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Docs Call Off Protest After Govt Promises to Okay Counselling From Jan 6

Docs Call Off Protest After Govt Promises to Okay Counselling From Jan 6

Dr Manish (fourth from right) speaks at the FORDA press conference at Safdarjung Hospital, December 31, 2021. Photo: Banjot Kaur/The Wire Science

New Delhi: The Federation of Resident Doctors’ Association (FORDA) called off its protests in the national capital on December 31, after 15 days. Its doctors resumed services from noon on the same day.

Three days ago, police cracked down on doctors who were protesting against the government’s delay in commencing academic counselling for half a lakh junior residency positions at hospitals around the country, with many of them suffering “injuries in the melee”, as The Wire had reported. The police also prevented the doctors from marching to the Supreme Court and lodged FIRs against some of them.

Addressing a press conference at Safdarjung Hospital in the city, FORDA president Dr Manish said the body had made its decision after the association’s representatives met with top officials of the Delhi police, including the joint commissioner, the previous night.

“The police agreed not to proceed ahead with FIRs lodged against protesting doctors,” Dr Manish said. “The police officers expressed the highest regard for us.” The doctors had previously demanded a written apology from the government for the “manhandling” and the “lathi-charge” at the hands of the police.

Dr Manish also said FORDA had been in touch with 18 Resident Doctors’ Associations from around India and that all of them had agreed to call off their protests.

The protests began on December 20, in front of the Union health ministry in the national capital before spreading to other parts. The core issue: the government hadn’t begun counselling for some 50,000 students who had cleared the postgraduate National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET-PG) for the 2021-2022 academic session.

The government had halted counselling on the Supreme Court’s directions on November 25. The court was hearing a case about the Centre’s new economically weaker section (EWS) quota. The government had devised this quota for members of the general category whose annual household income was below Rs 8 lakh. This ceiling was the same as that for the ‘creamy layer’ of the Other Backward Classes, which is more socio-economically marginalised than the general category.

In response to the apex court’s questions about this problematic equivalence, solicitor-general Tushar Mehta had said the government would constitute a committee to reexamine the proposal. He asked for four weeks’ time and suggested the counselling could be paused until the committee filed its report.

The court then asked if the government would like to put off implementing the quota for a year and start counselling students for admissions, but Mehta only insisted on waiting for the committee’s report. So the court scheduled both the committee’s deadline and the next hearing for January 6, 2022.

The protesting doctors’ position also coincided with the apex court’s question: that the government should postpone EWS implementation by a year and start counselling. Dr Manish said at the press meet that the Union health ministry had assured them the government won’t object to starting counselling at the next hearing. He added that if it did, for any reason, doctors would restart their protests.

Earlier this month, the Union health ministry had written to the Union law ministry to move an application in the Supreme Court pleading for counselling to resume – notwithstanding the committee report. According to Dr Manish, the health ministry has said that it has prepared the counselling schedule as well.

Close to 50,000 postgraduate medical seats are up for grabs. They are equally divided between hospitals run by the Centre and state governments. Counselling is the process of allotting each student to the seat best suited to their needs, and usually lasts for two months.

Once they have been allotted their seats, the students – who are MBBS doctors – enrol as junior residents at their respective hospitals and start a three-year postgraduate course. This coursework requires them to participate in all parts of hospital care, including emergencies, the out-patient department and in-patient care.

This residency forms the backbone of hospital care in the country; junior residents perform the bulk of the care work. Yet they are also expected to work long shifts, frequently longer than 24 hours at a time, and often in exacting conditions.

Because the government had originally delayed counselling, medical students who had to commence their junior residency in November weren’t able to do so. This set off a cascade of delays that has increased the workload of already serving residents and could further worse the shortage next year. In addition, patient care also suffers for it, especially as a third COVID-19 wave could be in the offing.

This is why FORDA said protests will resume if the government delays approval for counselling beyond January 6. “If there’s no date again, all the [resident doctors’ associations] will meet,” Dr Manish said. “And we will not hesitate in resuming our strike if the assurances given by the government fail to reach their logical conclusion.”

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