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  • Hiyaneijemmy Das

Vistaar’s Battle of the Bands raises Rs. 8300 for Workers Samadhan Fund: Chronicling the WSF’s hard-fought path to functionality

Over the past academic year, the Student Government (SG) has ramped up efforts to fundraise for the Workers’ Samadhan Fund (WSF) from collaborating with clubs, societies and ministries at Ashoka (Vistaar, The Comic Relief, Jazbaa, and the Environment Ministry) to putting up QR codes linked to the fund donation page. 


Increasing awareness of the fund’s existence within the student body begs the question: what is the WSF?


The WSF is the successor to the SG-DemCol Fund established in 2020 to provide economic relief to Ashoka University’s support staff following campus lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The SG and the Democracy Collective ran it collaboratively. This fund was, in turn, created as a response to the shortcomings of the fund managed by the Workers’ Welfare Committee (WWC) — officially created by the university. Despite being an addition to a line-up of two other funds, Ashokans know little about the WSF.



WHAT IS THE WWC FUND?


The WWC was created in 2020 with an initial amount of Rs. 10 lakh, provided by the University. According to Draupadi (UG’24), a student representative in the WWC, the fund administrators “do not give generously [from the fund],” regarding the money dispensed for each request. The University’s administrative bodies have not provided any additional funds to this initial amount.


As of November 2023, “Around Rs. 2.5 lakh remains in the fund,” Draupadi said. “We do not have a solution for where to get more money from. We’re thinking of fundraising.” 


A worker must fill out, or have a student or faculty member fill out an exhaustive form to receive funds from the WWC. Forms are available in both Hindi and English. The completed document is sent directly to the Registrar’s Office, or to the WWC representatives who forward it to the Registrar. 


In addition to personal details, workers must provide sufficient documentation to validate their requests.


While the funds released need not be paid back, Draupadi says the WWC only gives 30-50% of the requested amount, never the full amount. “It’s very hit or miss.” 


PROBLEMS WITH THE WWC FUND


The WWC’s first meeting in the Monsoon 2023 semester was held on November 23, after a hiatus of around 7 months. When asked why, a representative told The Edict, “The Vice-Chancellor changed, and the committee needed to be reconstituted over and over again.” 


The committee receives 9 to 10 requests a month. It faced 35 pending requests at this meeting. She also stated that the professors and students in the WWC lean towards the generous side when processing applications, while the administration usually does not. “But that’s an important aspect of applying for the WWC fund,” she added. 


Qudsia Rahman (ASP‘24), a member of the Democracy Collective, said, “There’s this framework where you must request the administration for their benevolence to create this committee and this fund — when a committee ideally shouldn’t exist.” 


Rahman also said holding the university accountable for workers’ rights is difficult since third-party contractors are involved in hiring support staff. The University hires staff through contractors— G4S for security, Quess for housekeeping, and Voyage of Wellness for catering. Though the workers are employed at Ashoka, they are employed through these companies, not directly by the University. Thus, the University often treats its workers’ issues as outside their purview. 


When asked if the WWC fund would ever merge with the WSF, Draupadi stated that since one is affiliated with the administration while the other is not, a merger would never happen. 


A RESPONSE: THE SG-DEMCOL FUND 


In contrast to the WWC fund, the SG-DemCol fund did not involve an exhaustive documentation process. Workers presented their case to students and faculty that they needed money, after which students and professors informed the SG of these workers. Consequently, a fundraiser would be created and forwarded to the faculty and student body. Any money raised was sent to the worker(s) in need. 


A report from The Edict published originally in May 2022 shed light on how several workers had not received financial assistance from the WWC fund despite requests. It also detailed the SG-DemCol fund’s shortages. 


During the pandemic and lockdown, the administration asked workers to not come to work for long periods. It impacted their pay. The WWC’s hamstringing and the SG-DemCol fund’s significant dwindling compounded the lack of relief.


A RESTRUCTURING: THE WORKERS’ SAMADHAN FUND


The SG-DemCol fund transformed into the WSF primarily to aid workers who may not wish to contact students for financial assistance. The WSF is a worker-led, worker-constituted fund where students (currently two non-SG volunteers) handle only fundraising and logistics, such as transferring funds. The fund is controlled by a four-member committee consisting of two male and two female members of the Housekeeping department. Workers in need contact the committee, which deliberates on how much money should be authorised. The committee members often visit the workers in need to understand their situation. Workers submit receipts and documents; however, unlike the WWC, the process is sped up since committee members directly communicate with those in need.


“Many workers stated that it’s not fair that workers that were better equipped to talk to students found it easier to get money [from the SG-DemCol fund],” Rahman said. To address these issues, the fund was restructured to its current form as the WSF over the summer of 2022. 


A system where committee members can vet requests through personal checks and insights has replaced the WWC’s detailed yet bureaucratic process. 


HOW DOES THE WSF WORK?


The WSF operates on one-time as well as monthly contributions. Contributions may be made to the fund’s Milaap page which also displays a form for those interested in contributing monthly. It is an interest-free loan. In the first instance of receiving money from the fund, the worker must eventually pay 75% of the amount received. For subsequent cases, 100% of the amount received must be paid back. These repayments are made in monthly instalments. 


Annu Sharma, housekeeping staff and member of the WSF committee, commented on the interest-free nature of the fund and said, “Yeh committee jo banaya hai, hamare acche ke liye banaya hai. (This committee has been created for our [workers’] benefit).”


The fund receives 4 to 5 requests a month. In a single instance, a staff member may request a maximum of Rs. 10,000. It works according to a hierarchy of priorities, starting with medical emergencies not covered by Employees’ State Insurance (ESI), then house repairs, and then school fees for the workers’ children. 


The transfer of money happens through two outlets: either the Milaap page or the bank accounts of students and workers on the WSF committee. If the requested amount can be met by the students or workers themselves, they transfer the amount directly from their bank accounts and the transactions are maintained in the fund spreadsheet. If the requested amount exceeds this capacity, a request is sent to Milaap, which sends the required amount within a week to the bank account linked with the fund page. 


Workers are expected to pay the WSF back 30 to 45 days from the day they receive the funds. 


Rishit Roy (UG‘25), a member of the House of Representatives and the current bookkeeper for the WSF said, “Moving forward, we might want to remove school fees from it. 90% of the fund goes to medical emergencies.” 


Roy said medical requests were both more prevalent and more urgent, thus highly prioritised. As the WSF’s bookkeeper, Roy currently handles the official Milaap account and the fund’s spreadsheet. 


However, the lack of awareness around the WSF often undermines its effectiveness. Sthitee Mohanty (UG‘24), one of the students who sent a fundraiser email to the student body, said, “I wasn’t aware when I set up the fundraiser that the WSF existed.” 


While the SG forwarded several similar fundraiser emails throughout the Monsoon’23 semester, there was no email regarding the WSF until 21 November 2023. 


Sharma said monthly committee meetings are necessary. As of January 2024, months had gone by without a meeting. 


She also said she was not sure if the gardening department knew of the fund.


Sharma also pointed out the WSF committee only comprised housekeeping staff. She said, “Kyuki jis time meetings hote hai, dining ke log nahi aate hai, na security guards aate hai, toh unko pata nahi hota. Unko bhi pata lagna chahiye. (When we have our meetings, neither dining [staff] nor security guards are on shift, so they aren’t aware. They should be aware too.)” 


If the committee is expanded to include staff from other departments, Sharma believes much of this issue will be solved.



THE ROAD AHEAD


“Awareness and fundraising plans are ongoing,” Rahman said. “The plan is to collaborate with other clubs and societies. We’re also hoping when all the plays and performances are going up, we can have announcements in the beginning to talk about the fund.” 


On 7 November 2023, the SG set up a successful fundraiser at the Noor-e-Jazbaa event, raising Rs. 5,300 for the fund. Many clubs participating in the event donated all their proceeds from various sales to the fund as well. 


According to an email sent by the SG on 21 November, “Owing to the fundraiser, we were able to approve 4 requests last week.” 


Thursday Night Live, jointly hosted by The Comic Relief and Mehfil, the Performing Arts fest, donated its ticket sales to the fund soon after. 


20% of the amount raised from each sale at Thrift Thursday, an Environment Ministry event where Ashokans could sell and buy clothes was contributed to the WSF. 


Posters with QR codes encouraging donations to the fund were also increasingly noticeable towards the end of Monsoon 2023.


On 22 February 2024, Vistaar launched a fundraising campaign alongside the first round of the Battle of the Bands 2.0. Audience members were encouraged to vote for their favourite bands through a link which also directed to the WSF donation page. This raised approximately Rs. 4,000 on Thursday night. In addition, Vistaar also donated Rs. 4,300 to the fund, bringing the total amount raised in one night to Rs. 8,300. 


As of February 2024, the fund has processed 48 out of 80 requests and currently holds Rs. 13,674.


According to Roy, while housekeeping workers are aware of the WSF’s existence, he doubts there is much awareness outside the housekeeping and dining departments. The SG is now focused on ensuring greater awareness of the fund across all worker departments. 


“Student awareness is also increasing,” said Roy, “and the SG plans to keep this momentum going.” 


Roy also mentioned plans to release reports on the fund and make its functions more comprehensive. 


Draupadi lamented the University does not care enough about its workers to adequately address worker concerns. 


“They are workers of Ashoka, but the sly thing is that Ashoka does not hire them… Ashoka provides a lot for its professors and students but does not want to do the same for workers, hence it hires through third parties.”


Roy detailed how the monthly income of workers at Ashoka leaves little money to save. While medical shocks should be covered by ESI, most workers do not go through with it due to the complicated, bureaucratic documentation process. 


Funds from the WSF are usually used to pay loans owed to external lenders with high interest rates; workers become compelled to rely on informal sources of funding due to inadequate documentation and poor credit preventing them from seeking out formal sector loans. 


“It’s part of a vicious cycle,” Roy stated. 


“This fund should not exist,” Rahman noted, “it’s not something that, in the long-term, workers should not be organising.” 


Though its existence reveals unfortunate structures governing many workers’ financials, Sharma maintained it has become an important means to aid workers. 


Draupadi said students should work on improving structural issues together with the workers instead of sloganeering. 


“The fund is a band-aid solution,” Roy said. “But the most you can do right now as students is band-aid solutions. It’s a great step, not an end in itself.” 


Sharma echoes this and encourages student solidarity with the University’s support staff, “Jitna bande judenge, utna paisa judega, utni logo ki help hogi (The more people who come together, the more money will be raised, and the more people will be helped).”

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