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Friday, February 10

Angels of a forgotten league

We all know this one thing about Nurses, especially nurses in India. Over-worked, inhumanly underpaid, systematically abused and vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation. Not to mention the constant emotional and physical harassment being meted out by co-workers, superiors, patients, by-standers, passer byes and the society itself as a whole.

Nursing in the democratic Republic of India cuts a sorry saga. Its still in Jurassic era. The femme-oriented profession represents a perfect cross-section of the abject, rural, middle-class Indian woman: enduring, submissive, tolerant, obliging and expected to absorb everything and anything like a super-giant sponge. Even with all the social and financial leaps the nation has made, Nurses in India still shy away or are deliberately kept out of mainstream socio-political advancements.

I'm forced to come out of my short blogging hibernation because of two factors:
  1.  The ongoing nurses agitations and not-so-surprising stories of cruel exploitation dribbling out from various corners of the nation.
  2.  Being a Registered Nurse myself, it's my duty and responsibility to stand up and fight for the vocation which provides me my livelihood.
There is more to it. It's not just the pay-scale, working conditions or the abuse which has appalled me. It was the incessant apathy some sections of society exhibit towards nurses and the profession, even during times of need. Even in this nifty age, large sections of our parochial society still view nurses as pure sex symbols or as easy-to-trod-on defenceless creatures, credits to India's socioculturally hierarchical background and our equally partisan film/ entertainment industry. Personal and professional respect is something the unfortunate, hard-working and extremely loyal nurses in our country never received, or expected.

Kerala has been a torch-bearer in Nursing profession in India, mainly due to Christian-dominated Central Travancore pockets. Easy job opportunities, chances in the affluent Middle-East and the West allured young women with an attitude to care. Over time, with the career graph looking up, the male gender and even sections of Hindu and Muslim societies which once frowned upon the profession, took up the job. Negative stereotype gradually got replaced by an opulent image, though some cliched caricatures still linger.

One aspect which increased the luminosity of the 'white frock', apart from the larger Catholic population, is the America-magnet, which was direct effect of the quality of Nursing education in Kerala. The reference books and curriculum is set cent-percent on Western standards which made that India-to-America transition a hell lot easier. The curriculum, especially the 3 year Diploma and 4 year Bachelor's Degree Course offers a comprehensive syllabus with generous clinical hours, on par with any advanced countries in the West. Precisely why Kerala Nurses are much sought after in the civilised world. But that's where the high standards in Indian Nursing end, unfortunately. I mean, with the curriculum.

Nobody bothers to glance into how well/ ill equipped our state or country is in helping nurses adhere to the Professional Code of Ethics, crucial in maintaining the standard and dignity of the profession. In the unregulated Private sector, a Nurse looks after 20-30 patients in a General ward when she should be handling 10; working hours are a gruelling 12-15 hours with lack of proper breaks, 6 days-a-week rosters, no sick leave or non-existent annual leave allocations, shift allowances are unheard of and a salary which would just about pay the laundry, transport and hairdressing charges. All this, after putting up with unruly administrators, Medical Officers, patients and relatives and an often pathetic infrastructure.

Private Nursing schools and Hospitals view the educational programme and workforce an easy way to save and mint money. Nursing students are substituted for free, quality labour to local hospitals and nursing homes. Students are forced to work hands-on in all Medical and allied Departments rather than attaining the goal of learning their trade. The real torture and exploitation happens when the freshly graduated nurses venture out to practice the job. Most hospitals exploit this free-labour in the name of 'bond' and 'internship' by offering stipends and salaries which range from Rs500-1000/month.

That's what you get for keeping awake all night watching over a living, breathing human? A securityman at the nearby morgue gets 10 times more for snoozing over dead bodies.

Worst of all, in such a female oriented profession, getting pregnant means a frightful prospect of losing the job by childbirth. Most private hospitals in our 'cultured' society does not provide nurses any sort of  Maternity Leave or benefits; and they force the nurses to resign...Oh yes, life isn't fair, isn't it...Endure?

In plain words, this is modern day slavery.

The situation of these selfless women, and men, should've shaken up the pillars of any ethical, democratic society long time back...Well, that's what our society is NOT...Ethical or democratic. Or compassionate.

But in the 'emerging' India hungry for a change, Nurses eventually decided "Enough is enough!" and chose to wage the war themselves.

The first major upheaval which occurred in Asian Heart Hospital, Mumbai, following the suicide of a Staff Nurse, has opened the flood gates for similar onslaught on high-and-mighty managements across the country, including in Kerala. The feeble voices of a scattered, non-unionized females had never scared the fat-cow managements in the past, and some chose to retest their previously successful model of 'intimidation, threatening and abuse'. Some bosses tried 'Quotation gangs' while in Cochin, a luxury 'charity' Hospital run by a prolific 'Godwoman' used their influence to manhandle the striking nurses using the Police!

Befitting a 'God', certainly! Well, when have God ever treated humans in a civilised way, especially the Nurses? Someone said to me Nurses are expected to be like candles, provide love and light by burning itself out. Lest you forget, that the same candle can severely burn your bum.

The strikes in Kerala, this time, have caused more than a flutter among the political and social circles. The iron fist and one-upmanship attempts by the Hospital administrators didn't yield the desired results as the agitation gained widespread public sympathy and support this time.There were funny sides too, the cream of it being the Indian Medical Association (IMA) asking the authorities to enforce ESMA on the strike; IMA is notorious for engaging in lightening strikes and arm-twisting tactics at the drop of a hat!

Perhaps if you look at it in another way, nurses severely missed a strong representative union like the IMA. The one's nurses had, the spineless Trained Nurses Association of India (TNAI) and accreditation bodies like the inefficient and corrupt Indian Nursing Council (INC) are just bad jokes to discuss here. I'm saying nothing more about those pitiable organisations...

The Govt, though reluctant at first, have come out in support of Nurse's agitation. Labour Ministry and the Honourable High Court took a good step forward to ensure that Nurses are paid minimum wages, at least 9000/month, and better leave and working conditions. Opposition Leader VS Achutanandan, social and political leaders, Women's and Youth Organisations and common public en masse stood behind the striking nurses this time.

Anyone who wants to see the bare facts, the Nurses are NOT fighting for a piece of the moon. A decent wage to feed themselves and their kids, safety and security at work, to practice their vocation within set guidelines and to earn their living with dignity and respect.

Who says it's too much?

The only belly-ache was from the greedy hospital administrators who thought they could nakedly violate the Minimum Wages Act (from Labour Dept website) for decades and could get away with it.

Let's think about this. It is a Nurse who receives each and every life born into this world into their arms, who watches over each breath of our near and dear ones at their worst times and who sacrifice their sleep to care for them at wee hours when we're fast asleep under the covers. What justice or culture is it to treat the guardian angels of life in such inhuman ways just because their collective voices didn't have enough dB to be heard over the cling of money? When even a lesser productive Govt clerk with basic education earns 5-digit salary, a fully qualified Nurse is thrown crumbs.

Nurses are inevitable components of any health set up; especially when India struggles to protect the health of Indian women who give birth to our next generation. The more power they're given, the better it is for the society.

We're going through a phase in our history where the oppressed and the subjugates rise...and revolt, bringing down great temples of power. The anti-corruption movement in India, the Arab Spring, the "Occupy" protests...and now the 'Angels' Uprising'. Sometimes we've to believe justice will be served, even if late.

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