National Rural Health Mission : A Social Healthcare System In Its Juvenile Stages

Introduction To National Rural Health Mission

Recognizing the importance of Health in the process of economic and social
development and improving the quality of life of our citizens, the Government of India has
resolved to launch the National Rural Health Mission to carry out necessary architectural
correction in the basic health care delivery system. The Mission adopts a synergistic
approach by relating health to determinants of good health viz. segments of nutrition,
sanitation, hygiene and safe drinking water. It also aims at mainstreaming the Indian
systems of medicine to facilitate health care. The Plan of Action includes increasing public
expenditure on health, reducing regional imbalance in health infrastructure, pooling
resources, integration of organizational structures, optimization of health manpower,
decentralization and district management of health programmes, community participation
and ownership of assets, induction of management and financial personnel into district
health system, and operationalizing community health centers into functional hospitals
meeting Indian Public Health Standards in each Block of the Country.
The Goal of the Mission is to improve the availability of and access to quality
health care by people, especially for those residing in rural areas, the poor, women and

All work and no pay

JAYATI GHOSH (Frontline)

The National Rural Health Mission is designed around unpaid female social health activists, who are expected to mobilise health care for an entire village.

IN India, one of the more depressing features of government policy in the social sectors is the extent to which it relies on the unpaid or underpaid labour of women.

This was evident in the functioning of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in many States. This parallel system of “education centres” (rather than proper schools) was set up using local women with eight years of schooling to teach children for a paltry “remuneration” rather than employing trained teachers at regular wages. Similarly, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme operates on the basis of poorly paid Anganwadi workers and helpers.

While these women perform essential and demanding tasks that typically amount to full-time work, they are not given the status of regular government employees. And because their payment is so low that it would contravene minimum wage laws in many States, it is described as “honorarium”.

More recently, this tendency was taken to its logical conclusion. One of the flagship schemes of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government – the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) – relies almost entirely on unpaid female labour. Indeed, the lack of remuneration for the accredited social health activists (ASHAs), who form the backbone of the scheme, is part of its very design.

India is among the worst-performing countries when it comes to government expenditure on health. In 2004, such spending amounted to only 0.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Only four or five countries in the world had ratios lower than this. The UPA government had promised to increase this ratio to 3 per cent of GDP within five years, but four years on, it is still only around 1 per cent.

However, the government at least recognised the pressing need to improve health conditions when it launched the NRHM. Its stated goal is ambitious: to provide effective health care to the entire rural population, with special focus on the 18 States that have weak public health indicators. Commentators have pointed out that despite being presented as an entirely new flagship programme, the NRHM is essentially an amalgam of existing schemes and programmes. Most of its key components, including the reliance on ASHAs, have been tried before with varying degrees of success.

These elements include the provision of an ASHA in each village; a village health plan prepared by involving a local team headed by the panchayat representative; strengthening of the rural hospital for effective curative care and making it measurable through the Indian Public Health Standards (IPHS), and accountable to the community; and local integration of the programmes and funds of the Health and Family Welfare Department.

The most significant element of the NRHM is, therefore, an ASHA, who acts as the link between the community and the government health system and becomes the first port of call for any health-related matter, especially for less-privileged groups.

The mission statement makes that clear: “The ASHA will be a health activist in the community who will create awareness on health and its social determinants and mobilise the community towards local health planning and increased utilisation and accountability of the existing health services. She would be a promoter of good health practices. She will also provide a minimum package of curative care as appropriate and feasible for that level and make timely referrals.”

Does this already sound like a lot of work? But there is more, for the NRHM explicitly requires an ASHA to do many more things. Here is a brief list of the activities that she is required to undertake:

Create awareness and provide information to the community on determinants of health such as nutrition, basic sanitation and hygiene, healthy living and working conditions, information on existing health services and the need for timely utilisation of health and family welfare services;

Counsel women on birth preparedness, the importance of safe delivery, breastfeeding and complementary feeding, immunisation, contraception and prevention of common infections (including reproductive tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases) and on the care of young children;

Mobilise the community and facilitate access to the health and related services provided by the government at the local level, including immunisation, antenatal and post-natal check-ups, ICDS, sanitation, and so on;

Arrange to escort pregnant women and children requiring treatment and/or admission to the nearest pre-identified health facility, which could be the primary health centre or the first referral unit;

Provide primary medical care for minor ailments such as diarrhoea and fevers and first aid for minor injuries;

■ Be a provider of the Directly Observed Treatment Short-course (DOTS) under the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme;

■ Act as a depot holder for essential health provisions such as oral rehydration therapy fluids, folic acid tablets, chloroquine for treating malaria, disposable delivery kits, oral contraceptive pills and condoms;

Manage and allocate to members of the community the contents of the drug kit supposedly provided to each ASHA;

Inform the health authorities at the primary health centre or sub-centre about births and deaths in the village and any unusual health problems or outbreak of disease in the community;

Promote the construction of household toilets under the Total Sanitation Campaign; and

Work with the Village Health and Sanitation Committee of the gram panchayat to develop a comprehensive village health plan.

Just in case these tasks are not enough to keep the ASHA occupied, the NRHM website helpfully suggests that “States can explore the possibility of graded training to her for providing newborn care and management of a range of common ailments, particularly childhood illnesses”!

All these tasks are to be performed by a woman who is to serve one village or a population of 1,000. The minimum qualification of an ASHA has been set at eight years of completed schooling. This rigid requirement has been placed even though several parts of the country, especially the tribal and underdeveloped areas, which need such intervention the most, do not have literate women, much less those who have completed elementary school.

Once chosen, an ASHA receives a total of 23 days of training in separate modules before she returns to fulfil her responsibilities. It is hard to imagine how a few weeks of “training” in a typical government format can help create all these capacities, especially when an ASHA is also expected to diagnose and treat minor ailments and recognise serious illnesses. Once she has been chosen and trained and made to perform all these complex and demanding tasks, what is her remuneration? Amazingly, nothing! The NRHM envisages that an “ASHA would be an honorary volunteer and would not receive any salary or honorarium. Her work would be so tailored that it does not interfere with her normal livelihood.”

There is some grudging acceptance that ASHAs can be compensated for the period they spend in training but only at the training venue and by day of attendance. Any other remuneration can only come in the form of the monetary incentives that are given as part of specific programmes such as immunisation. Some State governments have instituted payments to ASHAs but in no case do they exceed Rs.1,000 a month. And, usually, ASHAs get much less, only around Rs.500 a month at the most. Yet, in most cases, fulfilling all their responsibilities would require ASHAs to work for more than eight hours a day as well as at odd times, given the unexpected nature of sickness, deliveries, and so on. All this is supposed to be done out of a sense of idealism and community feeling, trading on the time-worn stereotype of caring women who serve their families and communities selflessly.

It is appalling to think that such a major and massive programme could be designed and launched by explicitly relying on the unpaid labour of so many women – nearly 500,000 ASHAs have been recruited – and now there is talk of launching an Urban Health Mission with USHAs. The bureaucrats who administer this programme are only too happy to be the beneficiaries of periodic pay commission awards that allow their salaries to rise faster than the inflation rate.

But when it comes to ensuring essential health services for the people, the women who bear almost the entire responsibility for delivery are to be deprived of minimally adequate remuneration. This combination of cynicism and miserliness does not augur well for the success of the programme.