All India General Secretary of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI),
and a PhD scholar at the University of Calcutta.
How SFI Fights Corona Across The Country
The deadly coronavirus knows no boundaries. It is known for its non-partisan stand in jeopardising the basic necessities required to sustain all human life. However, the virulent inequality that exists in our society is more visible than ever in these times. We have been witnessing how governments across the world have locked down nations to combat this highly contagious virus. The Indian government has also imposed a lockdown, but without proper planning. With the lockdown being hastily put in place, the daily wage labourers — of which migrant labourers form a large chunk — struggle to make their both ends meet; students from marginalised sections suffer miserable conditions. It is not often that we face such a crisis, and it is not often that the common man or woman realises how much socialism succeeds in tackling such outbreaks and how capitalism fails at the same time. Cutting down funds for social services, disinvestment in public infrastructure and negligent planning for years have resulted in this absolute mess. Capitalism has failed the litmus test. In this time of emergency, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) has naturally risen up to the occasion by approaching the masses, offering assistance, and demanding what is right from the government.
As the contagious COVID-19 started wreaking havoc on the health sector and on social harmony, SFI did not think twice before jumping into the forefront with many aids. One such step was to release a set of helpline numbers to reach out to people who were running the country day and night — the working class.
A lockdown implemented with haste has jeopardised the daily lives of workers, of which a large section commute to work every day. They are stuck without work across the country, and our primary responsibility was to assist them. Lakhs of migrant workers from places like Bengal, Assam, and Bihar, were stuck in Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Delhi, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Our comrades continue to spend sleepless nights to assist them. In Kerala, the Left-led state government has been taking steps to alleviate their hardships right from the beginning. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in his daily press conferences, has been reiterating the steps taken to ensure the well-being of the migrant workers (whom the state calls “guest workers”). We pay our revolutionary greetings to the Kerala Government, for they from the outset have realised how inadequate the accommodative facilities of guest workers are in order to ensure proper physical distancing. Therefore, it was decided to set up camps for these workers and to arrange for regular medical check-ups. Food was also made available through local government-run community kitchens. Thousands of SFI comrades volunteered to make this a success. Meanwhile, the SFI Kerala State Committee launched an awareness campaign to circulate messages of the state government and its Health Department among the guest workers in languages like Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Tamil and Assamese languages. The campaign, called “Mera Pyaare Changaayi” (“My dear friend” – with “my dear” in Hindi, and “friend” in Malayalam), the Kerala, West Bengal, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura, Assam and Delhi State Committees of SFI coordinated to bridge the gap between stuck workers and their families.
Our comrades’ bravery, sacrifice and determination in the face of this deadly pandemic will be remembered forever. SFI Maharashtra State President Balaji Kaletwad travelled 180 kilometers on a two-wheeler to hand over life saving medicines to a family stuck in Hingoli, Maharashtra. Nasbina Khatun, an SFI activist from South 24 Parganas, West Bengal is involved in the works of a community kitchen set up by the organisation. From an economically weak background, her family is equally affected by the crisis. There are thousands of SFI volunteers like Nasbina across the country working tirelessly to ensure that people do not go hungry. In different corners of our country, SFI has set up community kitchens, sanitisation services, and mask making units for people who have no means to procure food or sanitary products. SFI has also been organising blood donation camps so that blood banks do not go dry during this crisis. SFI activists in Kerala have cleaned up many government Primary Health Centres to convert them into ‘Standby Corona Care Centres’. Keeping in mind the current need for sanitation facilities, SFI has even taken initiatives to manufacture hand sanitisers, with the help of students in West Bengal and Kerala. As responsible student elected bodies, the SFI-led Presidency University Students’ Union and Jadavpur University Students’ Union have distributed hand sanitizers to those who could not access them.
There are many exemplary success stories we could remind ourselves of. One such story is that of Soumi Basak, a resident of Jadavpur who could not buy sanitary napkins even after multiple visits to several medicine shops. Her woes doubled as the regular online home delivery services stopped with the lockdown coming into place. It was then that she came across a Facebook post by SFI asking women to contact them “without any hesitation”. She rang up on one of the two numbers given and she got sanitary pads delivered at her doorstep within 12 hours. The message “There is no Lockdown on Menstruation! We will deliver Sanitary Napkins at your doorsteps”, by our Girls Sub-Committees went ‘viral’ and it simply proves our efficiency. SFI Tamil Nadu and the West Bengal State Committees reached out to the marginalised transgender community in order to provide essential supplies to them.
The Red Volunteers of SFI have always been there for assistance. The SFI Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Assam and West Bengal State Committees have been assisting migrant workers ever since the curfew was imposed. SFI continues to provide essential food items to workers’ families, as well as to street and slum dwellers. Our comrades were also engaged in transporting security equipment provided by Member of Parliament Su.Venkatesan to the Madurai Rajaji Government Hospital. SFI Bhadrak District Committee in Odisha distributed masks and hand sanitisers to all those who were in need. Community Kitchens have been set up in New Delhi, and the food cooked there is distributed amongst workers, students, and rickshaw pullers around the area.
Demands to the Government
SFI demands that the government ensure such basic rights to every citizen without any bias. With the shutting of schools, many institutions seek refuge in online classes. We are all aware of the parity in accessing internet across India and how any online educational activity now will only intensify this. Our organisation acknowledges the fact that alternative measures should be put in place, but the MHRD cannot turn their backs on formal education, since a large chunk of students depend on it. We also strongly believe that the MHRD and UGC should work towards a common academic calendar, which would ensure that no university is singled out and that no student is left out, during this period of academic loss.
We also demand the suspension of hostel fees, as it is difficult for students to reach their homes amidst the crisis and most of them are stuck in their hostels, and some in rented rooms. The government should ensure that there will be no rent collected during this period, from students who are left with no other options but to stay wherever they are.
SFI also demands the immediate release of scholarships for students and it must directly be transferred to their bank accounts. We request the UGC to immediately disburse existing fellowship-money to students, namely the UGC Non-NET, JRF, RGNF, and the Single Girl Child Fellowship. It must be noted that most students have not received their fellowship-money since several months now. They are now stranded in different parts of the country now and it is all the more important to disburse the money they rightfully deserve at this hour of crisis.
We also request the MHRD to widen the financial support offered to students during this pandemic. Many students, especially women and those from marginalised sections, are forced to shoulder household responsibilities due to the ongoing economic crisis. This might lead to high rates of dropouts once the pandemic has passed. We request that all kinds of financial and psychological support be provided to students so that they can smoothly get back to academics after this.
SFI recognises how careless our so-called “5 billion dollar economy” is in supporting doctors and health workers fighting this pandemic day in and day out. We pledge to stand by our guardians of life and urge the government to immediately make protective gears available to them. SFI has sent 10 lakh petitions to the Prime Minister asking him to immediately arrange PPE kits, N95 masks, gloves etc. for healthcare workers in the country, for ignoring the cries of health workers might turn India into a real ‘sick’ country.
As communication with the student community has become difficult during the lockdown, we have developed different ways to bridge this gap. We of course maintain physical distance to make our medical workers’ work easier, but that does not mean that we are at home, away from any social activity. The pandemic can have multiple effects on human life. Along with the effects on the economy and on one’s physical well-being, it has also adversely affected people’s mental health. So we have begun the #YouAreNotAlone campaign, through which we read, engage, explore new ideas, and strengthen our political conviction for a better society. We have been organising talk shows on important issues like the effects of the lockdown on the urban poor as well as in rural India on our Facebook page. Our online protest demonstration, ‘#BhashanNahiRation: No hollow speeches, we want ration’, against the government’s inaction on the miseries of the people during the lockdown has gone ‘viral’. SFI is also trying to celebrate the lives and bravery of our comrades through social media platforms, and we have already invited young, talented performers to our CEC page to perform. District Committees of Kozhikode and Thrissur in Kerala organised online cultural festivals, with the participation of thousands. Many other District and State Committees also followed them to organise other successful programs. The SFI West Bengal State Committee took an initiative to form an online library for student activists during the lockdown. They then joined hands with a group of young IT consultants, doctors, medical volunteers and early responders to deliver healthcare advisories under the hashtag #Janaswasthya.
There is no lockdown for our motto, ‘study and struggle’. We have been active with our publications and propagating progressive ideas throughout the crisis. Issues of Student Struggle, the journal of SFI, are published and distributed online, and its online edition has been publishing write-ups on multiple issues almost every day. Student Struggle has also decided to publish a ‘COVID Diary’, in a bid to involve Indian students from across the globe to jot down their experiences during the pandemic.
Comrades across the country have joined hands in protest for better livelihood for workers and students during this unprecedented crisis. SFI has plunged into manifold relief work for those affected across India and have, therefore, proved once again that we would not step back from just causes. We are of course also deeply concerned about the rapidly spreading ‘communal virus’ trying to remind that an inefficient government is like a virus that in fact, kills its host.
Let us stay safe, raise our voices for public health, and build social solidarity.
Published in: Student Struggle The Journal of Students‘ Federation of India