A 35-year-old National Health Mission (NHM) employee, Fardeen, (name changed) contracted COVID-19 while performing his duties at one of the government-run hospital in North Kashmir. He is undergoing treatment at the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science in Srinagar.
His deteriorating health, however, has made him extremely worried about the future of his family, as there is no security covers in his employment contract. “This disease has taken so many lives around the world and anything can happen. I do not know what my family will do after me as I am their only earning hand,” he told NewsClick over the phone.
Fardeen is one of the 8,000 employees that include around 1,400 doctors, 6,000 paramedics, and 600 managerial professionals who have been working for the last 13 years in Jammu and Kashmir on contract basis with the National Health Mission (NHM) and RNTCP (Revised National Tuberculosis Programme). Around 80% of these employees are now involved in COVID-related activities, including contact tracing, surveillance, testing and hospital functionality.
Apart from the hardships and health risks posed by COVID 19, these frontline workers are fighting for “dignified employment” and are raising their voices against pay disparity and absence of any social security for them.
The healthcare workers feel that the administration seems least interested in their issues and they continue to face injustice and inequality in comparison with their counterparts in the regular establishments.
“Despite having similar qualifications, experience, and working hours, our regular counterparts get four times higher salary than us, apart from social security and other benefits,” Abdul Rauf, chief spokesperson of All J&K NHM Employees’ Association, told NewsClick. He said lack of job security, meagre salary, and lack of social security was affecting their social standing and psychological well-being.
Apart from, Fardeen, around 10 other employees have been tested COVID positive and are undergoing treatment. However, some employees complained that their role in fighting the pandemic was not being acknowledged. “Many of us have had to take loans to clear medical bills. We are unable to afford decent education to our children and medical care for our dependants,” Abdul Hameed, an employee told NewsClick.
While dwelling more into the details, some of the employees said that with no social security, 32 NHM employees had so far died due to various reasons and their kin had to resort to begging in order to make ends meet.
Ateeqa Begum, who lost her husband seven months ago, has been left to fend for herself. She alleges that it was the indifferent attitude of the administrations that contributed to her husband's death.
“My husband requested for a transfer from a high altitude place, as he was suffering from asthma. But his request was not taken seriously. He knocked every possible door before his death, she said, adding that “Before his death, he had been working continuously for at least one month without any break.”
After J&K was downgraded into a Union territory on August 5, 2019, the NHM employees said that the regular ones among them received several benefits, but their state remained unchanged. The contract employees working under SRO-24-- formerly SRO 384---in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir are paid a minimum of the scale wages, which is much higher than the remuneration that NHM employees are getting.
NHM employees have held several protests to press for their demands but these remain unheeded. They said they were asked to call off their agitation last year after the Pulwama car bomb attack in which nearly 40 soldiers died. “We were assured that our demands would be addressed soon. We believed them, but they let us down,” an employee said.
Notably, the earlier government of the J&K had set up a high-level group of officials to examine the grievances of these employees. However, nothing has come out of it so far. “The officials who have been entrusted with the job of looking into our grievances have not met in the past two years. They are either inefficient or lazy,” Muneer Ahamd, an NHM employee, told NewsClick.
On Monday afternoon, three more people died of the virus -- two in Kashmir and one in Jammu region, raising the toll to 191 in the Union Territory. With 314 more persons testing positive, J&K’s COVID-19 tally has reached 10, 822. Srinagar has recorded the maximum number of deaths at 42, followed by Baramulla district with 33 fatalities.
The writer is an independent journalist.