They go beyond the call of duty sometimes to save a life and sometimes just to comfort a patient. They do the ‘real hands on’ work. But the ubiquitous Indian nurses, called ‘sisters’ — a colonial carry-over — in this part of the world, are among the most underpaid and overworked in their profession.
That a 45-year-old nurse working at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital was found murdered at the staff quarters — the second murder of a nurse on the hospital premises in the past one year — poses some hard questions for the health sector, especially government hospitals: While the nurses care for the patients, do hospitals care for the nurses? Wasn’t the safety of the nurse whose body was found in a semi-nude condition the responsibility of the hospital authorities?
But then this case is no exception. Nurses in India have consistently got a raw deal.
If getting a pittance for pay and working for long arduous hours were not enough, many hospitals even fail to provide nurses basic facilities like sick rooms, changing rooms and hostels. It can be recalled that Aruna Shanbaug, a junior nurse in KEM Hospital, Mumbai, who has been in a vegetative state for 40 years, was sexually assaulted when she was changing her clothes in the basement of the hospital.
At a time when the five-star hospital culture is fast catching on in the country, private hospitals too overlook their nurses. According to the Nurses Council of India, in several hospitals, nurses work for 18 hours a stretch, without over-time benefits.
With a total workforce of 2.2 million and a population of over one billion, India’s nursing density (7.9 per 10,000 population) is well below international standards which means that nurses whether in government or private hospitals, are seriously overloaded and stressed.
Though in 2011 the Supreme Court came down heavily on the practice of bonds and contracts for nurses working in the country, many private hospitals still do it on the sly.
Besides insisting on bonds and contracts, private hospitals do not even pay the minimum wages stipulated by the government, prompting many nurses to leave the country.
However, the situation in metro cities may seem to be still better than that of their counterparts in rural areas.
Community health workers and many nursing auxiliaries or auxiliary nurses, are not just poorly paid, they are often not provided with basic protective gear like masks and gloves even when handling patients with infectious diseases.
It is time we as a society meted out better treatment to those in whose hands our own treatment lies.