Amid the continuing protests of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) in Meghalaya, Health and Family Welfare Minister Ampareen Lyngdoh today invited them for more talks but also appealed to them not to disregard their duties.
Members of the Meghalaya ASHA Workers Union (MAWU) ceased work on November 6 as they demand for an increase in honorarium and have held protests in Mawkyrwat, Nongstoiñ and Jowai, among other places. ASHAs are not paid fixed salaries as the work they do is considered voluntary. Instead, they are paid a stipend of Rs 2,000 a month, which they can supplement with ‘performance incentives’.
Lyngdoh told reporters that these incentives can add up to a decent amount. She shared figures purporting to show ASHAs who had earned Rs 9,000 to Rs 10,000 per month over a period of half a year, with one worker earning more than Rs 13,000 per month thanks to incentives of Rs 70,570 in the six months between May and October. The government has also promised ASHAs a cashless medical treatment system.
“I urge upon the ASHA workers who are an important component of our health system that service to humanity is service to God,” the minister, who had met with them in previous weeks, said. “If there happens to be a high-risk pregnant mother in any village and if the ASHAs are going to turn their eyes away from that patient, I fear the worst for the citizens of the state… What can be done I will do. If you want me to meet you again, yes I will meet you again but please do not disregard your duties.”
An ASHA’s tasks include motivating women to give birth in health centres, encouraging parents to get children immunised, promoting family planning, treating basic illnesses and injuries with first aid, keeping demographic records and improving village sanitation.
These community health workers, 99.9 per cent of whom are women, are treated as volunteers and it was made clear to them, Lyngdoh said, before signing on that they were to join only if they had time to give for the work.
The agitating ASHA workers, however, had alleged that they are made to work from morning to night, which is a full-time job. Reacting to this, Lyngdoh said, “I have asked my officers to bring out a notification, to notify the exact assignments of ASHAs” so that others, like auxiliary nurse midwife (ANMs), do their own work.
“I told the ASHAs when they met me last time that I can only engage and speak about what is permissible within my capacity as Health Minister. There is this misconception that the state government has done nothing for ASHAs, which is incorrect,” Lyngdoh said, pointing to the crores of rupees in honorariums and incentives that have been paid out, including arrears.
ASHAs are employed by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare as a part of the National Rural Health Mission. The aim is to have an ASHA in every village, which would mean around 7,000 such workers in Meghalaya. At present, there are 6,811 ASHAs in rural Meghalaya and 265 in urban areas.
Acknowledging the contribution made by ASHAs, Lyngdoh said that the government is indebted to them for the work that they are doing and that without them Meghalaya would have performed very poorly in the health sector.