Sunita*, 42, a widow and a mother of two, has been an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) for close to a decade. The breadwinner of her family, Sunita has been forced to cut down on milk and fruits for her children.
The reason: she has not received her payment/incentive from the government for the last three months.
“I'm buying less milk, fruits, and vegetables now. What else can I do? Inflation is very high and I have to make arrangements with the limited money I have. This is our mazboori (compulsion),” she said, sitting at her house in north-east Delhi’s Sonia Vihar.
Sunita is not the only ASHA facing this crisis. Urmila*, 38, hasn’t paid her son’s school fees for three months; Anjali*, 44, is struggling to pay her loan; Aneeta*, 38, has had to borrow ₹20,000 from her relative to sustain her family.
Payments of hundreds of ASHAs working across the city have been irregular for five to six months now, officials and workers told The Hindu. The activists — who are appointed on a contractual basis and paid incentives depending upon the service they provide — are now worried that if this crisis continues it would ruin their Deepavali festivities.
Why the pendency?
The main reason behind the pending payments, according to an official, is a “technical glitch” that arose when the Health Department of the Delhi government initiated a process to change its bank account.
The payments of ASHAs are made from funds provided by the Centre as well as the State government.
“Around six months ago, the Central government sent a letter to the Delhi government asking it to change the bank through which it was receiving funds. The Delhi government initiated a process to change the bank and issued a tender. The bidding has already happened and the process is almost over now,” said a source.
The payments for ASHAs fall under two heads of account. “Due to the process of changing the bank, funds under one head have been facing technical issues. The government is in the process of fixing it,” the source said.
When contacted, the Delhi government did not offer a comment.
Sunita’s daughter is pursuing her undergraduate degree and also doing a part-time job; her son is in Class X.
“It’s very difficult to run a family when you don’t get your monthly salary and both your children are studying. I am sending my son to private tuition and I have to shell out ₹2,000 every month for it,” she said.
Sunita said that she earns around ₹8,000-₹10,000 every month; her pending incentive has gone up to ₹25,000.
“I have borrowed around ₹20,000 from other ASHAs and from a neighbour at 1% interest,” she said.
No minimum wages
Jayati Ghosh, professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, U.S., said the Delhi government has not shown the best employment practices when it comes to its workers. “ASHAs, anganwadi and other scheme workers do not get minimum wages or the required social security benefits,” she said.
Messages on a WhatsApp group of ASHAs in north-east Delhi showed that many of them had complained to their superiors about the pending payments.
A message in Hindi from a government official on the group read: “(We are) Trying to do it [make payments] as soon as possible. There are many reasons why the delay is happening. I know you are worried. But we are also trying to resolve the problems and release the incentive.”
Aneeta, whose husband earns ₹10,000 a month working as a security guard, said the government does not understand the struggles of the ASHAs.
“All of us have not got our salaries for two-three months. When we ask the officials, they say the funds are not coming from above,” she said.
When asked what she will buy on Deepavali if she gets the payment, she said, “If the money comes, I will buy a salwar suit for myself. During Rakhi also we waited for the salary, but it did not come. Now just wait and see, it won’t come before Deepavali too.”
(*Names have been changed to protect identity)