India’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially severe, with the second wave assuming a truly apocalyptic scale. The people of the country — its working masses in particular — have been facing a double whammy, with an assault on their livelihoods as well as the public health catastrophe. Narendra Modi’s government has presided over a very poor vaccination program, prioritizing the profits of big business over the need to save lives.
The roots of the crisis do not lie in a malfunction of the state as such. In fact, India’s neoliberal state has been working in exactly the way it was designed to function. But in West Bengal, thousands of “Red Volunteers” who belong to organizations led by the Indian Left have sought to compensate for the record of the state institutions. They have provided solidarity and mutual aid in an exemplary manner to satisfy the needs of the people for food and medical assistance.
Modi’s government is dominated by the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which Modi himself belongs. It is so brazenly devoted to the interests of big business that it has exploited the pandemic to create new ways of maximizing profit. It has pushed through several pieces of legislation, including four labor codes and three farm laws, while also doling out tax rebates, interest-free loans, and bargain-basement privatizations of public assets to India’s business class.
In the meantime, there has been no sign of badly needed relief measures and social assistance programs. Many economists have identified the urgent need for job creation schemes and cash transfers to working people in order to generate demand in the Indian economy and put it back on track. Their recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Modi’s aggressive market fundamentalism has gone hand in hand with forms of anti-scientific irrationalism that have made the fight against COVID-19 much harder. With the Indian health system crumbling under the impact of destructive neoliberal policies, and the economy lurching toward stagnation, the world’s second most populous country is experiencing a truly disastrous crisis.
In this year’s West Bengal assembly elections, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) emerged as the overwhelming victor, with 48 percent of the vote and 213 seats out of 292. The people of West Bengal chose the TMC to resist the onward march of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. This does not change the fact that the policies pursued by the TMC in office over the last decade, since it first won the West Bengal elections in 2011, are responsible for the miserable condition the state’s people find themselves amid the pandemic.
The TMC government has cut state expenditure on key sectors such as health and education, following a line of rigid fiscal austerity. The pan-Indian phenomenon of jobless growth has been even more pronounced in West Bengal, and outward migration from the state has increased as a result. The TMC’s much-touted social welfare schemes have really amounted to peanuts when compared to the huge fall in wages experienced by the working masses.
Relief Through Solidarity
Against this background, the people of West Bengal have been pushed to the wall by the pandemic and by devastating cyclones. The Red Volunteers stepped in to provide some much-needed relief. Established in Kolkata by youth and student organizations that sympathize with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), they have mobilized large numbers of young people to assist those at the sharp end of the public-health calamity. Their ongoing work is in line with similar efforts being made by left-wing forces in other parts of India and across the world.
During the first wave of the pandemic, the major issue was the loss of livelihoods due to the unplanned lockdowns that the government imposed. The Red Volunteers started organizing free vegetable markets, community kitchens, and the distribution of free food. They also supplied medical assistance in every district in West Bengal. Female comrades took an initiative to provide menstrual kits to people at their doorsteps.
The community kitchens gradually transformed into sramajibi canteens (canteens for working people) where a full meal cost just 20 rupees. More than 150 canteens were established across the state, feeding between 250 and 500 people a day. At a time when there were daily reports of people dying from hunger, these canteens saved countless people from starvation.
The second COVID-19 wave hit the Indian working class much harder than the first. The lack of preparation by the authorities combined with India’s inadequate medical infrastructure to produce a crisis with a staggering death rate. Scenes of people dying for lack of oxygen became a common sight, along with mass cremations and dead bodies washing up on the side of rivers. Modi’s government refused to take responsibility and left people to suffer without proper treatment. India’s private hospitals hiked up charges, taking advantage of the crisis.
The Red Volunteers stepped up again and began procuring oxygen cylinders from different sources so they could use them to save lives. Cab drivers working for the taxi-hailing apps Ola and Uber, whose union is affiliated with the left-wing Centre of Indian Trade Unions, also started a dedicated cab service for COVID-19 patients. In some cases, the Red Volunteers took responsibility for arranging the cremation of a deceased person’s body after the authorities refused to do so.
These efforts were widely appreciated by different sections of society. People began to depend on the Red Volunteers more than the local administration. They were also nominated for the Healthgiri Awards sponsored by the news magazine India Today, which honored “the selfless work of unsung heroes who helped India in the fight against COVID-19.”
A Bed for the Night
Some people on the Left have questioned the worth of such projects, arguing that they are minimal when set against the needs of the masses and that they reduce us to playing the role of NGOs when we should be channeling popular anger against the neoliberal regime. But this argument is flawed and does not recognize the importance of relief work in the wider context.
It is obvious that the Red Volunteers cannot satisfy all the needs for food, medicine, oxygen supplies, and other items. They cannot substitute themselves for the role of the state. However, that does not mean that whatever relief they can provide is insignificant. The Red Volunteers have built upon previously established frameworks of solidarity and lifted them to a higher level.
In contrast with the kind of bourgeois volunteerism that relies upon directing crumbs from the rich man’s table to the mouths of the poor, the relief work of the Red Volunteers bases itself on the mobilization of collective resources (labor as well as money) that come from the working masses themselves. As well as offering people help, they sought to mobilize them to demand universal vaccination and protest against the corruption visible in medical facilities.
It may still be far from what is needed. But as Bertolt Brecht wrote in his famous poem “A Bed for the Night,” capturing both the limitations and the importance of such work,
It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.
There are valid concerns that relief work in the aftermath of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in the United States or the recent wildfires in Greece will simply help the neoliberal state to stabilize the situation and dissipate the anger it has provoked. The Red Volunteers have been alert to this danger, and they have combined relief efforts with steps to politicize the crisis.
Providing affordable food in community kitchens exposes the reluctance of government officials to expand the public distribution systems. Medical support exposes the neglect of health infrastructure by the state. Giving free tuition to working-class children exposes the injustice of the “digital divide” in education.
It would be defeatist to say that we should not provide food to anyone because we cannot feed everyone who is hungry. In fact, by providing food to as many people as we can, we are showing the superiority of a system based on solidarity, even when it has to work in the overall framework of one based on profit. This is precisely what the Red Volunteers are doing today in West Bengal, and what we shall continue to do.