Rose had worked hard to clear the entrance examinations and get a government seat in a B.Sc. Nursing course. After she made it through, her parents spent up to Rs.1 lakh a year on her studies. But after five years of studying to become a nurse, Rose is now working in a clerical job doing sales and marketing in Kochi.
She decided to leave nursing after she saw her friends in the field working for about 12 hours a day on a salary of just Rs.3,000 a month. “I work from 9 to 5 and I make four times the money I would have as a nurse at a job I’m overqualified for,” she says.
Rose is just one of the many nurses and nursing students who leave their field due to poor working conditions and salaries. A large number of nursing students work as salesgirls in some of the prominent clothing and jewellery stores in Kochi for up to Rs.10,000 a month. Home nursing, which pays up to Rs.2,000 a day, is another outlet for nursing graduates. Many others do manual labour, or start small businesses to make a living – anything but nursing.
“The situation is the worst in Kerala,” says Jibin Boban, vice-president of the Kerala chapter of the Indian Nurses’ Association. “It can cost up to Rs.7 lakh for a 5-year B.Sc. Nursing course. People who take loans to pay the fees find it tough to repay them on a nurse’s salary,” he says.
The inability to repay loans and harassment by the hospital management was what prompted Beena Baby, a Malayali nurse in Mumbai, to commit suicide in 2011. Her death sparked off protests by nurses all over the country, including Kerala. But the wave of protests has not resulted in any change in policy by the government, says Liju Vengal, national president of the association. “Salaries were improved in the hospitals where the nurses went on strike. But no policy has been brought in to ensure better working conditions for nurses across the State,” he says.
Beena’s sister, who was also a nurse, is an example of the state of things. She has quit working in a hospital due to the poor salary and now works in a post office on daily wages. Rose has no regrets about studying nursing. “It is a noble profession and I learnt much from my course.” She is only sad that her knowledge cannot be practised due to the lack of money in the profession. “Money is not everything. But I have two younger sisters who are studying and I cannot live on just Rs.3,000 a month.”
(Some names have been changed or withheld on request)