Rage of India’s nursing angels

On one hand, doctors and nurses employed in the National Health Mission (NHM) were forced to go on strike to demand the same wages as other health centre employees

201505ehm02On one hand, doctors and nurses employed in the National Health Mission (NHM) were forced to go on strike to demand the same wages as other health centre employees. And even when they called off the strike on April 22, after 42 days on strike, the matter remained unresolved. The President of the nurses association of NHM, Karamjeet Kaur warned that though they had decided to join work, they were forced to give a 10-day ultimatum to the state government, during which employees of two districts would continue their dharna at Chandigarh. If their demands were not addressed, they threatened to resume the strike.

And on the other hand, the US is going all out to attract doctors from countries like India and Pakistan. Two US senators, from opposite sides of the political fence, (Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York and Tom Emmer, a Republican from Minnesota) have introduced the Grant Residency for Additional Doctors Act (GRAD Act), aimed at speeding up the visa approval process for overseas doctors who had been selected by US hospitals.

Doctors in India still command a ‘god-like’ devotion but not many spare a thought for the ‘angels’ behind the show. We tend to take them for granted and reserve our worst comments for those who seek better wages. Sample this gem from the Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar in late March this year. When nurses and others workers attached to the state-approved but privately run 108 ambulance service went on a hunger strike, the Goa CM had this sage, almost fatherly, advice for the nurses: Protesting in the sun will darken your complexion and ruin your marital prospects.

The world has realised the worth of nursing talent from India, with special praise reserved for those from southern states who have served in war-torn zones, most recently in Iraq, Libya and Yemen. But most of these nurses resisted efforts to bring them back and now want to return, even if it means facing daily bomb threats and risking capture by warring factions. Most of them have huge debts, incurred to pay for their nursing education as well as passport/ visa fees to touts who arranged contracts and travel documents. Worse, some fear that they will not get their past wages as they violated the contract by leaving.

Poor wages seem to unite nurses across the world. What differs is only the scale. For instance, for the first time in their 134-year history, members of the Royal College of Midwives in northern Ireland staged a four-hour strike in late April to call for a one per cent pay increase, as was given to their colleagues in other parts of UK.

Acknowledging their immense contribution, Express Healthcare’s May issue marks May 12, World Nursing Day, with a cover story touching on the newer avenues opening up, slowly but surely, for nursing staff in India. (‘Ushering a new era in nursing’, pages 20)

In more ways than one, change will come only with pressure from the public voice. Another focus area of the May issue is the government’s backtracking on its commitment to increase the size of pictorial warnings on cigarette packs. The lead story in the Strategy section, (‘Waging the war against tobacco’, pages 38) tries to raise the consciousness around this action. The good news is that the youth, a category of ‘new’ users being targeted by tobacco companies, seem to have decided to hit back. May 1 will see a youth-led press conference jointly organised by Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and WHO, HRIDAY (Health Related Information Dissemination Amongst Youth) where the youth will sign a petition demanding 85 per cent pictorial health warnings on tobacco packs. With youth icons like cricket hero Rahul Dravid, who is also the country’s ambassador for tobacco control, lending more power to the punch, one hopes the movement will pick up momentum across the country. The medical community will have to do their bit to magnify the message as the tobacco lobby is sure to hit back. The world is usually deaf to the silent scream. India needs the rage of angels for change.

Viveka Roychowdhury


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