Ambulance strike, a slap on State

The ongoing strike by drivers and paramedical staff of the 108 Arogya Kavacha ambulance services in Karnataka is a matter of serious concern. Launched in 2008 to provide free ambulance services to the poor and middle-class sections of our society, the 108 Arogya Kavacha ambulance service is a veritable lifeline. Especially for those who lack their own means of transport, the ambulances of this private-public partnership have ferried thousands of sick and injured to hospitals. This lifeline has been rendered precarious with ambulance drivers and paramedical staff going on strike for almost a week now. Drivers, paramedics and technicians of at least half of the 711 ambulances in the state are not working. While the Karnataka government and GVK Emergency Management and Research Institute (EMRI), which manages the ambulance service, have roped in KSRTC drivers and staff to tide over the crisis, the ongoing strike has disrupted the ambulance services in the state. Many ambulances are lying idle.

In some cases, ambulances are ferrying patients but there aren’t any paramedics to provide the patient with emergency care in the ambulance. Patients requiring urgent treatment in hospitals, who live in the more remote parts of the state, are the worst-hit by the strike.
The striking workers are demanding a salary hike and payment for extra hours of work that they put in. While this is a reasonable demand, the means of protest and pressure the workers are adopting is indefensible as it is the poor, the sick and the dying who are being affected. Having drawn public and media attention to their grievances, the ambulance staff must call of their strike now. Importantly, they must improve the quality of their service. Many drivers switch off their mobiles to avoid working, are rude, do not maintain basic hygiene and are reportedly exploiting patients and their families by demanding money from them or driving them to hospitals where they get a commission on the bill. Ambulance staff cannot expect better pay and perks if they do not perform well at work.

However, the Karnataka government and GVK-EMRI cannot absolve themselves of blame for the strike. Why are workers not paid on time? This isn’t the first time that Arogya Kavacha employees are protesting non-payment of salaries. Cracking the whip on workers is unfair if they are being denied their remuneration. Rather than point an accusing finger at each other, the government, GVK-EMRI and the ambulance workers need to sit down to negotiate an end to the stalemate.

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