Assam Assembly Election 2021: Women healthcare workers rue meagre salary and lack of facilities, say let down by successive govts

Editor's Note: In rural Assam, women's self-help groups are challenging narrow patriarchal beliefs to emerge as the symbol of uplifment and ambassadors of developmental politics. Ahead of the state Assembly polls, in which women are expected to be a key voting bloc, this two-part series examines the lives, livelihoods and challenges these women face on the path to self-reliance.

Parvati is an ASHA worker from Tekelaline village in the Golaghat District of Assam. Though ‘Asha’ means ‘hope’, Parvati says many workers feel naught but hopelessness and misery.

“From day one of lockdown to the current phase of vaccinations, we were always out there in the forefront of the battle against COVID-19. But the administration has let us down."

Initially, Parvati was focussing on just anti-natal and post-natal care. But today, Parvati provides a bunch of services ranging from community awareness drives to diagnosing and treating malaria, dengue and now helping battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

But despite the substantial increase in work, Parvati says one thing hasn't changed: Her renumeration.

“We don't even know if we are state employees,” she adds.

ASHA workers are not just underpaid, but largely overworked and, due to their exposure to diseases, often left vulnerable.

An Anganwadi Centre at a village in Golaghat district . Abhishek Kabra

Which is also the case of the other workers that make up the 'AAA triangle': the Anganwadi workers and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs).

There are 33,000 ASHA workers, 62,153 Anganwadi workers and around 27,000 ANMs leading India's battle against COVID-19.

Many of whom voice the same complaints as Parvati.

“During the time of lockdown, I went to 60 to 70 homes to distribute food and ensure that nutritional needs were met. I visited nearly 40 pregnant women and lactating mothers. Not confining myself to distributing government rations, I also went door-to-door asking people to remain indoors,” said Chitralekha Devi, an Anganwadi teacher from Amolapam village in Tezpur.

She added that people were extremely grateful for her services. On being queried if people were grateful just to her or the government, Devi said that while the people had seen her working tirelessly through the lockdown, she always mentioned that she was providing the service on behalf of the government.

Women like Parvati and Devi have become messengers of governance, and thus the government.

Rita Sahu, an ANM from Dergaon, disagrees when asked if this good work could play to the ruling party's benefit in the upcoming elections. She says she carried out her work diligently even when the Congress was in power.

Sahu narrates  her experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic: “While we were given honorary titles of frontline warriors, the ground reality was something different. Shopkeepers, thinking we might transmit the virus to them, did not want us to buy things from them. I was put on  hospital duty in the COVID-19 ward in Nahardonga with 11 others. They all tested positive. I was deathly afraid. The authorities sent me to a hotel in Kaziranga. But when it came time to return, I was on my own. I had to hire a vehicle at my own expense and shell out Rs 600, which is never going to be reimbursed.”

A healthcare centre in Tezpur's Amolapam. Abhishek Kabra

No matter whom is in power, be it the Congress or the BJP, the plight of workers like Sahu, Devi and Parvati remains the same.

Reflecting on their situation, Karimon Nissa, an ASHA worker from Uttar Bhatnapaity Char Village in Barpeta said, “While leaving for work my son stares at me and asks if I can give him some money. I lie, make excuses and leave. But I don't know how I'll manage once he grows older and begins his education. I feel terrible that nothing has been done for us at a time when we are expected to do a lot for others.”

Jasmine, a teacher of an Anganwadi centre in Golaghat's Fetagaon, speaks of the importance of the 'AAA triangle' workers, especially during COVID. "We've informed so many people about government policies and special schemes they can avail of during the COVID-19 pandemic," she says. "They've started relying on us. They ask us about how to apply for Aadhaar, how to enrol in the Orunodoi Scheme."

And how are facilities at her centre?

“We had no handpump at our Anganwadi centre. We applied but didn't get one. Later, we arranged for one at our own expense. There was no help from the government. Even today, the centre doesn't have a toilet. We avoid relieving ourselves during the hours we're at the centre. And if there's emergency, we go to one of the homes in our neighbourhood.”

With the public perceiving them as one of the most reliable bridges to government, these healthcare workers could potentially swing the election either way.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma mentioned the BJP's efforts at combating the COVID-19 pandemic in election speeches, ASHA workers, ANMs and Anganwadi workers found no mention in the party's manifesto.

Which is also the case with the Congress and the other regional political parties.

An anganwadi centre shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Abhishek Kabra

But it is the BJP-led government that, by dint of being in power, has drawn their ire. Most recently in January, when these frontline health workers demanded an increase in wages, clearance of arrears and most importantly,  status of a permanent worker under the National Health Mission (NHM).

Runu Bawri (name changed) learned she was pregnant just a week before the lockdown.

So, all the efforts regarding making sure she received adequate nutrition and applying for the Matri Vandana Yojana happened in her home with the help of ASHA and Anganwadi Workers.

She stated, “I got a good amount of money thanks to the government schemes. My husband thought of buying a second-hand motorcycle, but the ASHA workers convinced him to prioritise my health instead. Both the baby and I are healthy because of Parvati.”

Tapan Sarma, the state president of the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU), reflects on the status of these workers. “It's very unfortunate that the women who implement the government's policies on the ground are treated this way. Their salaries are meagre. An ASHA worker, who does so much gets just Rs 3,300 per month. Compare that to a cook for the Mid-day meal scheme who gets Rs 1,000 per month.”

Sarma adds, “These ASHA workers are on the job around the clock. Even if a call comes at midnight, especially from pregnant women, they don't hesitate. And the BJP, which keeps speaking about its determination to improve things for the poor, hasn't stepped up for these workers. They have no medical benefits, no emergency funds, no retirement benefits. They deserve a minimum wage, social security and medical benefits and our union has been demanding these.”

An ASHA worker from Mandiya block in Barpeta District said healthcare workers have started thinking of their job as social service and not expecting anything in return. Thus, with their expectations practically non-existent, they don't really think about which political party benefits from their efforts or who comes to power in the election. “Forget being solved, our concerns aren't even talked about,” she said.



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