Meghalaya: Health minister urges dialogue as health activists' protests continue

Shillong: Amid the ongoing protest of the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) in Meghalaya, Health Minister Ampareen Lyngdoh, on Wednesday, once again invited them for talks and appealed to the agitating workers not to disregard their duties.

Since November 6, the Meghalaya ASHA Workers Union (MAWU) has seized work, demanding an increase in their honorarium.

Lyngdoh, who had already met with the workers in the previous months, explained their work to them. “If there happens to be a high-risk pregnant mother in any village, and if the ASHAs turn their eyes away from that patient who needs their attention, I fear the worst for the citizens of the state. Therefore, I urge the ASHAs. If you want me to meet you again, yes, I will meet you again, but please do not disregard your duties,” appealed the health minister.

Lyngdoh found no commitment to salary or additional benefits for ASHA workers, emphasising their voluntary nature. ASHAs, predominantly women, were informed they could contribute when time allowed, recognising their busy schedules.

“I told the ASHAs when they met me last time that I can only engage and speak about what is permissible within my capacity as a health minister. There is this misconception that the state government has done nothing for ASHAs, which is incorrect,” clarified the health minister.

In 2021-22, the government has allocated Rs 16.32 crore for the fixed monthly incentive of the ASHAs. A backlog of Rs 53 crore from the same period has also been cleared. Incentives under NHM amount to 21.96 crore, bringing the total government expenditure for the period to 91.2 crore.

For the fiscal year 2022-23, the backlog is NIL, and the government continues to invest 16.98 crores in monthly incentives of Rs 2,000 for ASHAs. Additionally, incentives under NHM have resulted in an expenditure of Rs 22.68 crore for ASHAs, totaling 14.5 crore. Due to the demand for ASHAs across 7,000 villages, the state claims it needs at least 7,000 ASHAs. As of now, there are a total of 6,811 ASHAs in rural areas and 265 in urban areas.

According to the minister, ASHAs have received adequate monetary remuneration, with some receiving up to Rs 31,000 and others over Rs 60,000 for a six-month period, in addition to their basic remuneration of Rs 2,000. Incentives are awarded whenever an ASHA contributes to the improvement of health facilities in the village.

In response to the allegation by agitating ASHA workers that they are made to work from morning to night, constituting a full-time job, Lyngdoh stated, “I have asked my officers to issue a notification specifying the exact assignments of ASHAs, leaving other health volunteers like A&M’s, and others, as well as the village head councils, to manage their own responsibilities.”

When workers complained that if an ASHA is sick, they shouldn’t have to pay, the government stated that they would provide cashless medical treatment.

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Acknowledging the contribution made by ASHAs, Lyngdoh said that the government is indebted to ASHAs and the dorbars for the work that they are doing and that without them, the state of Meghalaya would have performed very poorly in the health sector.

In the recent agitations of the Meghalaya ASHA Workers Union (MAWU), protests were held in Nongstoiñ, Mawkyrwat, Jowai, and other districts.

An ASHA, or an Accredited Social Health Activist, is a critical healthcare figure in Meghalaya, playing a pivotal role in the implementation of various public health programmes. ASHAs are community health workers who bridge the gap between the healthcare system and rural and urban communities, especially in the context of maternal health, child health, and disease control programmes.

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