For a university in a state of enthusiastic chicken consumers, it is surprising for many that the messes, canteens and even private food retailers on Panjab University (PU) campus refuse to serve chicken and other non-vegetarian food to its students.
Despite the strength of more than 26,000 students, including about 400 international students and Indian students from across the country, who are accustomed to varied diets, PU offers primarily North-Indian and completely vegetarian cuisine, except for eggs, in its hostel messes.
“There was a time, even before Professor Sobti was the Vice-Chancellor when they used to serve chicken in the mess as well, but it was phased out for some reason. There was even a committee formed to look into it, but no recommendations for changes in the mess food were made,” says Dean Student Welfare Emmanual Nahar.
Dean of Alumni Relations, Deepti Gupta says that although there was no formal or written decision made to curb serving non-vegetarian food on campus, the practice was slowly phased out. “It was more about the logistics of it. Mess contractors decided that non-vegetarian food is more expensive to procure and mess contractors did not wish to go through a hassle where they have to meet stringent standards of meat quality,” says Gupta. “Moreover, if the students wish to get good quality and hygienic food, the mess food prices will also increase,” adds Gupta.
Unlike Gupta, President of PU Campus Students Council (PUCSC) and member of Shiromani Akali Dal’s student division, Student Organisation of India (SOI), Chetan Chaudhary said that the issue of serving non-vegetarian food was contentious for political and religious reasons. “We cannot raise the issue because it goes against our party’s ideology, but of course, if the students bring it up, we will not stop them in any way,” says Chaudhary. The PUCSC president further said that if the university mess begins serving non-vegetarian food again, many students will vigorously protest against it.
“Even if it hurts other people’s sentiments, at least they can make separate provisions for us and serve non-vegetarian food in separate hostels as they do in other universities,” says Abhilash Rajkhowa, president of the North-east student’s association at PU. “Besides the issue of lack of non-vegetarian food, the food is so spicy, it is unappetising for students from North-east. At least, they should make provisions to serve some dishes considering the presence of the North-east students. They can add more vegetables to supplement the dietary requirements that are otherwise fulfilled through non-vegetarian food,” adds Rajkhowa.
“The students can get eggs and are allowed to prepare eggs on campus, which is a major source of protein even if non-vegetarian food is not allowed,” says Chetan Chaudhary. However, students only receive eggs on a particular day of the week and not every day. Nutritionists suggest that an average intake of 55 gm protein is essential for everybody. However, even if the students consume two eggs in a week, only 26 grams of protein is received in a week, apart from the protein intake from pulses, which also does not fulfil the minimum protein requirements of the body.
While non-vegetarian food is not served on campus, students are not allowed to bring in non-vegetarian food in the mess as well.
“They can either take it to their hostel rooms, or eat it in the special guest room sometimes, but often other students are bothered by non-vegetarian food in their vicinity,” says Bharat, warden for Boys Hostel Number 4. Although campus authorities say that the students are allowed to bring in their own non-vegetarian food and ask mess cooks to prepare it for them, Bharat says that “no such provision has been allowed in the hostel”.
The hostels on the campus also lack the facilities to cook one’s own food. “We cannot cook our own food. Even if get cooking utensils like a rice cooker in our room, it seized by the authorities, if they spot it. As a result, we mostly eat out or sometimes I go to my friends’ place outside the campus and cook food. Meat is an integral part of my diet, I cannot do without it,” says Stanzin, a Ladakhi student at PU, who claims that most students from Ladakh despise eating mess food.
In some of PU’s affiliated colleges, which also host international students, eating non-vegetarian food inside hostel rooms is also not allowed. Nancy, a Nigerian student studying at Mehr Chand Mahajan DAV (MCM-DAV) College, says that she has asked the authorities to change the stringent laws regarding non-vegetarian food, however, to no avail. “Food is integral to one’s cultural identity. It is awful that we cannot eat what we want to, inside the hostel. It makes me miss home much more,” she says.
“It is discriminatory, and surprising that even during the student council elections, this issue has not been taken up by the parties in the last few years. Not only the issue that non-vegetarian food is not served, but also that food hygiene at the messes is not ensured,” says Gurdeep, President of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), and a student of Human Rights at PU.