How did IIT Madras solve food quality issues in hostel mess halls?

Through the T in IIT.

When I first landed on IIT Madras campus, I was handed a faded green mess card which indicated that I should go to the ground floor of the Himalaya mess complex for my daily meals. Sure enough, I went to mess, grabbed a plate, ate tasty, hot bhatoora on my first night. Of course, by the end of that month, I was fed up by the food in the first floor of the Himalaya complex, and opted for a different floor. The food was marginally better, because that mess hall was operated by a different caterer.

Mess Halls in IIT Madras: Each mess hall was operated by a different caterer, allocated on the basis of the results of a tender process. While they have quoted different rates for the tender, finally they have to agree at a common rate for that academic year. Every student paid the same daily rate, irrespective of the caterer they dine with.

Variance in food quality: As you can imagine, this creates a problem. While we were all paying the same daily rate, some of the caterers were serving much better food than others. Remember the faded green mess card that all students are given? That’s the passport to enter the halls. Students allocated inferior mess halls started to visit the better ones. Soon, the good caterers started running out of food quickly, and the bad caterers stared at huge food wastage.

Solution: One would assume the solution is to bring parity in the quality of food - give a rap on the knuckles of underperforming caterers, and push them to increase the quality of their food. No. Sometime in mid-2013, the institute decided to implement biometric verification for entry into mess halls. Let me reproduce the email sent by the then student representative, announcing the decision. (Emphasis mine; spelling errors corrected)

Institute has decided to make mess entry bio-metric from next year to make to ease the burden of carrying mess cards on students … Meanwhile it is the duty of every student to get their finger print enrolled in these machines that shall be made available … in the upcoming days.

(Hostel Affairs Secretary - July 18, 2013 via email)

The rationale offered? To unburden students from carrying their mess cards 😜. Fingerprints (right and left thumb impressions) of all students availing mess facility were collected to enable the system.

Did it work? Yes, slowly and creakily. With just one fingerprint machine at the entrance to a mess hall, serpentine queues became a regular sight. Students were skipping lunch at mess halls because it was taking an inordinate amount of time to authenticate, enter, eat and exit before their next scheduled lecture. Did it at least manage to eliminate the problem of of unauthorised entry to mess halls? Not so fast.

Why did it not solve the problem? A few students quickly figured out how to continue to eat at multiple mess halls, even with biometric authentication. Under Student A’s fingerprint registration, left thumb impression belonged to A, while the right thumb impression belonged to student B; and vice-versa! This allowed both A & B to visit each other’s mess halls. Their behaviour quickly proved my favourite quote right, that no manmade system is immune to human deceit.

The solution to every problem is not a few lines of code

Disclaimer: I’m not against the use of technology to solve the pressing problems that we face. However, when we see technology as the only prism to look at a problem and solve it, we’ll inevitably fail. Aadhar, if done with 100% precision, will do good. Can it be done with 100% perfection? No. Why? Refer to my favourite quote above. One can change almost every detail on an Aadhar card based on a notarised affidavit. The data that feeds into the system is entirely human. It’s more likely than not that there several errors have crept into the Aadhar servers over the years. You might ask what’s the big deal if there are a few errors in a database of 130 crore people! When this record is made the bedrock for availing government services, there’s sufficient incentive to tamper with it, and take advantage of its loopholes. Take a look at the scam came to light just today!

Final thoughts

Government of India and several state governments are pushing for more technological solutions for more complex problems. Our health system is in shambles, proved by our rising COVID-19 numbers, soon to overtake the US as the country with the most cases. Yet, instead of long term investments to improve it, we are marching ahead with the National Digital Health Mission. Where are we headed? I wonder.

Arun Sudarsan
Arun Sudarsan
Economist and Policy Researcher

Arun is an Economist, passionate about Open Data and its potential to increase state transparency and accountability. Loves teaching. Previously worked at NITI Aayog. To subscribe to this blog’s mailing list, please enter your details here. Check your spam folder if you are missing updates. Thanks for subscribing!

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