New Delhi: Thousands of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) gheraoed the Ambala residence of Haryana health minister Anil Vij on Monday to press for the payment of the additional COVID-19 incentive announced by the Centre last year but discontinued in September.
The health workers said that they would not report to COVID-19 duty as part of the statewide protest that started in Haryana last month if their demand is not met immediately.
During the lockdown in March last year, the Centre had announced an additional incentive of Rs 1,000 for the millions of ASHAs, attached to the National Rural Health Mission, for their “significant” assistance to the state governments in restricting the spread of the virus. The incentive was resumed for the April-September period this year due to the resurgence of cases.
When the incentive was discontinued in October, protests broke out in numerous states with ASHAs coming out on street. According to them, the discontinuation of the incentive is “unreasonable” given that the ASHAs are required to keep on performing their COVID-19 duty, which, among others, includes facilitating access to vaccines, testing and contact tracing.
On Monday, outside Haryana Health Minister Vij’s Ambala residence, a similar argument was raised in the protest that was led by Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) – backed ASHA Workers’ Union.
“As the ASHAs are the backbone of the healthcare system and the COVID-19 threat remains, why the incentive has been discontinued? Already, our incomes have been kept at low levels for many years now,” Surekha, president, ASHA Workers Union, told Newsclick over the phone. ASHAs from 18 districts from across Haryana arrived in Ambala to participate in the protest on Monday, she said, adding, “we will not leave until the health minister speaks to us.”
Police outside Haryana Health Minister Anil Vij's Ambala residence. Image Courtesy - Special Arrangement.
Around 4 pm, Sunita, general secretary of the union, confirmed to Newsclick that Vij had agreed to meet the union delegation at “7.30 in the evening today”. “We will decide what to do after the meeting,” she said.
There are more than 20,000 ASHAs in Haryana, who, as in other parts of the country, are community health volunteers acting as a critical link between the healthcare system and the community. Under the NHM, they are entitled to task-based incentives for more than 60-odd activities, as listed by the Centre. In addition to this, the ASHAs have been receiving a Rs 2,000 incentive for the Centre for a set of routine activities. Over and above the performance-based incentives, the states are also allowed to fix a monthly payment for the ASHAs. In Haryana, this amounts to Rs 4,000.
Satnam Singh of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the Indian chapter of People’s Health Movement—a global network of health activists and civil society organisations—rued that the average monthly income of an ASHA is below the minimum wage. “This is despite the ASHAs playing a crucial role in ensuring access to health services,” Singh said over the phone from Rohtak, adding that the decision to discontinue the incentive is “completely illogical”.
“The government is stressing enhanced vaccination to restrict the spread of Omicron. How are you going to do that when ASHAs are forced to stage protests and strikes every now and then to raise their basic demands?” Singh asked.
Omicron is the new variant of Covid-19 that has recently been reported from South Africa. As of Monday, as many as five Indian States have reported cases of this variant, which is feared to have been associated with increased infectivity and immune evasion, and has been declared as that “of concern,” by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
On Monday, Surekha told Newsclick that ASHAs at “many places” across Haryana have been “forced” to discontinue their COVID-19 duty in protest since mid-November. “If our demand is not met, we will continue with our protest.”
On Friday, Vij had said that the state health department is fully prepared to deal with the Omicron variant. His office didn’t respond to Newsclick calls regarding Monday’s protest. Multiple attempts to reach Haryana’s NHM officials over the phone failed to elicit a response as well.