Indefinite strike by Bihar's ASHA workers is another reminder that they are overworked, underpaid -Kavita Krishnan
The ASHA unions in Bihar are demanding government employee status and a minimum wage.
Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHA workers in Bihar went on an indefinite strike from December 1 with a 12-point charter of demands. Bihar has 93,687 ASHA workers – the second highest contingent of the one million ASHA workers in India. They are the key link between the healthcare system and rural populations and have to perform many essential tasks. The strike call was given by the Joint Struggle Forum – the ASHA Sanyukta Sangharsh Manch – comprising of three major ASHA unions in the state.
The scenes from the Bihar ASHA strike are remarkable and inspiring. Thousands of women come to public health centres for sit-ins through the day and night, with local volunteers arranging food and blankets for them. Striking ASHAs blockaded district level hospitals and Civil Surgeon offices. On December 13 and 14, they laid siege to the Bihar Chief Minister’s office, staying there day and night, pointing out that the state has not implemented its own agreement of June 2015 with ASHA unions. The state government had agreed to form a committee to recommend better pay, consider giving them the status of government employees and prohibit and punish misbehaviour by doctors and other medical staff among other things.
With public health services almost completely absent at the grassroots, ASHAs constitute the backbone of India’s rural as well as urban health systems for low-income and the most poor and deprived communities. Yet they are overworked, underpaid and not even recognised as government employees and skilled workers. Instead they are called “voluntary activists” who are paid a token incentive instead of a salary, pension, and other benefits.
The ASHA unions in Bihar are demanding government employee status and a minimum wage – which the government calls an honorarium – of Rs 18,000. Other demands include 50% reservation for ASHAs in state nursing schools with appropriate relaxation of age criteria for admission, appointments for qualified ASHAs as Auxiliary Nurse Midwives, appointments for ASHA facilitators as Block Community Coordinators and social security benefits including ESI and Provident Fund. They also want recommendations made by the high-level committee on the status of women in 2015 regarding regularising work conditions and monthly remunerations to be implemented.
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