Sitting on a tattered rug underneath a tent, around 300 Asha workers (also referred as Asha bahuein) have been agitating for the past five days outside the district health department’s office for job security, minimum wage and respect for their work.
Fanning themselves with local newspapers in the humidity on Saturday, they lamented that their agitation has not received adequate media coverage.
“We are the foundation of every government health scheme, be it Pulse Polio, nutrition projects, dengue/malaria/leukaemia campaigns or surveys. When Amitabh Bachchan appears on TV to promote Pulse Polio drops, he is applauded as the real hero. Nobody is bothered to check on the ones who do the real work and are paid Rs 75 per day. Our agitation finds no readers in newspapers and no viewers on TV channels,” said Daisy, an Asha worker from Dadri.
Asha is an acronym for Accredited Social Health Activist. These workers are a key component of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) launched to provide every village in India with a literate and trained woman community health activist.
There are a total of 713 registered Asha workers in the Gautam Budh Nagar district. They are agitating as part of the state-wide strike called by the National Health Mission Contractual Workers Union (NHM-CWU) to demand regularisation of jobs and minimum wage.
For Asha workers, it is not just about the minimum wage but also basic respect that they seek from the society and government.
“We bring pregnant women to a dispensary and ensure nutrition for newborns. We tour villages and mohallas to take government health schemes from paper to the ground. Yet, we end up facing taunts from villagers and harassment from government staff. We demand equal pay for equal work and most importantly, respect and recognition for our work,” says Asha Rani, an Asha worker from Dankaur.
The women claim they are paid an average reimbursement of only Rs 75 per day. After the birth of any child in their area, they have to visit the house for the next 42 days to check the newborn’s blood pressure, weight and provide vaccinations. They said they get just Rs 250 for this 42-day monitoring.
“Even the reimbursement amount is not paid on time. If the amount comes to Rs 1,500 we are paid only Rs 1,000. The rest goes into the pockets of the bureaucracy,” alleged Kusum, from Dankaur.
Asha workers, along with other contractual staff, have been demanding a minimum wage of Rs 15,000 and job recognition/security from the state government. Vishu Prabhakar, district president of NHM-CWU, said the Asha workers’ demand for job recognition is the most important aspect of their agitation.
“On one hand, a government nurse earns a decent salary with fixed working hours along with other perks, and on the other hand are Asha workers who slog for hours in the name of activism. There are no fixed working hours for Asha workers as they can be summoned by the health department any time of the day. They are being exploited by the babus for free,” said Prabhakar.