A meeting on “Public Health in Maharashtra and Thane” was hosted jointly by the Thane Committee of Lok Raj Sangathan (LRS) and the Thane Matdata Jagran Abhiyan (Thane Voter Awareness Campaign) on Saturday 17th October 2020 (see accompanying highlights of the presentation: An X-Ray investigation of the Public Health System in Maharashtra and Thane).

A large number of activists and citizens from various organisations like Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), Jan Aarogya Abhiyan (JAA), Bharatiya Mahila Federation, etc. also participated.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Maharashtra Council of LRS had engaged in investigation of the topic of public health and food security as well as worked actively to extend assistance to migrants and others in need, while activists of TMJA had worked to help patients get beds in hospitals when the situation was dire and had also helped many to beat down the extortionate charges levied by many hospitals.

Shri Unmesh Bagwe, President of TMJA, welcomed the participants and informed them that the two organisations are soon going to organise a Rugn Hakk Parishad. He invited Girish to make the main presentation on behalf of LRS.

The details presented were evidence of the shocking state of the health system. Girish invited the participants to collaborate with TMJA and LRS and help in organising the Rugn Hakk Parishad. He also invited them to work on a public campaign demanding increased budgetary allocation for public health, filling up all the vacancies of medical, paramedical, nursing and support staff as well as in sanitation staff, making all health workers permanent, immediately ensuring that medicines are given to all the OPD and IPD patients, immediately stopping privatisation of health in any form, and so on.

There were a number of invited speakers and they all congratulated the organisers and assured them of their participation in the Rugn Hakk Parishad as well as public campaigns.

Dr. Abhay Shukla and Dr. Abhijit More, both from Pune and working in the JAA and other organisations, were among the invited speakers. Their organisations established a public helpline in Pune when the pandemic began and also set up help desks in many hospitals, helped patients to get beds and even did an agitation in front of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and got ICU beds set up in government hospitals in Pune. Earlier, only one of the hospitals had such beds.

It is unbelievable but true that there are more than 8 hospitals under the PMC that are built up and ready, but they have not started functioning yet even when the pandemic is raging and Pune has been the most badly affected city in the country. The doctors pointed out that in states like Goa, Mizoram and Himachal Pradesh the governments spend much more money on public health per person than the so-called progressive state of Maharashtra. As a result, while in those states about two third of the patients go to public hospitals, the situation in Maharashtra is so bad that barely 22% patients get treated in private hospitals. Community based monitoring of public health is ongoing in Murbad taluka of Thane District and would be extended to other districts.

Jagdish Khairaliya, who has spent decades fighting for the rights of municipal workers, was asked to talk about sanitation workers. He pointed out that these workers do the vital work of preventing illness, but during the initial days of the pandemic when the government was making a lot of noise about doctors, nurses and other paramedical staff, it did not even mention these workers.

In all the hospitals that come under the TMC, more than 50% of sanitation workers are under contract. Though by law the ESI is mandatory for all workers, they and their families do not get the benefits. Rs. 78,000 crore is lying unused with the ESI! A survey revealed that a large proportion of them suffer from diseases of the eyes and skin, and even serious diseases like high BP, asthma, TB and cancer. The families of those that die in the course of duty get no compensation. Their wages are so low that they cannot afford good food, forget about medicines! While the average life expectancy in India is 70 years, most sanitation workers die between the ages of 35 and 50.

Dr. Brinelle D’Souza, professor from TISS and activist of JSA, Geeta Mahajan, leader of the Bharatiya Mahila Federation, Shyam Sonar and Dr. Chetana Dikshit of the TMJA, Avinash Kadam of Shramik Mukti Dal, Shri Sunil Nayak and Akshay, activists from Dombivali and several other activists expressed their views as well. The need for coming together in campaigns and agitations and to monitor public health was stressed. Various ideas to go among the people were proposed.

Some participants pointed out that privatisation of essential services like health was a part of the drive of successive governments to implement the policy of liberalisation through globalisation and privatisation launched thirty years ago. A strong unity against this is the need of the times and several organisations are working to build this unity. Also the basic necessity of food, without which there can be no life and no health, is being delivered to corporate control and we need to strongly oppose this. We also need to work with the perspective of tackling the issue of total marginalisation of the people from political power in the country.

The meeting concluded on a very positive note, with the participants resolving to work together in the future.

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