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Sukhu’s desperate step to raise funds for poll freebies plunges Himachal health system into crisis

Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, CM Himachal Pradesh

Shimla: In its desperation to raise funds for fulfilling its tall promises on poll freebies, the six-month old Congress government in Himachal has taken the state’s health system to the brink of a crisis.

The decision to abolish Non-Practicing Allowance (NPA) of government doctors working in state-run health institutions apparently to effect savings from cuts in government spending has triggered massive protests.

The doctors have gone on the warpath raising concerns as the state health department, which has been functioning well, is now headed for a crisis.

As a result of the strike, people who visit state-run government hospitals daily for treatment are experiencing major inconvenience as doctors are refusing to treat patients in the OPD ward and are only addressing emergency cases.

The Himachal Pradesh Medical Officer Association (HPMOA), which has given a call for strike, says the decision to withdraw NPA is a retrograde step, arbitrary and tends to dismantle the system of health services—which is one of the best in the hill states.

The doctors have threatened that the strike will go on until the notification to abolish NPA is withdrawn by the government.

The Congress had gone to the assembly polls with lofty promises like Old Pension Scheme and Rs 1500 per month to women, aged 18 to 60 years. Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu is now asking the people to prepare for some tough decisions as funds are not available to fulfil the poll promises.

“The state debt burden is Rs 75,000 crore and another liability of Rs 11000 crore is also payable to the government employees as arrears of revised wages and pensions. The state government has no money to run its affairs. We have to raise resources otherwise conditions will be similar to Sri Lanka,” he says.

Within the past six months, the government has raised loans worth Rs 6000 crore to manage its affairs.

The doctors are wearing black badges on duty in hospitals as an act of protest and observing a one-hour pen down strike every day for the past one week.

The decision to abolish NPA drew a sharp reaction from medical and veterinary associations, who termed it “anti-people” and demanded that the notification be withdrawn.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and other opposition parties have also criticised the decision which they say could push the state into a crisis.

“It’s a conspiracy of the bureaucracy. The bureaucrats don’t want the salaries of the doctors to be higher than what IAS officers are drawing. The proposal was also put before me but I did not agree” former Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur claims.

Health minister Col (rtd) Dhani Ram Shandil says he was not in the loop when the decision was taken.

This comes after the meeting between the representatives HPMOA and Health Minister.The meeting failed to reach any conclusion as doctors refused to consider Col Shandil’s plea  to call off their strike The doctors clarified that they would continue their protest, rather than intensify it, till the NPA is restored.

Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu has not shown any inclination to review the decision asserting that those having gone on strike, without talking to the government, do not  know that the decision is applicable only to new recruitments, not those already in service.

Earlier, he had been talking about the state’s precarious fiscal condition and efforts underway to raise resources as the government has massive liabilities in hand to fulfil its commitments.

The state government has been asking the centre to return Rs 9200 crore deposited as employees’ share in the National Pension fund to which the centre has already clarified that it can’t be given to the government.

The state government had earlier reduced the NPA from 25 per cent to 20 per cent of the basic pay and now the NPA is being denied to future doctors, the doctors alleged and reminded as to how they worked during the Covid time and also to implement vaccination drives taking the state to the number 1 position.

BJP has also criticized the Himachal Pradesh government over its decision to abolish Non-Practicing Allowance (NPA) for doctors, saying it is “anti-people” and it has demanded that the Congress dispensation withdraw the decision. They said the reduction in salary would impact the health system in the state as the doctors would not be inclined to join government jobs.

“Withdrawal puts Himachal on the backfoot. We have a very well built-up health care system. We have government health institutions even in the remotest parts of the state. There are doctors and medical staff taking care of poor sections who can’t afford private doctors’ fees as the case has been in Punjab or elsewhere” says Tikender Singh Panwar, a former deputy Mayor of Shimla.

He wonders how the Chief Minister can appease one section—the government employees to give them old pension benefits and ask the rest of the people to pay taxes or give-up needful allowances to fund the political sops?