By: Isheeta Sharma*
All-women Accredited Social Health Activist or ASHA workers are community health workers who engage in primary healthcare services under the National Rural Health Mission of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. They have been frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in India and have been involved in conducting COVID-19 surveys, policing quarantine centres, working in COVID-19 containment zones, etc. A report published by BehanBox titled Female Frontline Community Healthcare Workforce in India During Covid-19 sheds light on the challenges faced by ASHA workers (along with Anganwadi workers and Auxiliary Nurse
From 2020, ASHA workers have been consistently protesting and demanding more responsibility from the government for their safety – both physical and financial. From July 2020, ASHA workers had been on a strike in Delhi asking for PPE kits and INR 10,000 honorariums. In August 2020, however, as they sat for protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, FIRs were filed against them for violating lockdown norms. Moves such as these were especially surprising by a Government that threw flower petals on its frontline workers and boosted their morale by banging thalis and clapping their hands. In September and November 2020 in Bengaluru, more protests were organised by ASHA workers. During the protest organised in November, the leaders were arrested for trying to picket the Collectorate. Their demands were again simple – more job security, more pay, less working hours, constant health checkups and safety equipment.
2021 continues to see protests by ASHA workers. In May 2021 ASHA workers again organised a protest claiming their demands were being resolved only on paper. They organised a one-day nationwide strike and demanded their rights to be seen as and treated as ‘workers’ by the state and central government. Surekha, a member of the All India Coordination Committee of ASHA Workers (AICCAW) told news website Newsclick about how despite being included in the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package Insurance (which ensures INR 50 lakh insurance cover for health workers who lose their life due to COVID-19) the families of ASHA workers who have lost their lives due to COVID-19 have not been compensated.
The undervaluing of female frontline workers and the denial of their rights as workers is telling of the overarching breakdown of the state’s machinery especially for healthcare workers during COVID-19. The effort and risk undertaken by ASHA workers during the pandemic goes uncompensated financially as well as in the form of incentives, safety kits, etc – objects and measures that would make the bare minimum don’t reach those who need it the most.
As ASHA workers now tackle vaccine hesitancy in different areas, they are being attacked, harassed and some were even left out of the government’s vaccination drive registrations. It seems like unless voices are raised they are not heard and as soon as they are raised they are criminalised and threatened. In standing by ASHA workers’ demands and actively amplifying their voices and requirements we stand by their safety and rights as workers of India. It’s high time the states did too. It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for the authorities in-charge to realise, acknowledge and act upon the requirements of our primary healthcare workers.
Isheeta is a features writer and a student of Gender Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She enjoys dissecting popular culture through a gendered lens, adding new books to her overflowing book rack and sipping coffee in quiet corners. She is currently an Intern at Kractivist.org.