Food and Dhaka University: A Report

by M. J. H. Jabed

As part of 3rd year Honours course, a research work entitled Food And Dhaka University: A Case Study of Selective Halls was carried out by five students of International Relations department of Dhaka University. The key purposes of the work were:
1) To know if standard diet is provided to the residential students;
2) To find out the nutritive status of the halls;
3) To know about the purity of foods served in the halls;
4) To know about the food management system in the halls;
5) To collect and study the opinions of the residents, cooks, hall authorities and others concerned;
6) To find out the reasons behind, if the study revealed, any pessimistic scenario and lastly,
7) To suggest some measures to the authorities concerned for improvement of food condition.

The Major Findings

a) From the survey:

Two hundred and fifty (250) students of five DU halls - fifty each from Zia Hall, Salimullah Hall, Shahidullah Hall, Rokeya Hall and Bangladesh Kuwait Moitri Hall- were surveyed.

As many as 71% of the respondents are of the opinion that bad quality food is served in the hall dinings. The food is somehow tolerable to 25% of them while 4% of the respondents opined that food served is good in quality.

Asked to comment on the cleanliness in the kitchen, almost all the respondents found it to be in very unhygienic condition.

b) By undertaking microbiological tests:

One of the central purposes of the research work was to know if the food served at DU dining rooms are free from contamination. With that purpose in view, microbiological tests were undertaken on three fixed samples of food collected from one Hall dining room at the microbiological centre of IFST (Institute of Food Science and Technology) under BCSIR (Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research). Apart from the cooked food, microbiological test on drinking water was also conducted.

According to the lab-report, no Salmonella and Faecal Coliform were found save in one bottle of water. In one bottle 02 (MPN/100ml) Faecal Coliform was found which was not desired. However, in two other bottles of water no Faecal Coliform was found. "It may be due to external problems. Sometimes, it may so happen that water is pure but due to unclean/ unhygienic condition of tap or basin or glass, water becomes contaminated. For pure drinking water everything containing it and surrounding it should be neat and clean"- said Mrs. Fauzia Hafiz, principal scientific officer of BCSIR who conducted the microbiological tests.

The report showed the level of counts to be very high. The level of standard plate count (per gm/ml) had exceeded 100 in case of all items but 100 is the ideal level. Also the level of Faecal Coliform did not near nil which is the ideal situation. Thus, after the microbiological test, it could not be said that food and water were absolutely pure. The official statement of the IFST, BCSIR on the sample after the microbiological test read: “As per the above results, the overall microbial population in the sample may be considered as high. Proper care should be taken to reduce the counts.”

c) By examining the nutritive value of foods:

Basically two types of analysis are done to determine the nutritive value of supplied foods. These are-
1. Organoleptic
2. Chemical

The first type of analysis is made on the basis of appearance, colour, flavour and taste of the food. Scientist Majeda Begum who examined the nutritive value of foods supplied from two halls (one male and one female), stated the following as part of the organoleptic analysis of food:

“It seems that the foods were prepared carelessly and neglectfully. Food selection was not appropriate. Some vegetable has been used in two items at the same period. This is likely to result in distaste about curry on the part of the food takers."

The nutritive status of two DU halls (Rokeya and Zia) was determined after both organoleptic and chemical tests. After the calculation of energy and protein portion of the foods a big difference could be observed between minimum requirement and maximum fulfilment. For example, as per the finding, a resident at Zia Hall could receive maximum energy of 1449 k. cal compared with the minimum requirement of 2820 kilo calories for an under-19 man. In that case the energy deficiency is for 1371 k. cal. Asked if that deficiency could be covered by taking the breakfast given the fact that only two meals were under calculation, scientist Majeda replied, "It is unthinkable that energy deficiency for as much as 1371 k. cal and protein deficiency for 36 gm % could be covered only by taking breakfast". The picture of deficiency is almost the same with the girl’s halls. If an under-19 female student had taken food at Rokeya hall, she was to suffer energy deficiency of 1373 k. cal and protein deficiency of 20 gm %.

In brief, the findings of the nutritive value of foods indicate the deplorable and sorry state the DU halls are in, in terms of their nutritive status.

The Post Survey Parley

This stage of the research work was particularly interesting and fact-finding which helped to unearth many a mystery behind the constant food debacle at DU dormitories. In fact, the post survey investigation and interview aimed at fulfilling a major commitment of the research work which was to unearth the key reasons behind food tragedies like the infamous Mohsin hall incident in the near past when more then one hundred students were affected with diarrhoeal disease in the same night! Anyway, due to constraint of time and space, in the research paper only A Tale of Two Halls could be told notwithstanding the fact that the lab-report on food samples from two halls and findings from questions answered by students of five halls provided a strong logic to believe that there was/ is hardly any canteen/ dining/ cafe which is free from food hazards.

Rokeya Hall: Corruption

Parley with mess manager: Three female members of the research group manned the investigation team. They at first approached the mess-manager for an open discussion though she preferred to remain tightlipped. After repeated attempts the ice could be broken on condition of anonymity. According to the mess manager of the Tk 25 (realized per day, per head) maximum Tk 18 is spent per day and of the spare Tk 7, Tk .2 is spent on monthly feast and the rest Tk 5 is pocketed by the house-tutor! "This case of misappropriation is known to the students but they cannot moot any question". Asked if the standard of food could be improved the mess manager replied in the negative because, according to her "Students have no say in the decision making process. Their food choice doesn't receive any priority".

Zia Hall: Cadre Terrorism

At first most of the employees denied that food served by them was poor in quality. But when the lab-report and dissatisfactory finding from the responded questionnaire were put forward before them, they defended themselves in the following way:

The dining manager- “If the food we serve is poor in quality, this is because of the interference in our business by the extortionists and cadres. On the average, during each luncheon, we have to serve at least 50 meals free of charge. Cost of 50 meals is minimum Tk 500. After conceding a loss of Tk.500/= for each meal, it becomes impossible for us to maintain the quality of food. Tk 500 is not a manageable loss.”

A veteran employee who have been working for more than three decades at different hall dining rooms on DU campus said, "In my experience I found no dining manager who could continue the business in the halls for more than three years. Thanks to the regular interference of the cadres, the owner of the canteen normally incurs losses and stops canteen business at one stage."

A canteen boy who also accompanies his manager at the kitchen market said, “The price of kitchen vegetables is always increasing. These days it is very difficult to manage the hall canteen. We are continuing the business some how”.

After remembering some horrible incidents in the hall canteen another canteen boy said, “We have to bring what the cadres want. It does not matter if this is available in the area or not. The costly foods are bought for cadres from the nearby hotels spending from our purse”.

Asked to explain as to why residents at female halls suffer from food hazards since there in no cadre interference in their dining rooms, the canteen manager replied, “We collect famous cooks from different city hotels, they do not”.

Meanwhile, according to a Daily Star report, last year the cadres reproached the provost of Mujib Hall when the latter attempted to take some punitive measures against the former.

Therefore, the post surveys investigative work helped in unearthing two non-food elements encompassing the food hazards at DU halls. These are:
(1) Corruption
(2) Terrorism


Students gave several suggestions for the solution of food problem at the residential halls. The research group members also collected the opinion of the scientists who conducted tests on the purity and the nutritive value of the foods. At the end of the research paper, the research members offered their prescription after juxtaposing the survey finding, lab report and post survey investigation report.

a) From the students:

  • As many as 93% of the students under survey called for more sincere role of the hall authority not only on food but also on all other issues directly affecting the students. The hall provosts/ house tutors should take care about the problems faced by the students. In fact, guardians all across the country send their wardens to stay at university halls for attending higher educational institutions showing faith on the hall authorities which turns the provosts/ house tutors into de-facto parents. So, the officials assuming different posts in the halls should be as sincere as parents are to their offspring.
  • Cooking is certainly not a layman’s job and the person who will cook for thousands of university students should and must be a professional in the field. It is regrettable that when contacted the hall authority could not show any mechanism on the basis of which cooks and dining boys are appointed. A good number of respondents opined that practical training on rules of health and cleanliness should be imparted to the cooks and dining boys.
  • The proverb cheap and nasty is prevailing in the DU halls. That means, greengroceries, rice and other food materials are bought taking into account only their cheapness with no concern for quality. Most of the female respondents objected that poor quality rice is served.
  • Students have no say/choice in food affairs rather the food issue is exclusively managed by the house tutors and dining managers who hardly pay any attention to the choice of the students about their food. The obvious result is the repetition of the cheapest dish all the time. Food variety is hardly maintained. The respondents reasonably suggested that food items should be registered period/date wise and food variety should be monitored by an observer group comprising students and hall officials.
  • Mess system is a good try according to the respondents. Under this system, the students do some managerial work periodically. Maintaining a routine, the mess members take part in procuring green groceries, meat, fish, oil, spices etc along with the dining managers and cooks. Being frustrated at the mischievous food management by the hall authorities in the past, the students have taken the responsibility of their food through the newly introduced mess-system. Mess system should be introduced in all halls primarily on trial basis and if it succeeds then it could be given a permanent shape.
  • The mess-members do not receive any subsidy from the government/university authority. But price-like is a common phenomenon in the kitchen market. Majority of the hall-students hail from rural/agrarian parts of Bangladesh who are dependent on their low-income parents in meeting their educational expenses. So the concerned authorities should reconsider about more subsidy on food.
  • According to 35% of the male respondents, mischievousness of the armed cadres patronised by different political parties is one of the main reasons behind poor quality food.

b) From the experts:

Scientist Majeda Begum of BCSIR thinks that dietician should be appointed in all halls immediately if proper food planning is to be ensured. Scientist Majeda, herself a formal student of DU, laid emphasis on two other measures:
Firstly, the boys, bearers and other members of the staff should be made aware about the basic rules of health and nutrition.
Secondly, students should have their say in food related issues. In this regard, self-management and self-service system may be encouraged.

c) From the research group:

  • The research members, after carrying out the whole study, reached a conclusion that the food problem at DU halls is a side effect of other diseases like corruption, insincerity, campus violence, session-jam, unemployment etc rather than a disease in itself. Most of the diseases are the legacy of non-food elements like moral decadence and corrupt politics. Until the political parties stop patronising the armed cadres on the campus, the cadres will loom large and continue their influence on all issues in the hall (their den) including food; until the time when the society is really free from corrupt people, there will be malpractice and misappropriation of fund (from student's fund or from public purse); until the time the unemployment problem is completely solved, the helpless young will take up arms to earn bread. So, the food problem could not be completely solved if the non-food issues are not duly addressed.
  • Dhaka University has an Environment Council. Within the framework of the prevailing Environment Council, a body could be constituted involving students, teachers, officials etc to monitor the hall foods. This might be a big step towards ensuring check and balance system in preparing and serving foods at halls.
  • Serving food for thousands of students requires teamwork. Good working relationship should exist among the managers, cooks, kitchen-helps, dining-boys etc. Therefore, true working spirit should be restored which is absolutely missing presently.
  • Dhaka University, like any other public university, receives about 95% of its yearly expenditure from the Government. But no subsidy is provided on food. In fact, Government of a poor country like ours, already burdened with numerous problems, can hardly share the costs of food of university students. But the Hall authorities can both reduce their dependence on Government and lessen the pressure on poor students by making good use of already polluted fallen areas surrounding the halls. The fallen areas could be used for vegetation, fisheries, and dairy farm etc. Trained personnel should be appointed for systematic and scientific cultivation of the fallen areas.
  • The already polluted ponds inside different hall compounds should be purified immediately with the dual aim of saving the university from environmental pollution and supplying food materials for the students. Fish cultivation will greatly help in meeting the protein needs of the students.

Concluding Remarks

It is true that food hazards and food insecurity is everywhere. But the university must show the path. When all other social and political institutions collapse, the countrymen put up their expectations on institutions like universities. Dhaka University, therefore, must own up that responsibility with utmost fidelity.

The author, himself a member of the research group, is a free lance journalist. Other group members were Md. Sorowar Chowdhury, Kaniz Farzana, Fatema Afroz and Nusrat Zahan all of whom are presently doing their Masters in International Relations at Dhaka University. Prof. Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed was the research advisor.