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More work, no pay: Asha workers say they are pushed to the wall

"During the third wave, Asha workers served the people of this country by risking their own lives, but still they haven't got their basic salary from the government.

By Sourav Rai
New Update


"During the third wave, Asha workers served the people of this country by risking their own lives, but still they haven't got their basic salary from the government. Our workers have died serving people. Their families have still not received any compensation from the authorities," rued Shweta Raj, General Secretary of the Dilli Asha Kamgar Union.

Asha workers or the Accredited Social Health Activists are part of the National Rural Health Mission of the government of India. These workers are trained volunteers, and they work as a critical interface between the community and the public health system.

When the Asha scheme first came into being, the workers were initially involved in providing care to pregnant women, carrying out the polio vaccination drive of the government, encouraging family planning in villages, improving sanitation facilities and many other activities. But over time, the roles and responsibilities of these Asha workers increased. They reached the peak of their activity during all the three waves of the pandemic. The workers today claim that they are overburdened with work, and they are victims of harassment and government apathy.

Shweta Raj, General Secretary of the Dilli Asha Kamgar Union says that many Asha workers are victims of harassment and government apathy

"Over the years, what we have noticed is that the centre and the state governments are over-burdening Asha workers. All schemes of the respective governments are being taken at the grassroots level to the people by Asha workers. During the pandemic, Asha workers have been at the forefront of carrying out Covid duties. They are public healthcare workers, but still, the government calls them volunteers. They don't treat them as health workers because of which they don't get a regular salary. They get 3000 rupees every month as an incentive based on a point system. What can one do with 3000 rupees? Even that 3000 rupees gets cut if they don't fulfil the 12-point criteria of the government. And sometimes when they fulfil the criteria, even then, they don't get paid every month," said Shweta Raj.

The Asha workers are pillars of India's healthcare system. Ever since the onset of the pandemic, these workers have been at the frontline of doing Covid duties. Many Asha workers have also lost their lives due to Covid. The all-women army is very critical to the government's door-to-door vaccination drive, so are their contributions crucial when it comes to door-to-door delivery of medicines for Covid patients, but the workers complain that they are faced with more work and no pay.

"We act as a bridge between the public healthcare system and the local communities. But when we go out on Covid duties, we are not even given basic protective gear, and we spend our own money to buy masks and sanitisers," said Rita Bharadwaj, an Asha worker from Delhi.

Asha worker Priyanka states that the point system based incentive was not devised to encourage them

Many Asha workers complain that they don't get sanitisers, gloves or masks from the government when they do Covid duties. While the government claims that they are provided with masks and sanitisers, the on-ground situation seems to be completely different. The workers complain that because of the lack of safety equipment, many women had fallen sick and succumbed during the pandemic.

Priyanka, an Asha worker, stated that the government is completely indifferent to their needs. "We still don't get protective gear. Doctors ask us to wear masks and come to work. But where do we get the masks from? A mask costs 10 rupees, and every month we will have to spend 300 rupees or so. How can we afford these masks when we have such low salaries, and our salaries don't come on time?"

During the pandemic, numerous Asha workers carried out protests in many parts of the country demanding insurance cover, risk allowance while on Covid duties, regularised salaries and basic amenities including protective gear, but their demands are yet to be met. The women say that even domestic helps earn more money than the Asha workers.

"Asha workers don't get regular salaries as the government employees. What they get as volunteers is an honorarium. We are fighting for not just enhanced wages, but for respect. The workers get out of their homes without basic protective gear, and then the authorities ask them to wash and use the same old masks. This is like sending soldiers to war without giving them weapons. They are pushed into Covid services without being provided with basic amenities to protect themselves, their families and the public that they are duty bound to serve," said Shwetha.

Rita Bharadwaj, Asha worker says that the honorarium of Asha workers doesn't come on time

The Asha mission of the government of India has played a significant role in eradicating polio in the country. Recently the government had promised the women an additional 1000 rupees if they are engaged in Covid duties but many workers claim that this paltry sum is insufficient and not at par with the services they provide.

"The government has also said that during Covid times they will give an increment of 1000 rupees. When they risk their lives and do Covid duties, they only get paid 1000 rupees as incentives. The sad part is that many haven't even received this monthly payment of 1000 rupees, and this is really shameful. What's worse is that in Delhi, an Asha worker who was on Covid duty tested positive when she was serving people and she later died but the government hasn't helped her family yet. The family has still not got any compensation," stated Shwetha.

Many workers claim that thousands of women have tested positive during the pandemic, and many have lost their lives. Still, the government both at the central and the state level, has not maintained any records of the number of deaths of Asha workers.

"We want to be treated with respect. When we go to the dispensary, they tell us - "So what if you are an Asha worker?" Who gives them the right to talk to us like this? We don't want points. We want a salary for the work we do. We have been working and serving the public for many years now. But the salaries of ANM workers, anganwadi workers, doctors, nurses and other paramedical staff gets increased but Asha workers are given a step-motherly treatment. This must stop," said Kamini Garg, another distraught Asha worker.

Kamini Garg, an Asha worker from Delhi says that they are often humiliated in dispensaries and asked, "So what if you are an Asha worker?"

The Asha workers have been demanding a respectable income of 26,000 rupees at least. They say that the point system was introduced to deduct money and not to encourage them. The workers have been demanding the revoking of the point-based system of incentives. The ladies have also been requesting the government to increase the covid incentives from the current 1000 rupees to 10,000 rupees a month.

“They must be given all those basic rights which any worker in this country gets. They must have access to medical insurance and safety equipment like ppe kits, masks, gloves, shields and sanitisers. There are numerous cases of sexual assaults and violence against Asha workers. But no action has been taken in many of these cases. The respective state governments and the centre should come forward to protect their rights,” said Shweta.

The all-female army of Asha workers have been at the forefront of Covid duties during the pandemic. But their work still goes unrecognised, they are underpaid and most of the workers are today struggling to make ends meet. As the third wave rages on, these workers say they will continue their fight till their demands are met.