HT Salutes: A student-led network of volunteers solves crises
Within weeks, a network of 650 volunteers had emerged, spread across Delhi and West Bengal. Thakur decided to call it the Quarantined Student-Youth Network (QSYN).Updated: Jun 30, 2020 16:17 IST
Debojit Thakur was already part of a transcontinental network when the pandemic hit. A student from Kolkata with years of experience in volunteer relief work, he was pursuing a PhD at the University of Trier in Germany, and was in the middle of a research trip to Delhi when the borders closed in March.
Still, when he and a few friends decided to post a message on Facebook on March 29, inviting donations to help feed those rendered jobless and homeless, they were not expecting the response they got.
“People from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and across Europe, most of them students, sent in money,” said Thakur, 29. “And those who couldn’t spare money were generous with their time, their help, and with spreading the word.”
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Within weeks, a network of 650 volunteers had emerged, spread across Delhi and West Bengal. Thakur decided to call it the Quarantined Student-Youth Network (QSYN).They set up 26 makeshift kitchens and have so far distributed over 10,000 ration packages and served over 100,000 cooked meals.
Then the Amphan cyclone alerts began. The initiative had already raised Rs 12 lakh for migrant relief in Delhi by the time the cyclone hit West Bengal on May 20. The group decided to put out a fresh call for help, and money began to pour in even faster.
Bollywood got wind of the bunch of youngsters doing good work, and celebrities like Ayushmann Khurrana, Varun Grover, Ishan Khattar and Ananya Pandey shared their details on Instagram Stories, inviting people to pitch in. By May 27, the group had collected Rs 60 lakh. By June 14, it had jumped to Rs 95 lakh, and QSYN had begun using the crowd-funding website Ketto.org, for greater ease and transparency.
The direct, grassroots approach and real-time updates on Facebook inspired confidence. “I donated because I could the work they were doing, directly with the people,” says Dip Nag, 33, a cyber-security manager in Munich.
School children donated Rs 10 or sometimes Rs 50. “One professor sold some of his art and raised almost Rs 2 lakh. Samay Raina, a Mumbai-based stand-up comic, did an online benefit show and raised Rs 5 lakh for us. The list goes on,” Thakur said.
Now, just ensuring accountability, data collection and presentation so that everyone knows where the money is going, has become a full day’s work.
Nadia Imam, 23, an alumnus of Jadavpur University, has volunteered to head that arm.
“It’s a humongous task,” she said. “Many migrant workers are coming home to southern West Bengal to find their houses were hit by the cyclone. So now we’ve begun helping with rebuilding too, and that’s whole different set of materials and tools and volunteering. And we’re doing this in six districts across the region.”
Locally, some donations have come in the form of supplies. Many farmers handed over vegetables at massive discounts, and were happy to do so because they didn’t have markets to sell them at.
Because of their pre-existing network, QSYN volunteers were among the first teams to reach some of the worst-affected areas of southern West Bengal.
Some of their volunteers in the Sundarbans were coordinating ration distribution while repairing their own homes. They distributed tarpaulin and cooked meals from makeshift kitchens as part of their relief efforts. With donations still coming in, QSYN plan to now help support the school- and college-going children of migrant workers returning home from other states as well.
“My friends and I used to volunteer under the banner Students of Bengal. We contributed to relief work after the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and the floods in Kerala last year. In the lockdown, with the millions being affected, I realised we had to build a stronger network. That’s how QSYN was born,” said Thakur.
“We plan to keep it going till all the money is gone. We are not an NGO but we will have to decide what to do in the future, because this is a good thing we’ve started. Maybe we can figure that out when we actually can meet in person.”
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