In April this year, the state government had withdrawn the canteen facility in all government tribal hostels and decided to instead provide cash transfers to the students residing in these hostels to cover their food expenses. The decision was justified on the grounds that this will enable the students to have the meals of their choice. It was decided that students residing in hostels within the municipal limits or in divisional headquarters would be paid Rs 3,500 per month through bank transfers, while those in other areas would be given Rs 3,000 per month.
Documents obtained through Right to Information (RTI) applications, however, show that the issue of choice probably had nothing to do with this decision. Instead, it seemed to have been prompted by repeated complaints from students about the quality of food being served in these canteens, the concern of officials that these repeated complaints could give a bad name to the Tribal Development Department that runs these canteens, and the hope that doing away with the canteens would somehow also solve the problem of unauthorised residents in these hostels.
In the process, the government even overlooked security concerns regarding girl students, who would now have to venture out even in the evening for their meals. Documents show that the initial proposal was to exempt the girls’ hostels from the decision because of this particular reason, but this was over-ruled.
The Tribal Development Department of the state government runs 491 hostels, which currently house a total of 58,495 students (35,644 boys and 22,851 girl) from Scheduled Tribe communities. The hostels enable students from far-flung areas of the state to live and pursue their education in towns and cities. Each of these hostels is supposed to have an in-house canteen, which is contracted out.
While doing away with the canteens from the current academic year, the government had said that apart from ensuring that students can have the food of their choice, the move would also allow them to have their lunch at any place near their educational institution. It was reasoned that many of these students had to skip their lunches if their educational institution was located far away from their hostels.
Documents obtained by The Indian Express, however, show that the department had received numerous complaints about the quality of food being served in the hostels. Wardens of several hostels had made a strong plea to do away with the canteens as they were unable to satisfy the students’ concerns on food.
The first proposal for direct cash transfer came from a students’ association in remote Gondia district, which had started protesting against the quality of food being served in the hostels there. About 70 members of the Sadak Arjuni branch of the Adivasi Vidyarthi Sangh, wrote to Jitendra Chowdhari, project officer (PO) of the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) in Devri, Gondia, asking him to implement such a scheme early in 2017.
Chowdhari forwarded this letter to the office of the commissioner, tribal development, in Nashik.
A similar letter to the commissioner in Nashik came from the project officer in Ghodegaon in Pune, in September last year. This officer pointed out deficiencies in the process of awarding the canteen contracts. “In face of repeated complaints from students about the food, there have been instances where the contractor has stopped supplying food mid-term. That causes hardships to the students, which prompts them to agitate. These are highlighted by the newspapers and the media, which gives a bad name to the Tribal Development Department,” read the letter.
This officer also recommended a direct benefit transfer-based system to replace the canteens.
Two months later, in November last year, 17 wardens of hostels in Dahanu in Palghar wrote to the district’s project officer, asking for a similar shift. These wardens said contractors were frequently sub-contracting their task to others at lower prices, compromising the quality of food in the process. They said shifting to a cash transfer system would weed out all the problems related to food in these hostels.
They also talked about the problem of ‘parasite’ students, those either overstaying in these hostels, or living there illegally, and claimed that free food in the canteen was one of the attractions for them to continue in the hostels. They claimed that unauthorised students were also behind most of the agitations and protests.
The problem of unauthorised students was raised by another project officer, Ayush Prasad, who wrote to his seniors, claiming that disgruntled contractors who had failed to get canteen contracts often provoked the students to hold agitations. He pointed out that some of the hostels in Pune had, in fact, seen students going on a hunger strike last year to protest against the quality of food served to them. Prasad’s letter said the presence of unauthorised students was complicating matters, and again brought up the issue of negative publicity to the department.
A number of hostel wardens The Indian Express spoke to said the biggest problem they faced was from unauthorised occupants of the hostels.
“Such occupants have often finished their education and in some cases, are working professionals who continue to stay in the hostels. Senior officers have not taken action against such occupants, although we have asked them to do so time and again,” said a warden whose hostel had faced a major law and order problem last year.
Citing an example, he said, the hostels in Pune region have a sanctioned strength of 1,000 students, but they often have as many as 2,500 occupants. Food becomes a problem as contractors are often not able to cater to the extra heads, for which they are not paid. The problem of unauthorised occupancy, he said, is most acute in the hostels in urban areas, which incidentally have also seen the maximum protests.
Following these letters and requests from its field officers, the Tribal Development Department prepared the draft proposal for a shift to cash transfers. The first draft had suggested that the cash transfers be linked to the academic attendance of the students. Also, it had strongly recommended that girls be left out of the scheme.
“For girl students, going out at night for dinner might give rise to security concerns, so the present system of bhojan theka (canteen contracts) be continued at the girls’ hostels,” it said. The note was signed by the Minister for Tribal Development, Vishnu Savara, himself.
But this proposal was clearly overturned later, and the reasons for it are not very clear. Officials said students were free to pool in their resources and look for a service provider of their own choice.
Manisha Verma, principal secretary in the department, said the field officers were in the process of preparing a list of service providers, self-help groups and other organisations that can provide food to the students. Verma said the cash transfer was being initiated only in district headquarters and bigger towns in the beginning. “We will be closely monitoring its implementation and we are open to suggestions… we will take any corrective measures to ensure there is no inconvenience to the students. We will ensure that the debit is done in a timely manner. Based on the feedback, we will decide on the future course of action,” she said.
The students are right now unsure of how the decision will impact them. Some of them have welcomed the decision while many others say the amount of cash being given was not enough to buy meals in large cities like Mumbai or Pune.
“Rs 3,500 will not be enough to pay for three square meals in areas like Pune, Thane, Navi Mumbai etc. Also, the question of security of girl students arises, which the government has failed to address,” said Madan Pathave, a resident of the tribal hostel in Hadapsar in Pune.
Pathave and his associates have undertaken a major campaign to raise awareness among students about the fallouts of the issue. “To protest against the move, we will be taking out a long march from Pune to Nashik from July 12,” he said.