Govt 'unmoved' as NHM employees' strike hits medical services in J&K

Despite recommendations by an official panel in 2017, over 8,000 employees working under the Mission await regularisation of their services

For past many weeks, over 8000 employees working under National Health Mission (NHM) in J&K are on strike, seeking regularization of their services. Their strike has badly impacted healthcare deliver in the state as they form major human resource in state hospitals.  The fight of NHM employees including doctors for “equal wages” and a “secure future” is an old one. In 2017 a committee constituted by state government had recommended that regularisation of NHM employees should be carried out in phased manner. The reason for phased regularization was that state health exchequer has limited resources to meet huge financial implications involved in regularisation of these employees in one go, according to the report. Accordingly, 1020 NHM employees and 20 others from JK State AIDS Control Society (JKSACS) were recommended for regularization in first phase. According to official figures, at that time, 8247 individuals were on rolls of NHM while 155 more were working with JKSACS, on contractual basis. While category-wise pay-scales of these employees had been worked out, the first phase of regularsation was estimated to cost state exchequer Rs 27.41 crore. The committee that had given the recommendations consisted of directors of health services Jammu and Kashmir, mission director NHM and additional secretary in health and medical education. The panel was constituted following a series of meetings, protests and even discussions in the Assembly. However, two years on, the recommendations are gathering dust. Most of these employees are in the age group of 23-45 years. While on one hand, in the past, state government has been stating that a person who opts for a contractual employment can’t stake claim to regular service, on the other hand, lack of opportunities and slow pace of recruitment processes leaves job-hunters with no choice but to opt for these posts. “We are working in the same health institutions, having same work hours and work load as doctors who are recruited through employment agencies,” a senior consultant working with NHM said. “How can they justify paying us one-third of the salary that a regular doctor gets?” he asked. The NHM employees also lamented the argument of “choice” put forth by the government and said it was due to huge unemployment rates in J&K that educated persons were forced to take up contractual jobs. While criticizing the argument by state authorities about them opting for a contractual employment a junior doctor working with NHM said, “As if we had a plethora of choices here and we opted for a contractual one out of choice.” Another NHM employee, who was a management postgraduate, said that dearth of opportunities in Kashmir lead people like her to opt for contractual jobs. “Does making that choice mar our chances of securing our rights,” she asked. The NHM employee form backbone of health system in J&K and hence their strike has affected healthcare delivery in more ways than administrators are ready to accept. A senior official acknowledged it. “Our maternity services, tuberculosis program, blood banks, tobacco control program, non-communicable diseases program and much more is on crutches right now,” he said. However, this is not for the first time that NHM employees have gone on strike and brought health care system to a grinding halt. This time though, the state seems to be in a denial mode. Currently, the human resource including doctors, specialists, paramedics, nurses, medical technologists, technicians, managers, computer operators, accountants and all other categories of employees are working under the Mission. Their salaries, including of those having post-graduate and professional degrees, range between Rs 12000 and Rs 25000. Only in case of specialist doctors, the salary is higher. For long, the salaries of these employees have remained stagnant. From running special Newborn Care Units in district hospitals to extending national tuberculosis program, NHM staff is playing their role at every level. “Despite repeated assurances time and again, we have been let down by the successive governments,” said a doctor.