ASHAs return to work in Maharashtra, but wear black masks in protest against unmet demands

ASHAs return to work in Maharashtra, but wear black masks in protest against unmet demands

FATIGUED BY work, at risk of Covid-19, and the implementation of salary hike long overdue, six lakh Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) across India went on a two-day strike starting Friday.

In Maharashtra, however, the 70,000-strong workforce, tasked to monitor rural health, returned to work on Saturday but as a mark of protest they wore black masks and ribbons to work.

ASHA workers in the state said while some of their demands remained unmet, the state government had agreed to a major demand — fixed monthly salary.

“The pandemic is not the right time for us to protest. Without ASHAs, the rural administration has no health force. We decided to protest for just a day, but our protest for other demands will continue without strike,” said Salim Patel from Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), to which 45,000 ASHAs are affiliated.

On July 17, after a delay of a year, Maharashtra passed a government resolution (GR) approving monthly salary of Rs 2,000 for each ASHA worker and Rs 3,000 for block facilitators. There are 70,000 ASHAs and 6,000 block facilitators in the state.

“We are also giving them (ASHAs) Rs 1,000 as Covid allowance. There is no reason to protest in our state, major demands have been approved,” said Dr Mahesh Potle, Joint Commissioner, Directorate of Health Services.

“The BJP-led state government last October promised to increase our salary. The government passed the GR in July. We have demanded arrears from last year. To date, we have not received them,” said Netradeepa Patil, an ASHA in Kolhapur. Block facilitators and ASHAs are also yet to receive July salary.

The ASHAs look after 71 government health programmes and receive incentives for each: Rs 200 for sterilisation, Rs 200 for getting a malnourished child to hospital, Rs 150 for every child undergoing immunisation. After a one-day token strike, CITU and All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) agreed to resume work on Saturday.

“We realised that the public needs ASHAs,” said Raju Desle from AITUC.

Poor safety measures against Covid-19 remains a major concern. In Kolhapur, 30 ASHAs have been infected, while the number is 23 in Solapur.

Maya Bholap, an ASHA worker in Nashik, earns only Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a month for working six hours daily. Her husband is jobless and she has two daughters in school. The district authorities provided mask, gloves, and sanitiser only once on March 22 in Ambedindori village, where she works. For five months, Rs 1,000 Covid allowance has also not been credited to her account. “The problem is that the government assures us but delays implementation,” she said.

During the outbreak, ASHAs have had to visit houses with pulse oximeter and contact-less thermometer to scan for symptomatic cases in and outside containment zones. In April, they got two cotton masks and a litre of sanitiser. Through May and June, most have not received a fresh supply. “In several districts, only last month, ASHA workers got two N95 masks and sanitiser. The gloves were of poor quality, and tore after the first use,” said ASHA worker Patil from Kolhapur. Representatives of the CITU said in the initial weeks, the ASHAs had to manage by wrapping scarves and dupatta while on duty.

Officials said each district had got funds to procure masks, sanitisers, and gloves for ASHAs. “There is a delay in procurement,” a health official said.

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In Chandrapur, District Health Officer (DHO) Dr Raj Gahlot said they had now decided to provide a safety kit and Rs 1,500 to each ASHA worker in the district for their leg work during the pandemic. “This announcement was made on Raksha Bandhan by the guardian minister,” he said.

Chandrapur has 2,000 ASHAs. The district had no Covid-19 deaths until July, but recorded its first three deaths last week.

In Kolhapur, DHO Dr Yogesh Sale said they provided mask and gloves when required. Dr Potle said the health department had put up a file to process new salaries announced in July. “It will be sanctioned soon,” he said.

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