The Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) are once again taking to the streets of Punjab to demand enhancement in their remuneration. On July 22, workers staged a protest march from Bathinda's district administrative complex to the Finance Minister's Office. The employees pushed aside the barricades outside the Minister's office and gheraoed the area as they went. The workers, who have been at the frontline in the battle against COVID-19, claim that they are struggling to make their ends meet.
“We get incentives based on our work. Most of the months, we hardly receive Rs 1,000-1,200. How can one survive on that?,” asked Kirandeep Kaur Panjola, president of the Punjab ASHA Workers’ and Facilitator Union.
According to Kaur, over 50 ASHA workers in the state have been infected with COVID-19 throughout the two waves of the pandemic, with two of them dying. “A few ASHA workers have lost their families to COVID-19 as the workers carried the virus home. They were able to survive but their family members died because of it,” said Kaur in a choked voice.
ASHA workers, who are the backbone of rural health care, have been protesting for a long time on different issues but they claim, their demands have always been ignored. Earlier in August 2020, they had gone on an indefinite hunger strike in 34 districts in Punjab with similar demands to increase remuneration. Following this, the state government had agreed to increase their pay but that has been of little help in view of the increased risks as well as inflation.
Also read: Among Reasons That Forced ASHAs to Strike: No Safety Gears, Pending Wages
During the pandemic, along with the assigned duties, the workers have been working on the frontline helping the COVID-19 patients. From shifting the patients to the hospitals to educating them about vaccination and even getting the villagers tested, ASHA workers have taken a monumental risk, according to them.
“If a COVID-19 positive lady is expecting a child, we have to look after her until she delivers. As soon as the child is born, we have to get him registered and take care of the child and the mother’s well-being, simultaneously, teaching the villagers about the nuances of delivery. We, at times, stay with the mother for days to keep an eye on her condition,” Kaur explained.
In the face of the state administration's indifference, the workers have stated they now want to meet the central government and put forth their demands to them. Along with incentives, the workers have demanded a fixed salary of Rs 4,000 “in line with the neighbouring state of Haryana”.
“We want the Haryana style payment process where the workers are getting fixed salary + incentives and smartphones. We want recognition. We want to be given the status of health care workers, especially for our contribution during COVID-19 times. We have risked our and our family’s lives. We feel the government has abandoned us,” Kaur said.
Also read: Haryana: Hundreds of ASHAs Test Positive in 2nd Covid Wave; 10 Die But No Compensation Paid
Kaur, who is on duty delivering ORS sachets to the villages, claimed that they will receive Rs 1 for each sachet distributed.
Furthermore, ASHAs have also raised the issue of villagers' hostility against them at work. “During the early stages of vaccination, there would be a lot of scepticism. The villagers would yell at us or shut the door in our faces at times. We have a hard time preparing the local residents for vaccination. And it's all for a pittance that doesn't even help us survive,” remarked an ASHA.
Workers began protesting in Barnala on July 20, followed by another protest in Malwa and then in Bathinda district of Punjab on July 22. “We have entire Punjab with us. We are not going to budge this time,” Kaur stated.
It should be noted that ASHAs have been protesting against the government’s apathy towards their services across the country. On May 24, lakhs of ASHAs abstained from their duties for a day in protest and to demand their pending payments along with protective gears and a monthly risk allowance for themselves.