Food Park Or 40-Year-Old Canteen?: Presidency’s Big Debate In 200th Year

Not math, science or the arts. Kolkata's iconic Presidency University -- currently celebrating 200 years of existence -- is debating food.

The vice chancellor wants a swanky food court that offers -- as per the tender floated -- Chinese, Punjabi, Mughlai, South Indian, Gujarati food and more. But students want Pranab da's canteen and its 40 years of heritage, as iconic as Presidency itself.
The fish fry there may be a little greasy, momos rubbery, chow mein that China would disown, but Pranab da's canteen at Presidency, say students, is about soul food, not to be found at a food park the university wants instead.

Second year student Deblina, tucking into noodles, said, "We are a college, not a mall. Why do we need a food park? We need a canteen where we can sit and exchange ideas and eat some food. Pranab da is perfect."

A fellow student added, "The authorities are trying to corporatise the college. We will resist it, we will not allow it."

60-year-old Pranab Swain from Odisha came to Presidency when he was 14 to work in the canteen then run by his uncle. By 20, he was in charge and a hit. When students hung out for too long, teachers would send a word to Pranab Da to please send them to class.
There are students who don't care. "Its sentiment versus modernisation," they say, not overly concerned about this piece of history and quite happy with two other canteens on campus. An alumnus said, "I was a vegetarian and I remember I would get nothing at the canteen except a vegetable chop. The rest was all fish."

But many former students are upset at what they feel is a concerted effort to ease him out. Saurabh Bhattacharya, a 1996 alumnus now teaching Economics at London University, is currently guest lecturer at his alma mater. He was sitting at Pranab da's canteen and having a chicken roll when NDTV met him.

"There seems to be an assault on anything and everything that is Presidency heritage. Pranab da's canteen is the last," he said, adding, "Modernise, yes. But perhaps basic infrastructure, like enough teachers, is a bigger priority?"

Another alumnus, Amit Choudhury, currently associate director at HCL, said, "Why is the ethos of this place being changed in the garb of modernisation?"
The alumni have helped Pranab da get papers and a GST number. Numerous bureaucrats who are Presidency alumni have hastened things. But the e-tender floated for a food park is so demanding, Pranab Da has no chance of bidding to retain his canteen.

Those tendering must have an annual average turnover of Rs. 50 lakh for the last three financial years. Pranab da is nowhere close. The vice chancellor, however, doesn't think so and dismisses theories of conspiracy against Pranab da.

"There are all kinds of rumours that we are trying to get Pranab da out, that we are making it too expensive for him. The tender says he must have a turnover of 50 lakh in three years or Rs. 5,000 income a day. You think he doesn't make that?" asked Dr Anuradha Lohia, the VC. "Why isn't he bidding?"

Both figures -- Rs. 50 lakh in three years or Rs. 50 lakh each year for the last three -- are out of Pramod da's reach. "This has been my home for 40 years," he said, looking around the canteen papered and painted with slogans like Pranabda > Food Court.

"If the VC had told me, please go away, I would have quietly. But why am I being thrown out by the scruff of my neck," he asked.

He had gone home for summer vacations. When he returned early July, he found the locks on his canteen changed. He had to spend two nights on the platform of Sealdah station before ex-students stepped in to help.

The debate -- Pranab da or Food Park -- is snowballing and may end up at the door of the education minister next week. Meanwhile, news of a fresh tender is emerging with easier terms, reportedly because the first tender did not get the minimum number of bids. Four.

"The tender was for mega food chains which would come if they were sure they would make profits. But they know they won't. College students don't have so much money," said a Pranab da fan.

"Pranab da is here for Presidency, not for profit. Can't the authorities see that?"




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