The Maharashtra Council of Lok Raj Sangathan had organised a meeting on an internet platform on Saturday, June 27, 2020, on the topic “Role of People’s Organisations during the Covid-19 Crisis”.
Since the lockdown was imposed, the members of Lok Raj Sangathan have tried their best to assuage the suffering of the people by doing whatever was necessary – dealing with the authorities to ensure food or transport was provided to those in need, as well as raising funds for the same. In the process we had worked together with a number of organisations and individuals. The meeting was organised to interact with these people in order to share experiences and learnings, as well as to chart out a program for the coming days.
The participation was excellent. The invited speakers included Bhakti and Zil from SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network), Riya and Dinesh from LRS and SWAN, Mufti Huzaifa and Sajid Ansari from Jamat e Ulema, Dr. Inteqab from MPJ (Movement for Peace and Justice), Com. Uday Chaudhari from AITUC and TUJAC. Representatives of Halat Forum, CITU, CSSS, Lok Hind Party, BEST Bachao and Samanvaya were among those who participated. A large number of members of LRS also participated. Sanjeewani Jain, a Vice President of LRS conducted the meeting.
The young volunteers of SWAN described how they got quickly organised and were able to help people from all over the country – Chandigarh, MP, Bihar, Himachal, UP, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and of course, Maharashtra. The dismantling of the Public Distribution System (PDS) was keenly felt. After a while, when their resources started drying up, they started trying to get government departments to step in. That was indeed a very hard task. After lot of hue and cry across the country GOI declared that free ration will be provided for people (5 Kg grain), but in reality we found that even those with valid ration cards were not getting the grain, forget about migrant workers who do not have local ration cards.
These volunteers, along with those of LRS and other organisations that they worked with, like MUSE and Robin Hood Army, initially had to answer calls for food, and in the second phase more and more people needed help to go home. People walking home were stopped and ordered to go back. Many were dealt with very brutally by the police More than 600 people lost their lives in trying to reach home. Basically the government had washed its hands off and left the workers to be “atmanirbhar”. Almost every worker they contacted told them that whatever help they are getting is from people’s organisations, and not from government. They found that common people were donating very readily for the cause. But for the help from the people and their organisations, the overall toll would have been much more.
Much the same experience was there in the case of the health system. Dinesh from LRS described how they helped health sector workers from government hospitals of Thane, Ulhasnagar by giving masks, sanitizers, and protein supplements. The government machinery completely failed the health workers, and it is by dipping into their own pockets as well as by getting help from the people, that the doctors and others are somehow carrying on.
It was a systemic crisis, as one of the speakers declared. It is very clear that health care cannot and must not be left in private hands. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every person living in the country should be able to live and thrive and not just survive!
Com Uday Chaudhari pointed out how the government has been very busy in trying to prevent workers from returning home as well as changing labour laws, environment protection laws, etc. in the interests of the capitalists. Many social and political activists and trade union activists have been arrested. The capitalists are planning to retrench lakhs of workers across various sectors. On 3rd July a nationwide protest has been organised. He appealed to all to join the protests outside Bhiwandi and Kalyan labour offices that they are organising. The demands include free rations for six months as well as at least Rs. 7500 per month to everyone till proper livelihood is possible.
Sonali pointed out that construction workers, mess workers and maintenance workers are hired on contract basis in IIT. They haven’t received their salaries even for March and April and now face serious problem of livelihood. Their contractors are saying that they don’t have any money to give and they are not responsible. IIT is refusing to accept that it is the principal employer. This is the plight of workers in an institute like IIT! She along with several others pressurised the Director of the Institute to intervene.
Speaking on behalf of Jamiat e Ulema, Sajid Ansari from Bhiwandi said that they started helping with food packets immediately after the lock down was announced. Within a week they increased the quantity from 200 packets to 1000 a day. Recently they have also made arrangements to supply oxygen cylinders in the mosque for the needy. He also described how taking advantage of the lockdown, Torrent had issued almost three times the normal bill for electricity to the people of Bhiwandi.
Ms. Zia said that when they organized the first train to Tamilnadu they found absurd questions asked like “Why do these workers want to go back? They don’t have Aadhar card of TN”, and so on. All actions of the government are a breach of fundamental right of citizens to live, and live with dignity. We should fight to establish that right! We must collectively fight to establish accountability.
A budding counsellor, Jahnavi from LRS declared that loneliness related stress has increased amongst people and also amongst juveniles. She has been regularly talking to people in distress and trying to help them. Stress hormones reduce our immunity and that is why many healthy people are succumbing to this pandemic.
Many young people shared their experiences in organising relief and their understanding. One of them said that we must salute those people who braved all risks and came out of their homes to help people. We cannot say that everyone suffered in the crisis. The crisis affected different classes differently and we have to look at it from that angle. A handful of people have definitely gained from this crisis as they gain from others, whether natural or man-made like genocides. It is invariably people who have come out and helped and saved others. The state has not fulfilled its basic responsibility while the people have done their best to do that. The state is not accountable to the people, even though it is the people who pay taxes, whether they come within the income tax bracket or not. Actually the poorer people pay a much larger proportion of their income by way of indirect taxes. The government just recently has made changes in laws to favour the capitalists. This shows who the state is accountable to. Various people’s committees and groups formed should be strengthened.
One of the young members reiterated that in every crisis people have demonstrated their unity by helping each other irrespective of caste, creed or anything else. People are not communal, while the state definitely is. In the ongoing crisis those in power have resorted to communal instigation. All people have the right to stay wherever they want to within the country. In difficult times it is natural for people to be with their near and dear ones. But various governments like that in Karnataka tried their hardest to ensure that they could not go home, because the owners needed their labour power after the lockdown was removed. The Supreme Court ruled that people should not be forgiven their EMIs though crores have lost their jobs. But capitalists’ loans of lakhs of crores are written off! The Judiciary, Executive and Legislature are not accountable to the people. They are part of the very same state that is anti-people.
Ashok from Lok Raj Sangathan was called upon to speak on the food crisis and the health crisis. He made a number of interesting observations. (See boxes).
Girish pointed out how fresh divisions are being deliberately created among the people based on their “home states” though we are all citizens of the same country. The Central Government as well as most state governments, irrespective of the party in power have behaved extremely callously towards the people. Neither the Maharashtra government nor the Tamilnadu government was willing to take responsibility of those workers who wanted to return to Tamilnadu from Mumbai. Both kept pushing the ball into each other’s court and lengthening the misery and suffering of the people.
It is also important to think that if a few thousand people and their organisations could do so much despite many hurdles put by the government, then how much could the government have done if it intended to? If the government is of the people so much more would have been done! If people’s organisations and their volunteers could organize and ensure delivery of food and grain at the doorsteps of the needy, then why can’t the government organize the same?
Social distancing was most faithfully obeyed by most of the elected representatives and senior most bureaucrats, barring a handful of honourable exceptions: instead of getting on the field and helping people they remained hidden. So what did they do as people’s representatives? We must ask them these questions and hold them accountable. Many anti-people legislations and laws, which the governments could not impose earlier due to severe opposition from people, have been rammed through taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation.
Another thing that has been established without doubt is that if the working people stop working due to any reason, then the whole society comes to a standstill. That is why capitalists are trying to prevent workers from going home. Capital on its own can’t do anything. Hence the most precious asset of our society is the working people and therefore everything in society has to be organized towards nourishing this most precious asset. And that is why working people need to be empowered.
He proposed that we must agitate for a modern universal public healthcare system which will ensure health care needs of every person, as well as a modern universal public distribution system that ensures that everyone is provided all essential items of mass consumption, including foodgrains and pulses.
These proposals were enthusiastically welcomed by all. Dr. Das, the Secretary of the Maharashtra Council of Lok Raj Sangathan, stressed that various organisations should continue to work together and not focus on their differences. He stressed that we should fight unitedly for universal health care and food.
Sanjeewani summed up the discussion and declared that we would meet again soon to work in accordance with the decisions taken.
Some interesting facts about the health system
Why so much hunger in the country?
Resources are NOT the problem!