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ASHAs Form National Federation, More Joint Programmes of Scheme Workers on the Cards

Ronak Chhabra |
The newly formed body will focus on intensifying the struggle for minimum wages and provision of social security for ASHAs in the country; crucially, these are also the demands of the Anganwadi workers and those engaged with the school mid-day meal scheme.
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Delegates heralded the formation of national federation as "crucial development" during the three-day conference in Kurukshetra. Image clicked by Mohit

New Delhi: A national convention of all scheme workers in October; a two-month all-India campaign in December; and maximum mobilisation for the upcoming 'Mazdoor Sangharsh Rally' – were among the future programmes that were announced as the first-of-its-kind federation of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) in the country was formed on Sunday.

With the participation of unions representing the all-women primary health workers from as many as 20 States, the newly formed body, ASHA Workers' and Facilitators' Federation of India (AWFFI), vowed to press for making the National Health Mission (NHM) a permanent programme of the government "with universal application and adequate financial allocation", in the coming months.

As part of its 18-point charter of demands, the national federation will also focus on intensifying the struggle for minimum wages and provision of social security – on lines of the recommendations made by the 45th and 46th Indian Labour Conferences – for ASHAs in the country, who have been on the frontline in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The All India coordination committee of ASHA workers, formed in 2009, developed the movement of ASHA workers in the country and expanded [it] to 20 states. AWFFI now will take up the responsibility of mobilising the ASHA workers throughout the country,” a press statement issued by the federation read.

It added that, on Sunday, PP Prema from Kerala was elected as President, while Madhumita Banerjee from West Bengal and Pushpa Patil from Maharashtra was elected as General Secretary and Treasurer, respectively.

Nearly 300 ASHA delegates from across the country participated in the three-day conference that was held in Haryana's Kurukshetra, which saw discussions over the demands and future programmes of the newly formed national federation of the all-women workforce.

Envisaged first under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), which was subsequently extended also to cover the urban areas in 2013, ASHAs are community health volunteers acting as a critical link between the government’s healthcare system and the community. Currently, there are nearly 10 lakh ASHAs in the country.

ASHAS DEMAND ‘UNIFORM WORKING CONDITIONS’

Last week, NewsClick attended the inaugurating session of the said conference in Kurukshetra, where delegates from different States heralded the formation of the federation as a "crucial development" which will ensure more coordination among the unions spread across the country.

This is important, according to the delegates, as ASHAs are indeed engaged in similar work. Yet given the present arrangement, their monthly payments and service conditions vary from one State to another.

Bereft of the 'worker' status, under the NHM, the all-women volunteers are entitled to task-based incentives for more than 60-odd activities, as listed by the Central government. In addition to this, ASHAs receive an incentive worth Rs 2,000 for a set of routine activities from the Centre; over and above which, the different State governments are also allowed to fix a monthly payment for them.

Amra Rani, a 46-year-old ASHA worker based in Kurukshetra, ruled on Friday that such an arrangement is "unfair", given that some States are now providing fixed payment to ASHAs within their jurisdiction, while those in other States are still having to depend on incentives to make ends meet.

For example, in Haryana, the State government has fixed Rs 4,000 as payment to be given – over and above the incentives. Whereas, in Andhra Pradesh, ASHAs currently receive a fixed monthly honorarium of Rs 10,000, which is inclusive of the incentives.

“While all the ASHAs in the country do the same work, our payments are different," Rani told NewsClick, speaking on the sidelines of the conference. "On the other hand, what we demand is uniform working conditions for all ASHAs." These conditions are regularisation as workers, minimum wages that amount to not less than Rs 26,000 per month, six months of paid maternity leaves, and provision of gratuity and pension for retirees, among others.

Mangal Thombre, 50, tended to agree when asked about the above demands and further added that these have been the "long-pending demands," which should be addressed now by the government – now, more than ever, since the ASHAs have stood up to their roles and assisted the state machinery in restricting the spread of COVID-19 in the country since 2020.

“For our contribution, we were recognised by international bodies but not by our own government, which did very little for us. This was despite the fact that we, women, were risking our lives and that of our family members by doing our work – going from door-to-door in villages and cities to check fever, distribute medicines, and also helping during the vaccination campaigns,” Thombre told NewsClick. In May this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) selected ASHA workers as one of the six recipients of the Global Health Leaders Award.

To be sure, the Narendra Modi – led Central government, in view of the risks being incurred by the ASHA, “advised” the States to pay those engaged in Covid-19 work an additional incentive of Rs 1000 per month. It also, under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package (PMGKP), extended an insurance cover worth Rs 50 lakh to the ASHAs, along with Anganwadi workers.

But K Dhana Laxmi, general secretary, Andhra Pradesh ASHA Workers' Union, believes that these measures were "not at all" enough. "In my State, 35 ASHAs had to lose their lives while being on Covid-19 duty. Do you know how many of them received the insurance amount? Only 3," she claimed on Friday.

Furthermore, Laxmi scoffed at the “so-called COVID-19 incentive,” underscoring that the “insensitivity” of the Centre to announce such a meagre amount for ASHAs, “who were during the same period were expected to be always on toes.” “Also, we are talking about a period when anyway our incentives were heavily cut because, due to the lockdown, many of the activities of the ASHAs were affected. How can then a paltry sum of Rs 1,000 be enough?” she asked.

The fact that the labour of ASHAs, along with other scheme workers in the country, has "remained unacknowledged" over the years, more so during the pandemic, has been the common refrain among the delegates arrived from different states, A R Sindhu, national secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) told NewsClick on Friday.

“It has been the same story almost across the country. Hence, formation of a national federation is a crucial development for coordinating a national movement," she said. Plans are also afoot as far as bringing all the scheme workers, including Anganwadi caregivers and those engaged in the school mid-day meal scheme, onto a common platform, according to Sindhu.

“Since their fights are more or less similar, we have decided to have more joint programmes for all scheme workers in the coming months. We will also be mobilising for the 'Mazdoor Sangharsh Rally'," she said. Jointly called earlier this month by CITU, along with its sister organisations representing farmers and agricultural workers, the said rally includes a march to Parliament during the Budget Session next year.

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