Combating Covid Through Peoples’ Collectives

The Indian State of Kerala continues to remain in the global spot for its effective and efficient measures in tackling the Covid19 pandemic. Indian news headlines flooded with Kerala’s response to the pandemic, projecting its potential, strength and humane approach to the outer world, leaving an operative model that other states can follow. The government’s apt and adaptive state-interventionist strategy even garnered widespread attention across the world, with international medias and academic journals, including that of MIT and Oxford, praising the robustness of the ‘Kerala Model’ of development.

In Kerala, over its formative years, the state government along with its collective organisations and trade unions played an instrumental role in building up a strong public sector, which has given the state the leverage to control pandemics and natural disasters. With it’s almost cent percent literacy and its top slot in HDI ranking, the state was always receptive and reactive to progressive change.

But this is one (rather important) part of the larger story. Kerala not only has an efficient government, but also has at its disposal a conscious and responsive society of people who are well aware that their role in this deathly fight is as important as that of the government. It is with this collective strength that the southern state of India survived the Nipah Virus and two great floods over the past two years.

In sharp contrast to the state of affairs in the rest of India, Kerala’s lead in the Covid fight has to do with its unique participatory governance, where people worked hand in glove with the government, complimenting the efforts of each other. From providing food items to having media briefs every day, the government made sure that the people were out of starvation and were well informed about the situation. On the other hand, various groups of people came forward to volunteer and made sure that the government policies are implemented on time with effect to ‘break the chain’.

The Sannadha Sena

The Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, called out the youth in the state to join the Sannadha Sena, a community volunteer force formed by the government, comprehending that the government schemes for controlling the crisis needed manpower, other than the state machinery, to be implemented. The online registrations started in the month of March with numerous registrations pouring in to aid the needy. Though the initial plan was to mobilise around 2.3 lakh able-bodied youth in the age group of 22 to 40, the registrations received a massive response with more than 3 lakh volunteers of men, women and transgender, working in different sectors ranging from IT and medical to skilled labourers, registering themselves with the sena in a month.

Various organisations, including NGOs, NSS, NCC and Youth Commission called out their volunteers to get involved in the force. Both Kerala’s ruling as well as opposition parties also came forward in solidarity to the sannadha sena, entreating its members to register themselves with the force.

The purpose of the sannadha sena was to use its volunteers to provide food, other essentials and physical assistance to those who were under lockdown. After the registrations were done, the health authorities examined them for illness and provided them adequate training for helping the affected during an outbreak, without compromising their own health. The state also gave them the necessary protective equipment and paid for their food and travel expenses.

The structure of the Sena was such that each panchayat had 200 volunteers, a municipality with 500 and a corporation with 750 workers. These volunteers enquired in their neighbourhoods to find people who needed help. They were also vigilant enough to look out for the aged and disabled and those who didn’t have a home to stay in. The force made sure that these people were taken care of and were not ignored from the others. It was through the sannadha sena that the government was also effectively able to create a helpline service for assisting the people.

Community Kitchen volunteers

Understanding that the lockdown will adversely impact people’ ways to earn income, the government made a clarion call to establish community kitchens across the state to provide food at low and affordable cost. Thus, at the decree of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, hundreds of such kitchens mushroomed across 941 panchayats in the state on March 25th.


This led to the formation of an ‘arogya sena’, where people volunteered to cook meals in large numbers in community kitchens to make sure that nobody went hungry without getting food. By effectively making use of the ground level resources of the local self governments and peoples’ groups, arrangements were also made to distribute food at free of cost to those who were not able to afford them. In an extraordinary move, measures were also taken to directly deliver these free meals at the footsteps of those who couldn’t afford it, thus protecting and valuing their dignity in front of others.

The operation of the community kitchen was in such a manner that two batches of people, one for cooking and the other for distributing cooked meals, were given passes to work in the community kitchen in two timelines, one in the morning to cook the food and other at noon to distribute them, keeping the protocols of social distancing. Food packets amounting to 2.8 lakhs are being distributed a day in Kerala by these volunteers.

Other than the government, several organisations, local clubs and private individuals also sponsored funds to help in running these community kitchens.

Reaching out to families with Kudumbasree

The role of Kudumbasree, a three-tier community network project of women self help groups, was put to use at multiple levels. Not only were they involved in the setting up of numerous community kitchens in the nooks and corners of the state, but the government was also able to call upon them for various other purposes as well, in order to reach out to families.

Kudumbashree formed 1.9 lakh WhatsApp groups with 22 lakh neighbourhood group members to educate them about Government instructions regarding Covid-19. They gave a note to all the 43 lakh neighbourhood group members which they discussed at their meetings. The note was regarding details of ‘Break the Chain’ campaign and the need for special care for those above 60 years of age.

Kudumbashree was also involved in preparing and selling lakhs of cotton masks through their 306 tailoring units. Numerous micro enterprise units have prepared sanitizers when there was a shortage for it. Also, their tailoring units have prepared cloth bags for supplying it to the Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation.

Since the continuous lock down periods forced the people to not go to work, it was hard for families, especially those who were working in the informal sector, to sustain themselves without any source income. Thus, it was imperative for the government to infuse people with necessary money during the pandemic period. It was through the Kudumbasree that the government was able to give away interest free loans worth ₹2000 crore to the families who needed them.

In places that were noted as ‘red spots’ in Kerala, strict directions were given to the people to abstain themselves from getting out of their houses, except for medical and other emergencies. Thus for letting people to get the groceries and other essentials without having them to go out, the local self governments contacted the local Kudumbasree members and granted them the permission to collect and deliver those essential purchases directly to each individual’s house, limiting further contamination in those spots.

Active Political and Cultural Organisations

The various political and cultural organisations in Kerala too played a crucial role in reaching out to the common people, taking care of each of their struggling families and distributing them with kits of vegetables and essential dry food grains.

Members of both the ruling CPI(M) and the opposition INC decentralised efforts locally and took care of people by regularly ensuring that they were comfortable during the lockdown. People who had issues financially were contacted and given support by collectively funding money from the local party workers.

All being pointed out, what makes this unique effort of both the government and people working hand-in-hand with each other only possible to the state of Kerala is because of its people-centric development practises over the years by its consecutive governments. The state has invested heavily in its public sector, thus decreasing the class disparities of access to health as well as other services to a large extent. An atmosphere of policies guided by the theory of welfare state and participatory management systems made Kerala’s development indices stand out from the rest of the country.

Yadul Krishna is a commentator on economy and politics. An alumnus of Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce, he writes a regular column for the British Herald. He tweets at @Yadul_Krishna

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