On 3rd October 2021 Mamata Banerjee, the incumbent chief minister of West Bengal – with a reputation as street-fighting politician, won a by-election at Bhabanipur, to secure her chief ministerial chair.

Ironically, the very next day, the West Bengal police cracked down on students holding demonstrations demanding opening of the schools and colleges in the state.

Discontent has been brewing among the students of the state for quite some time. The demand for unlocking the campuses was slowly gathering momentum over the last few months, after the second wave of COVID-19 receded in the State.

According to many student activists, the students are suffering in multiple ways. On one hand, many are not getting a fair chance to pursue their education in the virtual classroom system due to lack of infrastructure; on the other hand, they are not getting the chance to have a campus-life and thus are not becoming aware of their roles and responsibilities as a part of the student community.

COVID Response Watch LogoThe education sector in India is one of the biggest to suffer during the COVID crisis. With the advent of virtual classrooms many students from the under-privileged sections of the society lost their means of education. Across the slums in the city of Kolkata, the younger generation de-facto dropped out from the education system.

This unavailability of resources coupled with the economic turmoil brought upon their families by the pandemic, forced many to abandon dreams of getting a good education and taking up jobs to sustain their livelihood. Many families remained attached to the schools only because their children received a monthly ration as part of the mid-day meal policy.

Early last year, educational institutes were among the first establishments to go into lockdown mode across India as well as in West Bengal. The educational institutes in West Bengal went into lockdown on 17th March of 2020. Since then, one and a half years have passed. But the doors of the universities, colleges and schools remain closed and the student community continues to suffer.

Students have not stopped from protesting the decision to keep the universities closed. When the protest was met with force by the government, several left organizations joined hands and started to hold regular gatherings in support of the demand. But, the government’s “zero-tolerance policy” against agitations continued and on 4th October 2021, as many as 54 students were arrested at a protest demonstration.

According to the government, the campuses are all set to open after the upcoming Durga Pooja vacations. However, many institutions have released statements stating that students will need to be vaccinated with at least one jab in order to attend classes. And needless to say, many  organizations across the state are challenging this step as undemocratic.

Apart from organising protests, many student activists have been working to develop an alternative model of education for students from underprivileged sections of the society. One such initiative  involves a group of students from Jadavpur University. They commenced their work almost a year ago and despite limited resources have been working in several localities.

Under the name of Jadavpur Commune, they are working in at least three slum areas in south Kolkata. On a daily basis they are working in the Charu Market slum, slums adjoining the Jadavpur Railway station and near the Bengal lamp factory.

According to Anuska, a student activist associated with the  Commune, , the initiative was undertaken as a part of their long term work in the wake of the pandemic. The students from the commune were going to these areas and distributing food and other amenities during the period of lockdown. During these visits they felt the need to work in those areas more consistently, something more than distribution of food materials.

Jhelum Roy, another activist associated with the group told Covid Response Watch, that during these visits they came in close contact with young students in those areas. Apart from informal classes, they trained some of them in using basic medical equipment, enabling them to intervene in emergency situations. According to Jhelum, this not only helped the community, the students also earned a great amount of confidence apart from respect within the community.

In the meanwhile, the activists also started to work on the issue of education in the area. Most of these students came from an under-privileged background. Since the beginning of the lockdown they were not been able to have access to regular education. Looking into this problem the activists started organizing informal classes, which was then finally regularized three months ago.

Now nearly 25 students are part of this initiative and they are continuing their education through creatively designed classes. According to Anuska, due to the absence of regular classes these students are getting distanced from the entire education process, which in all probability will lead to massive number of drop outs when the educational institutions reopen. This is especially so for female students, who are prone to dropping out even during normal times and now the situation is much worse.

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed brought upon a huge catastrophe to the people in various fronts. But with the effort of the Jadavpur Commune and the students, there may still hope for a better future ahead.

Arka Deep is a researcher based in Bolpur, West Bengal

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