When the COVID-19 lockdown began in West Bengal in 2020, a number of students from Jadavpur University of Kolkata came together to stand up with the people in the face of the grave crisis. The lockdown was a threat to the employment of many belonging to the underprivileged sections of society.
The slum dwellers, daily wage laborers, domestic workers faced a huge crisis due to this pandemic-induced lockdown, and became jobless. This unemployment forced them to use up their entire savings. The families of many were on the verge of starvation.
Apart from this obvious problem, due to lack of opportunities and government apathy, these people had a very little idea about how to fight the pandemic on their own. This was the time when the students of Jadavpur University, took up the mantle, and became a partner in the struggles of these sections of people.
In the beginning, these students thought of doing something which could be of immediate help for the people in need. To execute this idea the students formed a group named Jadavpur Commune. The group consists of many students who have pledged to stand by the people in any means possible. The group defines themselves not only as a student’s initiative but a initiative of the the university staff, faculty, local people and the students.
From the very initial days of the Commune, the students began to make sanitizers and masks and distributed them to the under-privileged sections in the nearest areas of the University. Jhelum Roy, an activist associated with the initiative told us that primarily they chose three locations to begin with. They chose an area near Charu Market area of South Kolkata, one near the Jadavpur Railway station, and another near the Bengal Lamp area near Jadavpur.
According to Jhelum, the Jadavpur commune’s next initiative was a campaign of food distribution among the people of the slums near Jadavpur railway station and the Charu Market. They raised funds and started to provide a meal consisting of rice, dal and a curry for the families. Though the food was very basic, their initiative was the only source for many to save themselves from hunger.
The first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown was made worse by Cyclone Amphan which hit West Bengal, including its capital city Kolkata in May 2020. Due to the wind gusts and torrential rain the city went into darkness. The people who were already under pressure on all fronts due to the lockdown went into further difficulties. Looking into this situation the Commune ramped up their relief efforts at several camps set up for the affected population. They continued their food distribution for many days. Finally they decided to concentrate on other issues as well.
According to Twaishi, an activist associated with the initiative, “The distribution of food was an initial and emergency response to the COVID crisis. It was never going to be the only way. The interaction with the local people during the initial days gave us the credibility and made a ground for us to engage in other constructive works with them. This is when we began to plan setting up a school for the kids of those areas.”
This plan soon came into fruition, thanks to the valiant effort of the activists. Not only the young students, but long-time activists too, participated in all these efforts with full rigor. Finally, they started two schools, one in Charu market and another in the Jadavpur university campus. The school in the Jadavpur University campus was named after two martyrs of the Naxalbari struggle, i.e. Ashu and Timir. A group of activists from the commune are now teaching the students regularly in a very creative manner.
“We don’t teach them like they do in the conventional schools. We try to ensure their participation and engage them in various creative disciplines like music and painting” said Taishi.
Not only schools, they organized a medical camp too in the Charu Market area.
“Charity was never a motivation to our initiative. We always wanted to contribute to the development of a community-based democratic system of care. Thus instead of giving individually, we provided medical equipment and trained two people from the community to develop a community-based health system. Though the scale was small, this particular step helped the people of community, and enabled them to take care of themselves during emergencies.” Notably, the Commune was also associated with two safe-homes during the second wave of the COVID-19.
Apart from joining the fight against COVID-19, the Commune has also become an active member of the progressive political circles of Kolkata. They participated in several programmes against regressive labor laws, farm laws and against the arrests of activists who raised their voice against the central government etc. They are also very active in the campaign for the release of political prisoners in West Bengal.
With their efforts they have somehow merge the lines of political activism and charity during the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, they have become a model to follow in the progressive political space.
Arka Deep is a researcher based in Bolpur