Promises to Women Health Activists in India Not Yet Met Despite ASHA Strike Suspension

by Vins

In March 2024, a 21-day strike by Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers ended in Maharashtra, a state in the western peninsula of India, as health ministers announced an increase in salaries. However, some of these promises have been made only verbally, leading ASHA workers to question whether the state will really deliver on increased salaries and additional benefits. According to one story in Pari, a digital publication that publishes stories about rural India, there has been no official government resolution (GR) to reflect  Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s promises, including a salary hike.

Historically, fair pay has eluded ASHA workers for a few reasons. For one, there is a lack of coordination between India’s state and central governments. The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) launched the ASHA worker program in 2005 to provide healthcare to even the most remote villages in India, promising to deploy an “ASHA in every village.” However, fragmentation between India’s governments makes it difficult to pass sweeping changes for pay increases for ASHA workers across the country.

This also extends to the judicial system. In one instance, a woman ran for local office but, after facing pressure from a local board of elections, she was forced to withdraw her nomination ahead of elections if she wanted to keep her job as an ASHA worker. This kind of fragmentation, where some ASHA workers are unable to run for local office but others are, depending on the state or region, is emblematic of the difficulties of securing any kind of federal agreement that would stipulate higher pay for Asha workers across the country.

There is also a conflict around the level of education versus low pay received by an ASHA worker. NRHM states that an ASHA worker should be educated until Class 10, a near-high school-level minimum. However, they are being asked to work for less than minimum wage.

Though ASHA workers’ strikes have been suspended in Maharashtra, many of the verbal promises about salary increases remain verbal commitments rather than contractual obligations. It is crucial to highlight the labor rights issues involved with promising salary increases but the government’s failure to implement these. ASHA workers have been the backbone of India’s rural health mission, yet the government hasn’t bothered to consider them as salaried professionals, instead wanting to treat women ASHA workers as “honorary volunteers.” ASHA strikes have made headlines in The Times of India and Hindustan Times, but have not touched the international community as much.

Sources:

Ritu Sharma and Swadesha Sharma, “State Reassures Protesting ASHAs… Once Again,” Pari, March 8, 2024.

Shreya Ramon and Abhijeet Gurjar, “Their Roles Ambiguous, ASHA Workers Fight For The Right To Contest Elections,” Behanbox, January 5, 2024.

Student Researcher: Kelsey Oliver (University of California, Berkeley)

Faculty Evaluator: Ankita Kumar (University of California, Berkeley)