Editorial

Doctor politics and the need for speed

The government sector doctors are, again, on strike. And, again, at short notice. This time, the GMOA says, the ‘issue’ is both SAITM and last week’s clash between rioting student mobs and the police.

Readers, especially, those needing medical attention, will want to know the reason for this wildcat strike by the country’s main cadre of medical professionals. As citizens, we need to understand the significance of such a strike action that has a national social impact, immediately affecting the lives of people.

What is so urgent in the SAITM issue today that prompts something as drastic as a work stoppage by a whole cadre of doctors? If, as in the past, the SAITM problem had not been addressed, then, certainly there would be urgency for action to persuade the relevant actors to negotiate and resolve the problem.

This country’s long experience of democracy is punctuated by numerous episodes of struggles between one particular interest group – be it industrial workers, doctors, students, farmers or any other - and another, be it employer, institutional authority, government. The practice has been, throughout such contests, for the contending groups to begin negotiations. When negotiations fail, the next level of pressure has often been public advocacy via the news media and, possible legal action.

When such actions, too, fail, the frustrated interest groups resort to their last means of pressure: withholding of services provided by them. Again, in civilized societies, the logic of ‘strike’ action would be to first hold a symbolic short stoppage of work in the hope that this would bring about the required remedial action. Full scale strikes are something no one wants : neither those affected by the work stoppage nor the strikers who depend on that work for livelihood. Higher income-earning white collar workers may be economically cushioned enough to sustain work stoppage for longer periods unlike low-income industrial workers.

The SAITM issue is no longer at a stage that requires forcing negotiations and remedial action. Especially, under the current government, negotiations have been facilitated at various levels and between the various interested parties over many months. No doubt, the university students, the government sector doctors, as well as various other interested parties, have had to agitate for long on this matter, from the time of the previous regime. But, the reason for agitation began to recede along with the progress of the negotiations.

Since the SAITM issue has national policy and health infra-structure ramifications, the government and, the educational and medical authorities have collaborated in enabling detailed negotiations that have covered all main aspects - from medical training standards to the facilities at SAITM and, the situation of the immediately affected student batches.

The President and Prime Minister have both spent time in consultations with key interested parties. Agreements have been announced and formal commitments made, including a statement by the Government, in Parliament.

True, given the typically tortuous processes of implementation of such complex arrangements that involve several institutions and human social concerns at the same time, there may be need for continued pressure on the relevant authorities to push things along.

But, just as it takes many months to set up a medical training college, it will also take months to finalise the new training standards, curricula, technical regulations and, regulatory mechanisms that can, then, enable efficient and proper conduct of private sector medical education.

Both, the university students as well as the doctors should understand, better than most, the complexities of implementation. If there is administrative lethargy or some backsliding by one or the other interested party, agitation of a kind may be necessary to bring pressure. But, what kind of ‘agitation’?

The combined university medicine teacher bodies recently addressed a memorandum to the Government authorities responsible for implementing the SAITM solutions doing just that: reminding the authorities that months have begun to slip by with little yet done. Batches of students await a solution to their delayed medical qualification. Future batches of aspiring students await guidelines to SAITM for necessary upgrades to meet required national teaching standards. Thus, speed is needed.

But, how can this ‘need for speed’ justify a sudden and full-scale work stoppage by the country’s main cadre of doctors? Can it justify a veritable riot on several floors of a government Ministry by invading student mobs?

Both these actions are far out of proportion to the problem. Both actions are by layers of this country’s intelligentsia, apparently taking up serious issues. Now that the ‘issue’ is on course for resolution, their actions are far out of proportion to it and, worse, the immediate impact of their actions are violence by students and on students on the one hand, and the risking of the health of lakhs of patients on the other. The memorandum on the delay by the university teacher body stands in stark contrast to chaos perpetrated by the doctors and students. The clear intention of causing such severe public impact over an issue that is, already, halfway to a solution, implies political motives other than the SAITM problem itself. Both, the university students’ and the government doctors’ organisations – the GMOA and the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) – seem to be tools of forces who want to create disturbances, perhaps to add to the challenges posed by recent natural calamities, drought, storms and disease outbreaks. For any intelligentsia, to be used as pawns by other forces, especially, socially disruptive ones, should be an insult to their intelligence.

For the citizenry, it draws attention to both, the type of education and professional training given to these sectors and, also, to the ways in which problem-solving mechanisms can respond faster while absorbing grievances and deflecting agitation.