Bhopal: Jhalak Agarwal, a first-year postgraduate student at Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical College and Hamidia Hospital, secured a seat in the coveted OB-GYN (obstetrician-gynecologist) branch after 3 years of sitting for entrance exams and subsequent counselling sessions — known to be a gruelling process. This came after a five-year MBBS course, which itself was preceded by a full gap year of preparation.
It took a decade of hard work to get where she is, but the 28-year-old resigned last week — one of 3,500 junior doctors at six government hospitals in Madhya Pradesh who quit to push for certain demands, including security from incensed relatives of patients who assault doctors, and better pay. The doctors know the resignation is a big price to pay, but they claim they were left without any other option.
“The last time I lived with my parents properly was 10 years ago. I have spent my entire youth studying and working hard to become a doctor. This isn’t something anyone would easily give up,” Agarwal told ThePrint.
“We were pushed against the wall and left with no other option but to quit. That’s how bad things got,” she added.
The doctors went on strike last Monday, but decided to resign after the Madhya Pradesh High Court termed the protest “illegal” Thursday, and directed the doctors to resume their duties within 24 hours.
The Bhopal-based Gandhi Medical College (GMC), the state’s biggest institute for medical education, has emerged as the ground zero for the protest. The protesting doctors have been holding plays to demonstrate their pleas. A prominent theme is contrasting how they are applauded as “Covid warriors” on the one hand, but face violence on the other.
“We don’t want thaali or taali,” said Saurabh Tiwari, a protesting junior doctor at GMC, referring to the Narendra Modi government’s 2020 initiative to honour frontline workers with the beating of steel plates and applause.
“We don’t want you to shower flowers on us, or unnecessary praise. We want protection and for our basic needs to be met,” he added.
While the doctors insist they are making sure their protest doesn’t affect those in their care, the government has accused them of “blackmailing” patients at the peak of the pandemic.
MP Medical Education Commissioner Nishant Warwade told ThePrint the protest wasn’t the right way to express the demands.
What doctors demand
Among other things, the doctors have sought better security for themselves amid reports of attacks by relatives of the Covid patients who die.
The Junior Doctors’ Association (JDA) is pushing for police chowkis to be set up in front of every Covid block/ward at government hospitals, in order to prevent such incidents.
“We try our level best to treat patients to the best of our abilities, but we are not God. We don’t deserve to be beaten if someone passes away despite our best,” said Tiwari, who is also an executive member of the JDA.
Another demand is a 24 per cent raise in the stipend for students. The JDA said Madhya Pradesh pays its junior doctors much lower than other places like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan.
“Our first-years get only a Rs 55,000/month stipend when in other states it goes up to Rs 1 lakh. We have merely asked for a 24 per cent increase so that we feel on a par with other states,” said Amit Tandiya, joint secretary of the JDA.
According to data sourced from the state government, the states with a higher stipend include Maharashtra (Rs 64,000), Gujarat (Rs 60,000), and Rajasthan (Rs 55,200).
Doctors have also demanded that hospitalised beds be reserved for them and their relatives for assured treatment in the face of a Covid infection. The students have alleged that there have often been times when junior doctors tested positive but were not given admission in the hospitals where they worked, despite the facility having empty beds.
Several doctors at GMC told ThePrint that there are several beds reserved for VIP patients such as IAS officers or families of politicians.
This allegation was denied by Lokendra Dave, the medical superintendent of GMC and Hamidia Hospital. “There’s no truth to that,” he told ThePrint, even though he said he empathised with the students, particularly their demand for better security.
“It is the junior doctors who have to face most of the ire and anger of the relatives of the deceased. So, they deserve the best kind of security against that behaviour,” Dave said.
Another demand by the protesting doctors is the dissolution of the one-year ‘rural bond’ they signed when seeking admission. Government doctors are mandated to render their services at primary health centres in rural areas after graduation. But many doctors argue that they have spent the past year treating Covid patients, including those from rural areas who come to the cities for treatment, at the cost of their own specialisations.
“I came here to study orthopaedic surgery. That’s what my degree is supposed to be. But for the last 1.5 years, I have only been doing Covid duty. So it’s only fair that once this is over, I can seek admission in good institutes focusing on my specialisation, something I couldn’t do here,” Tandiya said.
Students asked to evict hostel, deposit bond money
The JDA has met government representatives several times since these demands were first raised in March. On 6 May, MP Health Minister Vishvas Sarang tweeted a picture with members of the JDA, saying the “government has agreed to their demands”.
— Vishvas Kailash Sarang (@VishvasSarang) May 6, 2021
The government has been urging the doctors to call off their strike and “not blackmail patients” during the pandemic. On 4 June, Sarang was quoted as saying the government had conveyed to the doctors that their stipend demand would be honoured in phases.
At the same time, he criticised the demand for a waiver from rural service. “The doctors should not blackmail people in times of such crisis. If the high court has issued some directions, everyone should follow them,” Sarang had said.
Speaking to ThePrint, Medical Education Commissioner Nishant Warwade said “it is shameful that the students want to do this strike at the peak of the pandemic.”
“There are a few states like Bihar that give a higher stipend to junior doctors, compared to MP. But that has always been the case. Then, why did these doctors take admission here? They should have just gone to Bihar,” he said.
He added that the stipend given to junior doctors in MP may be lower than in some states, but is also higher when compared to others like Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
“This is an endless debate, but they should understand there is a way to go about things, and this isn’t it,” he said.
On their part, the doctors insisted that patients aren’t facing issues because of their strike.
“We never wanted to go on strike in the first place. Even now, we chose to strike once the second surge subsided so that patients don’t get gravely affected. If there is ever an emergency, we drop the strike and go tend to them too,” Tiwari said.
The JDA, meanwhile, dismissed the state government’s assurance and claimed their demands haven’t been implemented.
“For the last several months, they have only been giving us assurances, nothing more. But we, too, are adamant, we won’t give up,” JDA president Harish Pathak said.
After the high court order, the state-run MP Medical University in Jabalpur cancelled the registrations of 450 junior doctors.
Resident doctors of Delhi’s AIIMS and Safdarjung hospitals Sunday held a candlelight march in support of the protesting doctors in Madhya Pradesh.
The junior doctors’ network of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) issued a statement Saturday saying they were “appalled to learn of intimidation tactics by Madhya Pradesh bureaucracy against junior doctors in the state”.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)