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There is such a thing as a free lunch…

…a bad substandard one.

I was an NCC cadet in college. My dad was one too. He told us of stories in engineering colleges where hostel students enrolled themselves in NCC for the free and sumptuous breakfast after the Saturday parade. In my college, Saturday breakfasts came from our own canteen which was pretty good. So for a whole year, we had no real complaints about the food.

2nd year meant that we had to start going for camps where cadets would be selected and groomed to take part in the Republic Day Parade at New Delhi. That is the one thing every cadet aims for. Our first camp was held in the month of May at Wallajahpet, not far from Madras. We were supposed to stay at the government arts college there for 10 days (or was it 2 weeks? I forget). Accommodation for girls was arranged at the girls hostel there since the college was empty during the summer holidays. 25 girls from my college were given 2 tiny rooms to stay in. But the true horror was the state of the rooms and bathrooms there. We were told that it was a functional hostel where girls lived during the semester. But it was filthy, dusty and full of cobwebs. It took us about 2 hours to clean up both the rooms just to make them habitable. Of course, there were massive arguments about who got to sleep under the fan! I just decided to sleep in the corridor and stay away from a fan that only circulated the heat and body odour around the room.

Then came the horror of the toilets. Like all dormitories, the toilets were shared. I could be wrong but I think we were about a 100 odd girls sharing about 5-7 toilets and about the same number of bathrooms. There used to be fights over using them every morning. One had to always make sure that the person using the toilet/bathroom after them was someone from their own college so as to not relinquish control.

After these startling and exhausting adjustments, we sat down for our first lunch at the camp. After so many years, I distinctly remember how bad the food was. The rice was not clean & finding a worm was not surprising. Asking for it to be tasty was just too much. It was unappetizing and made us sick. I had carried a bunch of snacks from home. My staples were Marie biscuits and a few squeezy tubes of milkmaid. Many days, I would eat just that for lunch. There was a small shop inside the campus with a telephone. Their most attractive product was warm maaza. I used to down at least 2 a day. But nothing makes up for proper solid food especially when you’re involved in physical drill from 6 in the morning to 4 in the evening (again, it was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the exact schedule). One day, out of sheer exhaustion, I asked my parents to drive down to the camp with food from home, lots of it. My entire contingent sat in a circle, salivating in anticipation when the food was being opened. You had to be there to understand the meaning of the phrase, inhaled the food. I have never before or never again seen food disappear that fast. On the last day of camp, as a treat, we were served suspicious looking boiled eggs. The girls who ate them ended up with upset tummies.

In addition to the starvation, a lot of us ended up with acute urinary infection due to the poor sanitary conditions. When we complained about it to the camp commander, she ordered the toilets to be cleaned once at night too. I figured the cleaners came around 2 am to clean the toilet. So I’d set an alarm to wake up and use the toilets right after they were cleaned. I’d try not to use it again unless I really really had to.

When I read about children dying due to contaminated midday meals, I could truly imagine how deplorable their state was. We, students from good urban colleges, after endlessly protesting about the food and sanitation issues, just like our seniors did during their time, were able to change nothing. Nobody gave a damn. It was thought of as a part of roughing it out.

My heart bleeds for those children cos nothing is about to change. People are not going to stop sending their children to government schools. For many, it might be their only means to one meal a day.

I decided to quit NCC after that camp cos in spite of everyone saying that the camps got better after the first one, I was thoroughly disgusted and nothing was going to make me go back.

My heart bleeds cos I know that luxury may not be an option for these kids. No one is going to bat an eyelid at the sight of stones or worms in the rice. You simply throw them away and carry on eating.

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2 thoughts on “There is such a thing as a free lunch…

  1. Hi Gayatri,
    This topic has been raised be several other means , but sadly no one looked into it. Children are still suffering and no one is looking after them. I make charity to couple of NGO’s based in Gurgaon and New Delhi and also pay them a visit to keep a check if things are fine. However the overall situation in India is really pathetic.

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