RESPONDING to a call by the High Court, state government doctors, who launched a 'non-co-operation movement' on Oct.1, suspended the agitation and resumed normal work on Friday.
The court gave the state government four weeks' time to consider the doctors' demand for wage revision.
Within 24 hours, the government began conciliation efforts.
After a meeting with Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and Health Minister PK Sreemathy on Saturday, representatives of the Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMOA) exuded optimism about a satisfactory settlement.
Doctors had received a raw deal from the last Pay Commission, whose recommendations were implemented in 2004. They were peeved that after the pay revision they found themselves below other government employees, such as college lecturers, who were earlier on a par with them if not below them. Apparently the Pay Commission and the government did not take the doctors' dissatisfaction over salary scales seriously since they have the opportunity to supplement their income through private practice.
It is believed that many government doctors probably make much more through private practice than they earn by way of salary. However, according to the Indian Medical Association, a study conducted three years ago had shown that only about 20% of government doctors did private practice.
At one time, a government job was the first option of every medical graduate. Often he had to wait for up to three years after graduation to enter government service. As private hospitals that sprang up all over the State and they started offering higher emoluments, the government job became less appealing. The revised starting salary of a doctor in government service is only Rs11,500. Some private hospitals pay up to Rs25,000 to new entrants. This is the salary the KGMOA wants at entry point.
When the KGMOA asked that the injustice done to the doctors by the Pay Commission be remedied, the government took the line that while minor anomalies could be corrected, there could be no general revision of scales until the next Pay Commission was appointed.
Dissatisfied with the government's attitude, the KGMOA took to the path of agitation. Instead of calling for strike, it asked the doctors to 'work to rule.' This meant that they would only attend to normal duties and would not be available for other work entrusted to them. They shunned VIP duty and even refused to do Sabarimala duty.
An estimated 15 million pilgrims from all over the South visit the hill shrine at Sabarimala during the season. The government said it would make alternative arrangements for the pilgrims. However, most of the doctors who were drafted for Sabarimala duty failed to turn up.
The work-to-rule agitation paralysed the State's health care system, which is short-staffed.
As against a sanctioned strength of about 3,000 doctors, there are only 1,875 on the rolls of government hospitals at present. Out of them, 440 are due to retire by March 2008.
Earlier this year the State Public Service Commission offered jobs to 930 medical graduates.
Only 90 of them joined the service and 50 of them resigned later.
The government placed some doctors under suspension and threatened disciplinary action against other agitators. Doctors, on their part, threatened to resign en bloc. To reinforce the threat, many of them handed over resignation letters to the KGMOA.
The matter came up before the High Court in the form of a writ petition. The petitioner wanted the court to invoke the Essential Supplies Maintenance Act and declare the doctors' agitation illegal. While voicing disapproval of the agitation, the bench headed by Chief Justice HKL Dattu showed evident sympathy for the doctors' cause.
The KGMOA claims that the Health Minister is convinced of the justness of the doctors' demand but the Finance department stands in the way. In talks held in the early days of the agitation, the government had offered to pay the doctors some allowances in order to put more money in their hands. The KGMOA rejected the offer since in the absence of revision of basic pay the doctors would be at a disadvantage at the time of the next wage revision too.
A formula now being discussed envisages treatment of the additional emoluments as special pay, instead of allowances. Unfortunately, the only issue figuring in the current discussions is that of providing adequate compensation to government doctors. Neither the government nor the KGMOA is addressing the larger question of rescuing the State health care system from collapse. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 10, 2007.