Economy

Gujarat ASHA Workers’ Protest Ends, But Not Their Struggle for Better Conditions

Close to 50 ASHA workers and two leaders of the movement were taken into police custody the day Narendra Modi visited Vadodara, apparently because the police was probing the possibility of opposition parties backing the protest.

ASHA workers protesting in Vadodara. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

ASHA workers protesting in Vadodara. Credit: Damayantee Dhar 

Vadodara, Gujarat: Chandrika Solanki, president of the women’s wing of the Contract and Fixed Pay Sangharsh Samiti, and Rajnikant Solanki, president of Contract and Fixed Pay Sangharsh Samiti, who have been spearheading the movement of ASHA workers (Accredited Social Health Activist) in Gujarat for close to two years, were taken into custodial remand by the Vadodara police on October 25.

On October 25, approximately 50 ASHA workers were arrested by the Vadodara police, along with Chandrika and Rajnikant. While the rest of the workers were released on bail, the police sought five-day custodial remand for the two leaders. The court granted them two days.

“The ASHA workers have been protesting in Vadodara for about a month. We (the police) had taken a soft stand since the inception of their protest as they were all ladies from a very poor background, and we had no issues if they were protesting. They had been sitting opposite the collector’s office despite some areas being for restricted use. We would send female police personnel to keep a watch while they carried out their protest. Our female police personnel had constantly complained that they were abused verbally by the ASHA workers, but we maintained restraint nonetheless. After initial days of protest in Vadodara, the leader Chandrika Solanki wanted to submit a memorandum to the collector and demanded that the collector meet ASHA workers personally. The collector of Vadodara had then met her and other ASHA workers, and received the memorandum. After a conversation with Chandrika Solanki and a photo-clicking session while submitting the memorandum on her (Chandrika’s) demand, the ASHA workers left,” said Manoj Shashidhar, the commissioner of police in Vadodara.

“However, they continued to protest even after submitting the memorandum. We found out that it was the duo Rajnikant Solanki and Chandrika Solanki, neither of whom are ASHA workers, who were instigating the ASHA workers. We realised they were more interested in keeping the pot boiling than coming to a solution. We wanted to explore if anybody was backing them and fuelling the protest,” added Shashidhar.

Chandrika Solanki (in red dupatta) being welcomed after she was released. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Chandrika Solanki (in red dupatta) being welcomed after she was released. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

The ASHA workers were detained during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vadodara on October 22 and released the next day. Following this, the agitating ASHA workers decided to charge towards the collector’s office on October 25 and tore down a government poster that had the prime minister’s photo.

“Under sections 332, 120, 353, 143 and 147 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), an offence of rioting, unlawful assembly, injuring a public servant and assault on a government servant on duty was registered against them after they engaged in a physical scuffle with a female police personnel when they intervened,” Shashidhar told The Wire.

Chandrika received an overwhelming welcome from ASHA workers, who were waiting for her with garlands, when she was released on October 27. However, when she got to her home in Vadodara where she lives with her mother and teenager daughter, a letter taped to her door was waiting for her.

“It was a missive despatched by the district primary education officer of Chhota Udaipur district issued on October 22. It stated that I was being suspended for taking part in programmes against state government,” Chandrika, who has been a teacher in a government primary school in Kotali village in Sankheda taluka, Chhota Udaipur district since 2001, told The Wire. A few months ago, she was felicitated as the ‘best teacher’ for her contribution to primary education by chief minister Vijay Rupani at a programme held at Jhanjharka village in Surendranagar district.

The letter also alleges that Chandrika has not responded to the show-cause notice issued to her to explain the reasons behind her prolonged absence from the primary school. Chandrika, however, claims she hasn’t received any show-cause notice.

ASHA workers protesting in Vadodara. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

ASHA workers protesting in Vadodara. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“I have been taking leave without pay to carry on the struggle of ASHA workers. While I was a teacher, ASHA workers used to come to educate the girls on personal and menstrual hygiene as a part of their job. It was then that I came to know that they are being paid a meagre amount of Rs 1,000-1,500. I came in contact with Rajnikant Solanki, who was already fighting for contracts and fixed pay for government workers, and we decided to bring the issues of ASHA workers to the forefront,” Chandrika said.

“Police feel we are being backed by some political force with vested interests. They questioned me on who was funding our protest and if I had help from the Congress. The truth is for most days of the protest in Vadodara, some ASHA workers including myself were on hunger strike. For the rest of the women, ASHA workers who were from neighbouring villages brought whatever food they could manage.”

Following the month-long protest in Vadodara, the state government announced a 50% hike in the incentive of ASHA workers. Chandrika, however, has termed this a “lollipop” ahead of the assembly polls. “ASHA workers get about Rs 2,000-2,500 a month. An ASHA worker can be asked to respond to a distress call at any time, day or night. She calls the emergency 108 ambulance service, takes the pregnant woman to hospital and stays until the delivery is done. Post delivery, the ASHA worker has to check on the mother and child’s health for some days. After this process is done, she needs a copy of the birth certificate of the infant, a letter from the attending doctor affirming her presence during the delivery and the health chart of the mother and child. After all this is done, the ASHA worker gets Rs 250 for her work – but only if the pregnant woman holds a BPL card.”

“What will a 50% hike mean? An ASHA worker doesn’t have fixed pay or permanent status. Our demands were many – to be given status of permanent class 4 employees with health insurance and fixed working hours, 180-day maternity leave and death insurance cover. None of these demands have been met. The state government cannot fool us, the movement will be on till ASHA workers get what they deserve,” Chandrika added.

ASHA workers protesting in Vadodara. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

ASHA workers protesting in Vadodara. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Since she was released on bail, Chandrika has been urging the agitating ASHA workers from across the state to return to their duties, as the model code of conduct has come into effect ahead of assembly elections in December this year.

However, the ASHA workers now face a new problem. Medical officers in urban health centres are now reluctant to clear payments for work done before the month-long protest began.

“There are three seniors above us, each one them has been pressurising us in their own way ever since we began protesting. Now that we will join after a month, the medical officer has told us to finish the backlog paperwork and update the registers first. We are not sure if we will receive payment for the work we did before we camped in Vadodara,” Nehaben, an ASHA worker, told The Wire.

“We have been under pressure for the last two years that we have been protesting. Most ASHA workers out of the 1,200 who have been mobilised from all over Gujarat have been threatened, saying they will be fired. Their behaviour towards us becomes more unfair once the media goes away and we are at their mercy,” said another ASHA worker from Bharuch.

“Once, we decided to stage a protest while the Vibrant Gujarat summit was on in Gandhinagar. Our leader, Chandrika Solanki, had declared that we will sit before the venue of the summit. Most of us could not make it to Gandhinagar. Some were put under house arrest in different districts. About 700 of us had booked a bus to travel to Gandhinagar from Bharuch but couldn’t. The driver of the bus told us he had been threatened and asked to not carry us to Gandhinagar,” she added.

However, despite the odds, Chandrika and ASHA workers said they will continue to fight for their demands.

Damayantee Dhar is a freelance reporter.