There is no subsidy allocated for the meals of the students in these six public universities. Concerned authorities in each of these universities blame low budgets for the poor quality of the food provided to students.

Despite elections of the much-awaited Dhaka University Central Students' Union (DUCSU) and hall unions in 2019, the quality of food has not changed. None of the DUCSU leaders seemed to be concerned at all in this regard. There is a post called common room and cafeteria affairs secretary in the DUCSU committee.

Chhatra League leader Lipi Akter, who has been elected for the post, is currently in London for higher studies. This correspondent could not reach her for comment in this regard despite repeated attempts over the phone. Instead, there are allegations of extortion against Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League, taking the advantage of being involved in everything regarding the management of canteen, including leasing.

Saddam Hossain, the last elected assistant general secretary of DUCSU, and also the current general secretary of Dhaka University Chhatra League, claimed that the quality of food in canteen is not up to the mark, but it has improved than before.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, he claimed, “The allegation of Chhatra League being involved in leasing out the canteen is completely baseless.”

Allegation of extortion over leasing canteen came to the limelight following the mysterious death of Selim Hossain, a professor of Electrical and Electronics Engineering department and provost of Lalan Shah Hall at Khulna University of Engineering and Technology (KUET), on 30 November last year.

Leaders and activists of Chhatra League allegedly called professor Selim Hossain to his room on his way to the residence on the day of his death. Chhatra League had forced him to make their selected person as the dining manager. The professor died on that day. The university expelled four Chattra League men following a investigation over the incident.

The on-going protest of the students of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) started for the low quality of foods. Officials and employees of the university receive the lease of SUST’s canteens and cafeterias. They then lease out canteens and cafeterias to other people with more charges. Other people operate canteens and cafeterias instead of the actual lessee. As a result, hotchpotch that costs at Tk 20 outside the university is sold at Tk 40 there. Sweetmeat that is priced at Tk 5 outside is sold at Tk 10 there.

Students said hall provosts often give various directives to ensure nutritious foods but those are not implemented. People involved in dining and canteen operation alleged leaders and activists of Chhatra League have Tk 700,000 dues at the canteen of Chittagong University’s Alawal, Suhrawardy and AF Rahman Halls.

Though various leftist students' organisations sometimes raise voice over such daily sufferings of the students, other students' organisations hardly play any role on it.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, a residential student of Ruqayyah Hall at Dhaka University, Sumaiya Akter said they can barely survive by eating the foods of hall canteen whatever quality it contains.

Quality and nutritious foods at halls

There are mainly two kinds of arrangements for the students at public universities – one is dining or mess and another is canteen or cafeteria. Dining or mess is operated by students at specific place allocated by the hall administration. Students buy essentials and maintain the tally. Canteens are operated by businesspersons taking lease. Other than canteens and cafeterias of the halls, other food outlets are also included in the lease.

Foods served at the dining or mess contain relatively better quality and less costly. Foods served at the canteens are low quality and about two times costly than the mess or dining. In the mess, students have to make full or a portion of payment in advance at the beginning of the month. Foods are only available until a certain time in the afternoon and at night. So, a majority of the students who are busy in various activities including education, part time jobs and tuitions eat at canteens or other food outlets.

Several leaders and activists of Chhatra League allegedly take foods on ‘credit’ and ‘without payment’ from canteens or cafeterias regularly. Money is also paid to leaders and activists of Chhatra League to secure the lease of a canteen. And, students have to bear the brunt of this ‘method of torture’ of the Chhatra League and they have to eat low quality foods. Besides, good quality food is served for Chattra League leaders and another quality of foods for general students at canteens. Even people operating the canteen allegedly behave ‘politely’ with the leaders and activists of Chhatra League and rudely with the general students.

There is a residential teacher for each block (a floor) of a dormitory to look after the residential students. Student ‘do not know’ them because these teachers usually do not visit their certain blocks. Teacher having responsibility to oversee canteen also hardly visit the canteen.

Mamun Hossain, a student of Islamic History and Culture at Dhaka University, observed if anyone starts thinking about the quality of foods at canteen and cafeteria, he/she could not take it anymore. Foods are cooked in unhygienic environment at most of the halls. Foods are consumed anyhow, so who cares about the nutrition.

A research was conducted by the economics department of Jahangirnagar University in April-May of 2017 to assess the level of nutrition at foods served at the halls comparing to the poverty line. Some 225 residential students – 125 male and 100 female, were surveyed at that time. According to the research finding, a residential student consumes, on an average, 1,821 kilocalories a day. On the other hand, nutrition scientists said a university student should have 2,800 kilocalories a day.

Professor Anu Muhamamd of the economics department, Jahangirnagar University, presented the research findings at a programme in front of the Raju Sculpture on Dhaka University campus on 21 January. He said anyone consuming less 2,200 kilocalories a day is considered to have a livelihood below poverty line as per the traditional estimation of poverty line in Bangladesh. Anyone having more than 2,200 kilocalories a day lives above poverty line. And, if anyone consumes 1,800 kilocalories a day, he/she then lives in extreme poverty line. University students consume less than 1,800 kilocalories a day, so they take foods containing nutrition below the extreme poverty line.

Prothom Alo investigated into the food management for the students at the residence halls of six universities and found food quality at Khulna University is somewhat better. There is difference between Khulna University and other universities and that is Khulna University have no student politics.

Dhaka University

Students are satisfied over both quality and price of foods served at the mess operated by students at the halls of Dhaka University. Food prices vary from halls to halls from Tk 2,000 to Tk 2,200 a month for two meals (launch and dinner) daily. A four-member committee of the students oversees everything including the purchase of daily essentials.

Many students cannot maintain the food timings or make the payment in advance, so they eat foods at canteen or other food shops on the campus and surrounding areas, spending Tk 4,500-5,000 a month.

All 18 residence halls of the university have canteens. Lunch and dinner are available at Tk 20 at the cafeteria of the DUCSU and the TSC, but these foods are not enough to fulfil the nutrition for the day. Besides, there are canteens at the university’s registrar building, Business Studies faculty, IBA building, Fine Arts faculty, Centre for Advanced Research in Sciences (CARS) and Curzon Hall. However, food prices are costly at these canteens than the hall canteens.

Boiled course rice and 'patla daal' (lentil soup) are distributed at canteen. Fish and meat pieces are very small. Fish, meat, and vegetables are not allegedly washed and cooked properly.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on food quality, DU vice chancellor Md Akhtaruzzaman said, “We will sit with the canteen directors soon to discuss about ensuring quality of food at hall canteens. Food price and quality improvement will be discussed there.”

Wising anonymity, canteen manger of several halls told Prothom Alo they even have to bribe Chhatra League leaders to secure the lease of canteen. Once Chhatra League leaders receive extortion, they use their influence and help to secure the lease. Besides, 10-20 people are served food for free at each hall every day. If such practices are not followed, Chhatra League leaders mobilise their activists to create ‘pressure’ in many ways on the canteen owners. Sometimes, canteens are vandalised.

There are no specific instructions by the university authorities to ensure the nutritious foods for students. The university has neither any research on food quality nor any subsidy on the improvement of food.

A number of students fall sick after eating low quality of foods. Physician of DU’s Shahid Buddhijibe Dr Muhammad Mortaza Medical Centre, Hafeza Zaman, told Prothom Alo diarrhea is one of common health problems, for which students seek treatment at the centre. “Amid the coronavirus pandemic, ninety per cent of students seek treatment for cold, cough and fever. But most of the students suffer from diarrhea, typhoid and jaundice during normal time,” said the physician.

Students said food price is slightly low and quality is better at the canteen of Jagannath Hall comparing to all other halls. Students from other halls gather there to have lunch and dinner.

Academician professor Syed Manzoorul Islam observed it is saddening that Dhaka University have no research on whether the students are having enough nutrition. He said the university administration is more interested in the activities that draw more praise. But, activity that would protect the students’ interest and ensure their nutrition, the university administration pays very little attention to it. They could not subsidise food due to the universities’ lack of budget and management. If a culture of labiality and transparency is created, it is possible to end such circumstance, he added.

Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam observed food quality fell drastically since student organisations started controlling the residence halls of the university because food becomes a part of tender business. When leaders of student organisations will involve in tender business, food quality will obviously drop, he added.

Suman Kumar Das, Staff Correspondent, Sylhet, Sk Al Ehsan, Staff Correspondent, Khulna, Sujoy Chowdhury, Correspondent, Chittagong University, Maidul Islam, Correspondent, Jahangirnagar University and Tapas Kumar Sarker, Correspondent, Rajshahi University contributed to this report.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna and Ashish Basu.