions of the mess. When these people said that they wanted to check the quality of the mess food, the Warden was happy to oblige and these students were made into a committee in order to report to the warden. The insects in rice or pulses are even found at home, but the difference in the mess food is that hygiene is not maintained and the food grains are not washed before cooking. The caterer has started washing the food grains properly after the second complaint, and he has been given a warning of greater fines if the incident gets repeated. As an elective representative that is the limit of my powers. I would like MM to get to the root of the issue and bring forth a feasible solution to the problem.

Having got an insight into the incident, team MM enquired from the Warden, Prof. S K Pal, about the complaints made by students on 4th of November.

The Warden:

Insects in the food were spotted a few days back for which a show cause notice and a monetary fine has been imposed on the caterer. On purchasing rice or pulses in a bulk some amount of impurities are bound to be found in them, the solution to the problem is washing the grain before cooking. On 4th December some people complained of insect in the dal but the sample taken by two professors of life science department was found to be uninfected and clean.

Team MM showed him the photos of the incident, sent by a few general boarders of VS Hall. On being asked about the role of secretaries in this incident, he said that there can be two possibilities, either the secretary is corrupt or it is very difficult for one man to handle the job of checking regularly. 

A committee of 14 general boarders has been formed with Mr. Pritpal Singh acting as a co-ordinator. The members have been chosen by the students itself without any interference from myself or any authorities. No elected members of the HEC have been included in this committee and the names of the committee members are not to be revealed so that the mess caterer cannot identify these students when they try to perform their inspection. This committee has been permitted to check upon the raw materials, the cooking procedure and the distribution method and based upon the quality parameters that they themselves set, they are to report to me directly.

The formation of a parallel committee is mandated by the possibility that the mess secretary might be corrupt, or that he might be too busy to perform regular checks on the mess proceedings.

The role of secretaries, strictness of the actions taken and the responsibility of the mess caterer are points to be pondered upon. The next person we came across was the person whose responsibility is solely related to checking the quality of food in hostels. On 27th November I was called by the students of VS hall and it was found that the dal prepared that day had insects in it. Immediate action was taken against the mess caterer and a new batch of dal was prepared for the students. The raw materials in the store was checked and few insects were found in them. But that is not a great deal of concern since the raw materials are washed multiple number of times before being cooked. It was observed that the windows of the room were open and some insects from the outside bushes and grass might have come in. The grass and weeds surrounding the mess have been cleaned. When another similar incident was reported on 4th December and on that day no traces of insects were found in the food or raw material, were the words from Mr. Rajesh Behera, Food Inspector of Halls.

Since no decision is taken without the consent of the ultimate authority guiding the administration of hostels, team MM caught up with the Chief Warden and the conversation that took place is as follows.

The Chief Warden:

On 4th of December no insects were found in the dal of VS hall. A sample of the food was taken in front of the students and sealed. The container was opened in my office and was checked thoroughly by Prof. Binod Sahu of the Department of Life Sciences and Prof. Surajit Das, Assisstant Warden of S.D. Hall of Residence. They found no traces of insects and the black particles were some spices which are used in making dal. The previous incident in which insects were found in the food, they were not insects from the surroundings rather they were insects which grow in the rice and pulses itself when they are kept for a long time and that is what has happened. The food grains were purchased in bulk and stored for a long time which led to the incident. The caterer has been fined Rs. 25000 for this occurrence.

A committee has been formed comprising of myself, the Warden of VS hall and some other professors and elected representatives. The Warden of VS hall is the convener of this committee whereas prof. Kunal Pal is the chairman. The committee shall submit a report on 12th December. Furthermore 2 student volunteers shall be appointed in each hall to check the raw materials as well as the whole cooking process for two months so that each caterer shall become responsible. 

To solve the existing problem in VS hall three steps are to be taken. Upon receiving the reports from the newly formed committee, steps will be taken according to the suggestions. Already talks have taken place with the caterer of VS hall and he is supposed to introduce another main cook and two additional helpers by the first week of January. Also the responsibility of the mess shall be given to the Assistant Warden, so that with the allotment of a specific responsibility the conditions of the mess shall be better taken care of. 

Since the authorities pointed out the active role of general boarders of the hall and a committee (the one mentioned by Warden) coordinated by Mr.Pritpal Singh, team MM caught with the person to get a very intriguing side of the story. 

Mr. Pritpal Singh:

On 27th November insects were found in the cooked dal as well as the raw materials. The raw material sacks were opened in front of all the students present and insects were found when a scoop of the grains was taken out. Around twenty people fell ill following the incident. On the 4th of December, we found rat droppings in the dal and when once again the raw materials were checked, we found the same result. The samples that were taken were cleared by the Chief Warden’s office but we have photos from the day showing what we found. The explanation that the pulses were from an old stock seems improbable as the quantity consumed on a daily basis is huge and some sacks of pulses getting stocked up for these many days is not possible. Also the problem is not limited to the pulses, the chicken that was served a few days ago was completely raw.

When I complained to the warden, I was misbehaved with and accusations were made that I wanted to become the Mess Secretary and earn pocket money through dishonest means. Later the Warden apologized and said that it was a part of the investigation. The authorities responsible for such matters must be held responsible for the quality of food and the health of the boarders.

Such discrepancies in statements made by the persons in positions of responsibility indicates that somewhere in the system something is not functioning the way it’s supposed to. Whether it is someone exploiting a loophole in the system or the system itself is riddled with faults is yet to be seen.

Just when dust was presumed to have settled down, another activity was brought to the attention of team MM. On 7th December, the committee performed a surprise check in the store room of VS Hall mess and found out-dated and expired spices, milk dated three days before the date of inspection and storage of raw materials in unhygienic conditions.  When asked for explanation, the mess manager stated that those were the left-over items of the previous garden feast and were not to be used for cooking.

Click on the Collage to see the Pictures

Man VS Wild

The Warden was called upon at the moment and briefed about the findings made by the committee. The caterer was asked to pack the loose sacks, dispose the expired and stale raw materials and questioned for storing old milk. We keep stock of milk because of irregular supplies was the response by the manager. In presence of the committee, the mess manager and representatives from team, the following decisions were taken by the Warden -

  1. Milk would not be stored more than two days from the date of manufacture and if left over, shall be returned back to the vendor.
  2. The old and expired raw materials shall be disposed, the storage area shall be cleaned and the vegetables should be stored in large containers. Precautions shall be taken to prevent insects.

Soon after the scene cleared out, the person in-charge of milk supplies reached the spot and stated that, I have been responsible for getting milk delivered each and every day without fail and have been maintaining records too. Except for a brief period during Phailin (mini-cyclone), there hasn’t been any interruption in milk supply.

The facts are clear and so is the gravity of the situation. The thing that comes into question is who exactly is to blame in a scenario as such. Is it the carelessness of the mess manager, irresponsibility of elected representatives, casual punishments by the authorities or the present working system as a whole? Team MM urges each and every reader to be alert while consuming food from any place and rise up as a general citizen against any situation that demands public attention.