A leap of faithhttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/punjab-hospitals-nurses-protest-healthcare-a-leap-of-faith-2-5630022/

A leap of faith

Though overworked and underpaid, and denied basic work benefits, Punjab’s contract nurses form the backbone of the system. Of 410 nurses at Rajindra Hospital, one of the largest government hospitals in Punjab, only 50 are on the rolls; 360 are on contract.

A leap of faith
Karamjit received injuries in the fall and had to be admitted to ICU. (Express photo by Gurmeet Singh)

Over the past 13 years, she has sat on dharnas, struck work, gone hungry, climbed the roofs of hospitals and water tanks, even jumped into the Bhakra canal — all to draw the attention of authorities to the plight of 651 contract nurses of Patiala and Amritsar and to seek regularisation of their services. Then, on February 28, after 23 days of another round of protests, Karamjit Kaur Aulakh, 35, jumped again — this time from the dome of the main building of Rajindra Hospital in Patiala, along with fellow nurse Baljeet Kaur Khalsa, 33.

A plunge of at least 50 feet that finally forced the government’s hand — on March 7, the Punjab Cabinet approved the regularisation of some of the nurses — though it landed Aulakh in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Patiala hospital with a fractured leg and several other injuries. Baljeet Kaur has since been discharged and the nurses have ended their protests and rejoined work.

Though overworked and underpaid, and denied basic work benefits, Punjab’s contract nurses form the backbone of the system. Of 410 nurses at Rajindra Hospital, one of the largest government hospitals in Punjab, only 50 are on the rolls; 360 are on contract.

“After 13 years of struggle, we get Rs 21,000 a month while regular staff nurses earn Rs 45,000 to Rs 80,000 a month along with other benefits and allowances. They get more casual leaves, child-care leave and free medical services, among other benefits. We do more work than them — for instance, they don’t have to stay for night shifts — then why this disparity?” says Baljeet Kaur, 37, another nurse at Rajindra Hospital, who recalls how she faced pay cuts each time she took leave for the delivery of her two children.

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“Our maternity leave would only be for three months, that too with pay cuts. It is only after years of protests that last year, we started getting six months of paid maternity leave,” she says.

Now out of the ICU, Aulakh, 35, president of the Punjab Contractual Nursing & Ancillary Staff Association, says her fight isn’t over. Though the government has regularised the nurses at a basic pay of Rs 10,300 a month, their increments have been slashed. Besides, only 539 of the 651 nurses have been regularised — 112 new recruits who joined in 2018 were left out. “Those of us who have been regularised will now only get Rs 10,300 a month, half our current salaries. All the increments we earned over the years through protests have been slashed. This is unfair,” says Aulakh.

She adds that she wasn’t scared at all when she jumped — “As pradhan (leader of the nurses’ union), the only thing on my mind was our regularisation,” she says.

That day, around 6.35 pm, her colleague Baljeet Kaur Khalsa had done an ardaas (prayer) standing on the hospital dome, after which she jumped. Less than a minute later, Aulakh too jumped. Majnu, a Class IV employee who was standing beneath, fractured his leg as he attempted to save the women.

“Had I died, I would have had no regrets. Before I jumped, I thought, if this is what it takes to shake up the government and regularise my fellow sisters, so be it. I have been fighting for 13 years — from the time I joined this hospital at a pay of Rs 2,700 a month to Rs 21,000, including increments. But now, my salary will be down by half. This feels like a cruel joke,” says Aulakh, who hails from a village in Mansa district of Punjab and now stays in the hospital’s quarters.

Aulakh’s brother Atinderpal Singh recalls how their father had to sell an acre of the family land to pay his sister’s fees when she enrolled for her diploma in nursing from a college in Mansa.

“She was insistent that she wanted to do nursing, but the fee was Rs 70,000 a year. When she got her first job at Rajindra Hospital in 2006 through a private contractor, we were all happy. But she only earned Rs 2,700 a month. All these years, our father has been supporting her financially, hoping she would be regularised some day,” says Singh, who works as a clerk with a private firm.

At lease thrice since 2014, Aulakh led protests seeking better pay and regularisation of nurses. In 2014, she sat on 21-day hunger strike in front of the Amritsar residence of then medical education minister BJP’s Anil Joshi; in 2016, at the end of another round of protests, she jumped into the Bhakra Canal; last year, she and her fellow nurses climbed up to the terrace of the building that houses the office of the Patiala Government Medical College principal. Each time, the government responded by agreeing to a 33 per cent hike in salaries, but refused to regularise the services of contract nurses.

Yet, the protests brought other incremental changes — six months of maternity leave; from four days offs a month to eight now; from no night rest to some relaxation in work hours; from no casual leaves to 15 a year.

Dr Avinash Kumar, Director, Directorate Of Medical Education and Research, Punjab, refused to comment on why 112 nurses had been left out of the regularisation process and why the increments of the other nurses had been slashed. “The notification has been issued as per government policies and as promised, nurses have been regularised,” he said.

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Back in the hospital, Aulakh, who has been advised bed rest for three months, says, “I am waiting to get back on my feet. We have been regularised but it is not a complete victory yet…”