They are among the frontline soldiers in India's war against tuberculosis (TB). They risk their health by coming into direct contact with the affected people, to diagnose and cure. Moreover, in this particular part of the country, they dodge bullets and stones to ensure that none of the patients missed a dose of medicine.
But nearly 200 employees of the revised national tuberculosis project (RNTCP) in Jammu and Kashmir say they feel left in the lurch.
Tens of thousands of RNTCP employees across India run the DOTS (directly observed treatment short-course) plan, prescribed by the World Health Organisation to counter tuberculosis. The strategy involves practice of administering medicine to TB patients under the supervision of the employees, to ensure that they do not miss a dose lest they have relapse.
In Kashmir the strategy has not eradicated the disease - the detection rate of patients is still under 50%. "But the cure rate (chances of a TB patient getting healthy) has gone up to 85% in the last five years,"said Hamidullah Pandit, president of the Jammu and Kashmir RNTCP Employees Association.
But this also came with a risk to the curers themselves, with only masks and hand sanitisers as protection. "Many of our colleagues were infected by TB. First they used to give medicine to patients, but finally they had to take it
themselves,"Pandit said. And all this without any 'recognition'.
Since 1997, when the project was launched, these contractual workers have been denied basic monetary perks including the much-deserved risk allowance. This is because the government has so far not yielded to their demand for regularisation.
"We are paid Rs 15,000 while a regular government employee of the same rank gets almost double with all the perks," said Pandit, adding, "We want regularisation of out jobs."
According to the state's own contractual policy, employees who have served for seven years are entitled to regularisation. Most of these RNTCP employees have served for fifteen years, but, as the project was started by the union government, the state authorities did not allow them enjoy this benefit.
Another RNTCP employee, who did not wish to be named, said he was suffering from mental stress because he thought his job was worthless in spite of all the hardships it demanded. "During the 2010 unrest I was beaten up, and sometimes we had to beg the security forces to allow us to go. But even then I never let any of my patients miss a single dose of medicine,"he said.
Still there seem to be no signs that the RNTPC employees would be absorbed as regular employees by the state or the central government. The Central TB division recently hiked the salary structure by 25%, half of what the employees had demanded.
"So we are joining the all-India level protest against this discrimination in the salary hike on August 26," Pandit said.
State's health minister Shabbir Ahmed Khan could not be contacted for comment. Even the director of health services, Kashmir, did not take calls by this reporter.