An ambulance worker in PPE kit in Delhi. Courtesy - Special arrangement
While the country reels under the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, those engaged in the strenuous job of plying an ambulance in Delhi, are struggling to meet ends due to the continuing delays in salary payments.
The paramedics and drivers, both making up the contractual ambulance workforce, have not received their monthly wages for the past two months, NewsClick has learnt.
The unfortunate result: already precarious front line workers, who ensure ambulatory support to patients including those possibly infected with COVID-19, are being pushed to the edge, even as they are exposed to increased risks of viral infection to themselves.
“For the past two months, I have been working extra – sometimes for 24 hours without any rest. I do it because these are emergency times. But, you tell me, for how long can I continue without receiving any payment?,” questioned an ambulance worker, who didn’t wish to be named. He added, “I haven’t eaten properly for last many weeks.”
Increased workload, accompanied by penury, has made his daily routine “unbearable”, according to him.
“Many have also left the service during this period,” another worker told NewsClick, adding, “if salaries are not being paid anyway, why would anyone want to risk his life in these times.”
There are almost 800 ambulance workers currently in the national capital, none of whom have received their salaries. The workers are required to complete 20 duties of 12 hours each in a month, in exchange of which they receive around Rs. 15,000 in wages.
The non-payment of salaries is not new to the ambulance staff, many of whom confessed that they had adjusted to delays in payments, which usually lasted for at least a month. However, being reputed as “corona warriors” in the recent past, which drew attention over their abysmal labour arrangement, many had thought things would improve. They were, woefully, proven wrong.
Incidentally, this was not always the case, as former ambulance employees told NewsClick, according to whom, the difficulties rose only with the outsourcing of the service to a private company.
Till 2016, the free ambulance service was provided by Centralised Accident & Trauma Services (CATS) – an autonomous body by Government of NCT of Delhi – operations of which were then outsourced. Currently, the contract of operations and maintenance of the ambulances is with a private company, namely, GVK EMRI.
Manish Tinku, Delhi head of GVK EMRI, confirmed that the salary payments to ambulance workers got “a bit late” this time. “Funds released last time went into repairing of the ambulances. We are expecting the government to release more funds next week. The company is hoping to clear dues by Thursday, in that case,” he said.
The admission by Tinku, which suggests funds meant for salaries of workers were diverted into maintenance of the ambulances, further lays bare the depth of crisis of emergency medical service in the national capital.
It has earlier been alleged by the health volunteers that the burdened service has been marked with poor maintenance and sluggish response time – resulting in snags in Delhi’s efforts to fight COVID-19.
On May 10, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, in his press briefing, taking note of the shortage of state-run ambulances ordered requisition of ambulances of private hospitals. Earlier, to meet the labour shortage, as many as 350 DTC bus drivers were transferred to CATS.
The government intervened, in a face saving move, knowing that both the responsibilities – of maintaining ambulances and manpower – were of the private company, which was caught completely unprepared by the COVID-19.
“If only the service was not outsourced to a private company; neither the employees nor the patients would have to face these many difficulties,” Jaswant Lakra, Vice President of CATS staff union had earlier told NewsClick. The problems addressed now were in the making for years, he had added.
Similarly, a CATS district official also admitted, on the condition of anonymity, that the service shouldn’t have been outsourced in the first place. “A private company always works for profit. The emergency medical service should have been kept out of it. Ambulance services in Delhi have only deteriorated since there operations were handed over to the private party,” the official said.
In addition, the move also invited flak from the former ambulance employees, the official added.
NewsClick also tried reaching the administrative officer (operation) of CATS through multiple calls, but could not avail any response.