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Eyewitness report from India

By Rick Majumdar |
October 28, 2021
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Banner reads "Lifting the curfew on education". An initiative by the Students Fe
Banner reads "Lifting the curfew on education". An initiative by the Students Federation of India to reopen schools and colleges. (Fight Back! News)

Kolkata, India - The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has had a devastating effect, claiming more than 250,000 lives in a matter of three months, between April and June of this year.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling government in India, failed to address the concerns of the people and enacted repressive policies that are against their interests. In India the number of people living in poverty outnumber the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa, and privatized healthcare has led to the demise of countless people during this pandemic.

The callous attitude of the of BJP led to the shortage of vaccines, oxygen concentrators, oxygen cylinders, ventilators and other medical necessities - shortages that proved to have a devastating effect. During the first wave, the Narendra Modi-led government was shipping off vaccines manufactured by private entities like Serum Institute in Pune to countries like South Africa instead of bolstering the reserve stock. At the height of the pandemic, these private entities had vaccine shortages. These vaccines, namely Covidshield and Covaxin, are available at rates between Rs. 700-Rs. 1300 ($9-$18) depending on the medical facility offering these vaccines. The vaccine manufacturers and the hospitals, clinics and others providing these vaccines are profiteering even in these dire conditions by charging first-world rates for the vaccine.

The lockdown essentially broke down the economic structure in India. India, a cash-based informal economy with a massive service sector, came to a halt. During the first COVID wave hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave urban centres where they work to go back to their homes in the villages, but transportation such as trains and bus services were also closed down, leaving these workers no option but to return to their homes on foot. Many migrant workers died during this time and several others were inhumanly treated once they reached their home states. In Uttar Pradesh workers were doused with harmful chemicals - apparently to ‘sanitize’ them.

The informal nature of the Indian economy made establishing a lockdown even harder, since it is nearly impossible to reduce human interaction. The West Bengal government would have partial lockdowns where on certain days in a month the state would be closed down in a failed attempt to stop the spread. The unemployment crisis hit its highest numbers in West Bengal. Many engineering graduates were forced to seek working-class jobs after graduating because of the lack of industry-based jobs and the economic standstill. The cost of essential items skyrocketed due to inflation. Petrol prices increased as well, leading to increase in transportation costs.

Education took a major hit. During the lockdown the state and central governments mandated schools and colleges move to online classes. This had a very devastating effect, since majority of schools and colleges in the rural areas aren't equipped with the technology required for online learning, leaving millions of children without the means to get access to school resources. The Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government canceled examinations for 10th and 12th grades. This left several thousand at risk of not getting jobs after they graduate school, since the grades they would get in these exams would determine their career.

The student wing of the CPIM (Communist Party of India, Marxist), the Students Federation of India (SFI) called for the reopening of schools and colleges. The SFI across West Bengal organized classes in conjunction with teachers outside their colleges and universities demanding that these institutions be reopened. Anustup Chakravarty a member of the SFI unit of Jadavpur University spoke of how the TMC government was reopening theatres, malls and restaurants but left educational institutions closed to the benefit of no one.

The progressive left parties such as the CPIM and the SUCI (Socialist Unity Centre of India) suggested stimulus packages of Rs. 7000 per month to unemployed families, including the provision of basic food supplies such as rice, vegetables etc. every month. These proposals were roundly rejected by the BJP government.

CPIM leader Sujan Chakraborty of Jadavpur Constituency in Kolkata, told Fight Back! local members of the CPIM were involved in to provide food to the local working people who continued to work during the pandemic, such as rickshaw drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, delivery workers, construction workers etc. While evaluating the conditions a situation of food scarcity was predicted. A community kitchen was then be set up that fed the working people for several months, after which many of the rickshaw drivers themselves offered to provide a minimum amount for the food. The "Sromojibi Canteen" (Working People's Canteen) then took off, providing full lunches for affordable rates of only Rs. 30 (40 cents). These canteens then spread throughout the state of West Bengal. Later "Sromojibi Bazaar" (Working People's Bazaar) was also set up to provide vegetables at significantly lower rates than the ordinary markets.

On August 16, various leaders of the CPIM spoke during the 500th day of operations of the Jadavpur Sromojibi Canteens about the work that the CPIM members were involved during the second wave, including the Red Volunteers who provided oxygen cylinders and carried patients to nearby hospitals.

Recently the Global Hunger Index placed India at a rank 101, below several other countries in the Indian sub-continent and Africa as well. 381 million people (a very conservative number which could easily be 500-600 million) live in conditions of extreme poverty. Food scarcity is due to extreme poverty and the breakdown of informal mechanisms to distribute crops and finished agricultural products to markets. These extreme conditions are aggravated by the anti-farmer policies that have led to massive farmers protests across the country.

Government policies have allowed COVID-19 to cripple the Indian economy. The local and state governments in India need to bolster the vaccination drive. The overall vaccination process has been slow in West Bengal, but it has picked up post-July.

Several automatic-rickshaw drivers and rickshaw drivers who are part of the TMC drivers’ union told Fight Back! they have received free vaccination, but it has been largely inconsistent, since many drivers have yet to receive vaccine for reasons being that they are either out of state or are not part of the ruling party's union.

Vaccination efforts need to continue on a larger scale to prevent another devastating situation when the third wave hits. The local governments and the state governments need to prioritize people over profiteering to ensure that more lives are not lost.

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