They are officially called, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA). Over ten years ago, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) demanded that they be called Asha Workers. The name stuck, however they are yet to be officially recognised as workers, and given workers rights.
Today, over nine lakh ASHA workers and facilitators are a part of the army of frontline health workers who are out in the field working on implementing various Covid-19 related policies and protocols on the ground. These include door-to-door surveys, especially of those who have traveled recently, monitoring quarantine, recording health conditions, and following up of various government schemes launched to combat the spread of Covid-19 pandemic in the country. Many of them are doing so without any medical grade masks or protective gear, unless they buy one on their own.
They have recently lodged a peaceful protest, and if not heard, are likely to intensify it till their demand for better work conditions, health services and fair wages is met. On June 25, thousands of ASHA workers united, at the call of the All India Coordination Committee of ASHA Workers (CITU), and held a protest at various states, including Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Assam, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. They held protest stand-ins at various local health centres and submitted memoranda to the local authorities as well as state and Central Health Ministers at state and central level.
According to Coordination Committee’s Convenor Ranjana Nirula, “When they (ASHA Workers) ask officials they are told to use their dupattas, or buy their own masks, as they travel long distances and go door-to-door to survey and guide people about Covid 19. Many have been infected and several have died.”
None of that seems to have made it to national headlines, nor have state governments recognised them as ‘frontline workers’ or hailed them as ‘warriors’ fighting the pandemic. The workers are instead reminded about how they are doing ‘seva’ or social service, and treated more like volunteers rather than workers who should be paid adequate dues for the job they do. “They face exploitation by calling them seva activists and volunteers, now these women are asking to be treated as professionals,” said Nirula. These workers have had it with being treated like unpaid labour, and being deprived of their rights as workers.
“We have been fighting for their regularisation as workers. Now, they risk Coronavirus infection without PPEs,” said Nirula.
Especially now as Covid-19 lockdown and fears are also keeping the men folk at home, and increasing the number of challenges the ASHA workers are facing. The men in their families do not want them to go out to work and ‘bring disease back home’, and the men in the houses they visit also resist the questions asked.
“They are not provided transport, food, water, or rest facilities when they are out on the field, many have not been paid their March salaries yet,” said Nirula, adding that the ASHA workers have even been attacked while out on duty, in Haryana, Punjab and Kashmir allegedly by police, even though they were in uniform. The authorities ‘apologised’ when local unions raised the issue, however that is too little, too late.
All India Coordination Committee of ASHA Workers (CITU), and held a protest at various has demanded the following:
1. Regualrise ASHA Workers and all NHM workers as permanent workers, pay minimum wages and ensure social security and pension as per recommendations of the 45th and 46thILC.
2. Safety gear for all frontline workers, especially those in the health sector; PPEs for those who are engaged in containment areas and red/containment zone
3. Frequent, random and free Covid-19 test of all frontline workers
4. Rs 50 lakhs insurance cover to all frontline workers (covering deaths on duty); coverage of treatment for Covid-19 for the entire family
5. Additional incentive of Rs.25,000 per month for all contract and scheme workers on Covid -19 duty. Payment of all pending dues of ASHA workers immediately
6. Compensation of Rupees Five lakhs for all those who got infected while on duty
7. Free and adequate COVID tests and treatment to all non tax paying people
8. Ensure adequate facilities in quarantine centres and hospitals
9. Free ration /food for the needy and Rs.7,500 per month for all non tax paying families for six months
10. Strengthen the public health system and the health infrastructure
11. Allocate 6% of GDP for health sector
12. Withdraw proposals for privatisation of public health infrastructure and services
13. Enact legislation for right to universal healthcare
14. Make NHM a permanent health programme of the government, with universal application and adequate financial allocation
As they wait for those demands to be considered by the Centre, there has been a bit of good news for over 65,000 ASHA workers in Maharashtra. They may soon get a Rs 2,000 incentive for their Covid-19 related work. They have so far been earning about Rs 10,000 per month, reported the Hindustan Times. “State Health Minister Rajesh Tope has finalised a proposal for their salary hike which would be discussed in the Cabinet meeting. If the proposal is cleared, the ASHA workers would get a monthly hike of Rs 2,000,” an official from the Health and Family Welfare Department told PTI.