It was past 10 PM when the police came knocking on the door of Mrs & Mr Pathak’s residence on the night of 1st June in eastern Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli. It was only after two hours of inquiry about their son, a phone call with him and a warning later that they finally left, however, not without making it clear that their 28-year-old son, Dr Hareesh Pathak, President of the MP Junior Doctors’ Association (JDU) had to call off a strike that had seen the participation of over thousands of doctors and a complete boycott of services.
Since January this year, junior doctors (those doing post-graduate medical studies) across Madhya Pradesh have been staging on and off protests against low stipends and lack of reservation of beds for them and their families should they contract COVID. This – however – is only the tip of the iceberg. The JDA has approached the state government with a list of six demands, the in-principal approval of which has come through several times, but is still awaiting concrete action.
“Junior doctors have not received the annual increment of 6% in their stipends since 2018, let alone Rs 10,000 which was announced by the state government as an increment to doctors who are treating COVID patients every day”, says Dr Shankul Dwivedi, Joint Secretary of Indian Medical Association’s Junior Doctors’ Network.
Just this week, Odisha government gave its nod to reserve 5 percent beds in hospitals for its health care workers. Being on the frontlines, a similar demand has been raised by the doctors for themselves and their family members – a priority in COVID treatment which is free of cost. Additionally, it has also been urged that such government doctors are exempted from the regulations of a one-year ‘rural bond’ which they signed when seeking admission. Government doctors are mandated to render their services at primary health centres (PHC) and community health centres (CHC) in the hinterlands after graduation. Given that a huge number of patients has made its way to the cities in search of hospital care, doctors have been pushing for the revoking of this bond. Now, junior doctors are staring at potential fines of over Rs 10 lakh if they fail to complete their rural practice.
All these miseries, however, seem to be falling on deaf ears. As of 6th June, the pan-Madhya Pradesh strike has entered its seventh day, yet, when Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was asked by media persons recently on his thoughts on the same, he responded saying that the concerned department was “looking into it”.
Dr Pathak tells me that post-graduate medical students earn Rs 55,000 as a stipend in their 1st year which becomes Rs 57,000 in their 2nd year and Rs 59,000 in their final year. These stipends have not seen an increment since 2018 and are grossly lower than what their counterparts earn in states like Gujarat, West Bengal, Maharashtra etc., where the pay scale is between Rs 80,000-1,00,000. Medical education fee is not cheap in India, and most students borrow loans to pay for it. But Medical Education Minister, Vishwas Sarang has said that only a 17 percent increase – as against the 24 percent – can be accommodated for now.
Earlier this week, the Jabalpur High Court deemed the strike as ‘illegal’ and demanded that the doctors return to their duties within 24 hours, following which nearly 3,000 hapless junior doctors in the state tendered their resignations. As if these intimidation tactics were not enough, the court also ordered that the doctors would be slapped with essential services management act (ESMA) if they refuse to abide, says another government doctor requesting anonymity.
Doctors across India have also been facing the wrath of distressed relatives of patients who succumbed to the coronavirus infection. In Madhya Pradesh’s commercial capital of Indore, the country saw its first attack on doctors who were trying to tend to their COVID patients. Stones and abuses alike – were hurled at them, however, unfazed and undeterred as they were, they made sure it does not come in the line of their duties.
As COVID made its grip stronger, more and more such cases of assault started coming to the fore. Fearing their safety, the JDA is also pushing for police chowkis outside every COVID block.
Their problems don’t seem to end. Because junior doctors are also enrolled in their three-year post-graduation courses, resignation from their ‘seat’ midway would translate into a loss of several lakhs of rupees for the concerned institutions. To tackle that, the students are now being asked to cough up as much as Rs 30 lakh for leaving the seat.
Jabalpur’s Madhya Pradesh Medical Science University (MPMSU) recently released a list of 466 doctors which included post-graduates as well interns and ordered for the cancellation of their registrations (license to practice)
citing that they were “absent from their duties”. What good are their hard-earned degrees if they are not allowed to practice?
The Indian Medical Association has noted that over 600 doctors have succumbed to COVID in the second wave itself. In spite of the Central Residency Scheme mandating that resident doctors cannot practise over 12 hours a day at a stretch, many have been working inside hospital wards for as much as 48 hours, wearing PPE suits which do not allow going to the washrooms, or an intake of food or water. Doctors have been hailed as ‘COVID warriors’ in India, a country where the patient-to-doctor ratio has been fast depleting. But now – these warriors are no longer inside COVID wards because they have been forced to hold placards that saying,“Zindagi chune, MBBS nahi”. Is it then, not fair to assure them of basic amenities which would make their job easier?
(Edited by: By Pradeep Suresh V)
First Published: IST