The Andhra Pradesh government on Wednesday invoked the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) but junior doctors in government-run hospitals continued their strike for the sixth consecutive day.
A day after Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy threatened to take firm action, the government issued an order to invoke ESMA, which gives special powers to the government to deal with the strike. The order will be in effect for six months, which means that the junior doctors can't go on strike during the period.
The ESMA order was issued hours after the deadline set by the government for the junior doctors to call off their strike ended Wednesday morning.
Under ESMA, the government may arrest doctors without warrant for failing to return to work.
The officials said they would like to wait for the response of the junior doctors before ordering police to take action against them.
The junior doctors were on strike despite the government on Monday deciding to bring an ordinance to make any attack on them a non-bailable offence, punishable with imprisonment up to three years.
The junior doctors were insisting that the two legislators of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) involved in the recent attacks on doctors at two hospitals in the state capital be arrested and policemen be deployed immediately at all government hospitals to provide protection to them.
The strike by about 5,000 junior doctors has badly hit medical services in hospitals attached to government medical colleges. The strike, the second this month, was causing severe hardships to patients.
Meanwhile, unfazed by the government's move to invoke ESMA, the junior doctors' association has made it clear that it would not call off the strike till all their demands were accepted. It demanded a written assurance from the government regarding their protection.
The government's move has evoked sharp reaction from the opposition. Leader of opposition and Telugu Desam Party president N Chandrababu Naidu criticised the Congress government for using ESMA against the striking doctors.
The strike began on Friday when junior doctors were attacked by relatives of a woman prisoner who died during treatment at Government Maternity Hospital.
The doctors alleged that MIM legislator Ahmed Pasha Khadri instigated the relatives of the patient. The government, however, has given a clean chit to the legislator saying he had nothing to do with the incident.
Earlier, an attack on doctors at Niloufer Children's Hospital in Hyderabad on December 2 by MIM legislator Afsar Khan and his supporters had sparked an indefinite strike. The 11-day strike, which allegedly resulted in the death of 40 children at the hospital, was called off last Wednesday following a threat from the high court to initiate penal action against striking doctors.
The police have already booked attempt to murder charges against Khan and 29 others on a direction by a lower court.