Nineteen assistants, including 15 women and several Dalits, are protesting in front of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, since July. The employees, who had been sacked by the radiology department in July for asking the hospital to drop them back home at night, are demanding reinstatement.
As night curfew was imposed in the city in July to prevent the spread of Covid, the second shift of the staff was extended from 7.30 pm to 9.30 pm. The women employees found it difficult to return home with travelling prohibited after 9 pm.
NIMHANS claims that the employees were not employed by the hospital but are contract staff engaged by private contractor Sree Vinayaka Enterprises. A press release issued by the NIMHANS registrar on September 1 stated: “The 16 workers are not employees of NIMHANS. They have no right to misuse the name of NIMHANS by claiming that they are employees.”
The protesters, however, claim several of them were employed by NIMHANS much before the private contractor was hired in 2017. Rathna, who started with NIMHANS in 1998, said, “After working for NIMHANS for many years, how can the institute say we are employed by the contractor? Contractors come and go but we stay.”
M Basavaraju, general secretary of NIMHANS Pragatipara Workers’ Union, said, “Public transport was not available after 9 pm. How can they sack the employees for demanding transport? This is unfair and illegal.”
In response to the NIMHANS statement, the union issued a press release. “NIMHAS has claimed that all the 16 workers belong to the outsourced agency Sree Vinayaka Enterprises. Workers don’t belong to any person. It shows the feudal mindset of the NIMHANS management, which considers workers as property,” the union said.
According to the union’s press release, out of the 650 employees of NIMHANS, termed as “contract workers”, some have been employed with the institute for more than 20 years. They perform core functions, including looking after patients, especially in the ICU, helping them shift and assisting the medical staff in managing restless patients. As frontline workers, they have also worked among Covid patients with mental illnesses.
“Housekeeping is also a euphemism for sanitation work, which is a caste-ordained profession. The Dalit employees, tagged as “contract workers” or “outsourced staff”, are extremely insecure. Even the Supreme Court has said that contractual work is an improved version of bonded labour,” the press release said, adding that women workers, especially Dalits, are treated with disdain when they stand up for their rights.
“It is indeed unfortunate that NIMHANS, an institute of national importance, has failed to act as a model employer and instead is indulging in unfair labour practices” the release said.
A notification from the Karnataka government on November 20, 2019, said that that a ruling of the Madras High Court striking down Section 66 IB of the Factories Act, 1948, (which provided that no woman shall work in a factory except between 6 am and 7 pm) had made it possible for factories to make women work in night shifts. Point number 14 of that notification reads: “The employer shall provide transportation facility to the women workers from their residence and back for night shift.”
NIMHANS is an apex centre for mental health and neuroscience education that started with the establishment of Bangalore Lunatic Asylum in 1847, which was rechristened as a mental hospital in 1925. In 1974, the hospital was established as NIMHANS. A 2015 study by the World Health Organization estimated that one in five Indians suffers from depression at some point in his/her life. India is ranked sixth among the “most depressed” countries of the world.
The writer is a freelance journalist.