On Wednesday, fulfilling the demand of trainee doctors, who had launched a social media campaign seeking raise in stipend, the Punjab government announced a one-and-a-half time hike in the stipend of the undergraduate medical and dental students. But, not every intern at government medical colleges will stand to benefit from the government’s decision.
After completing a four-and-half-years of MBBS course, Dr Ritu (name changed to protect identity) and Dr Balkaran Sher Singh are completing a mandatory internship at the Government Medical College, Patiala. While Ritu will benefit from the government’s move to hike the stipend, Balkaran won’t get anything. He started his internship from January 1, 2020. Till today, he said he has not received a single penny from the hospital for his services as an intern.
But, Balkaran is not the only one working without pay, and there are nearly 99 other interns working in Punjab’s government hospitals without any remuneration. The reason behind this is that Balkaran and some of his colleagues working in government hospitals are former students of Banur town-based Gian Sagar Medical College, whose essentiality certificate was withdrawn in May 2017 by the Punjab government. Later, the government shifted MBBS students of the college to the government medical colleges in Amritsar, Patiala, and Faridkot.
Dr Balkaran Sher Singh told me that he is posted at the emergency ward and his colleagues are posted in other departments and fighting on frontlines against coronavirus but they are not being paid anything. They are apparently buying masks with their own money. He also claimed that former Gian Sagar students paid nearly three times the fees compared to government college students. While the government college students paid only ₹1,00,000 fee for the third year, Balkaran and his Gian Sagar batchmates allegedly paid ₹2,62,000 to GMC, Patiala.
Another intern from the Government Medical College, Faridkot, said under the condition of anonymity, “In terms of the work, we have to do equal work as every other intern is supposed to do. But, we don’t get the stipend. It is very disheartening when you do equal work. Exposure is equal for everyone. Duty hours are equal. Other interns were fighting for a hike in stipend, We are fighting to even get some salary. when it comes to the fruit of our hard work, we get step-motherly treatment(sic).”
He sent across a photo of a notice issued by the college Principal directing the interns to attend to all of their duties, and that in case someone failed to attend to their duty without the Principal’s permission, the same would be written on their character and conduct certificate.
Archit Gupta, who is posted at GMCH, Amritsar, said, “We are working equally with our fellow interns. But we are being treated like ‘externs’ by the authorities. It’s our time to ask for our rights but they are just ignoring us.”
Taking a cue from GMC students who got a hike in stipend after a social media campaign, heartbroken and badly treated trainee doctors have taken to twitter to raise their voice. They are using the hashtags #Justiceforshiftedinterns and #equalwork_equalpay.
“The so-called preamble of the republic of India states about “Justice and equality.” Please don’t breach the golden words. Don’t deprive Gian Sagar interns of their basic right,” Aurelia Goyal tweeted.
The so called preamble of republic of India states about "justice and equality " .Please don't breach the golden words. Don't deprive Gian sagar interns of their basic right #stipend .. #justiceformbbsinterns https://t.co/givU4ofPL3
— Aurelia goyal (@GoyalAurelia) April 25, 2020
“When Gian Sagar was in crisis. We met u at #coffeewithcaptain and you said if you were in power you would definitely help us. Now, all we are looking forward is your help towards our STIPEND with u being in power.” Dr Arpit Gupta tweeted.
When GIAN SAGAR was in crisis
We met u at #coffeewithcaptain and you said if you were in power you would definitely help us. Now all we are looking forward is your help towards our STIPEND with u being in power #justiceforinterns@capt_amarinder @PunjabGovtIndia@bsmajithia pic.twitter.com/fEYCdJV12A
— Dr Arpit Gupta (@ArpitGu15357872) April 23, 2020
Former Punjab Congress Chief, Pratap Singh Bajwa, demanded that Capt. Amarinder Singh raises the stipend, and later thanked Capt. Amarinder Singh for his decision. But, when former Gian Sagar students asked Bajwa for help, he tweeted, “Definitely I will take up your issue too but once the government is a bit free from the present crisis.”
Definitely I will take up your issue too but once the government is a bit free from the present crisis.
— Partap Singh Bajwa (@Partap_Sbajwa) April 22, 2020
I am overwhelmed at the immediate response of the @PunjabGovtIndia in raising the stipend of our medical students. I thank @capt_amarinder ji for this quick decision making. These students are on the frontline of the fight against #COVID19 and this was a positive step for them. https://t.co/l6nqWIhjvz
— Partap Singh Bajwa (@Partap_Sbajwa) April 22, 2020
In 2019, trainee doctors had approached the state high court seeking its intervention to obtain their stipends. On September 5, 2019, the Punjab and Haryana high court directed the government to take a decision on the petitioners’ claim for the payment of a stipend within four weeks. But not a single intern was paid anything. On December 31, 2019, petitioners completed their mandatory one-year internship without supposedly getting a single penny in return for their services.
Dr Rajan Jindal (25), one of the petitioners who passed out of GMC Patiala and completed his internship last year, told me that they had filed a petition in the High Court asking the government pay them a stipend, but even after the court’s decision, the interns were supposedly not paid anything.
Dr Deepak John Bhatti, the Principal of Guru Gobind Singh Medical College, Faridkot, said that students have demanded a stipend from the government from time-to-time. When I asked whether he ever demanded from the government that interns should be paid a stipend, his answer shocked me.
Dr Bhatti said, “These students are not from our college. They are here due to the government’s arrangement so that they can complete their study.” On being asked about the hard work that the interns put in, he replied, “What do you mean by hard work? why are they working? Do you think they have any other option?”
When asked why other students are being paid and why some are not being paid, he said, “Other students secured their place in college on the basis of merit. Why these students took admission to Gian Sagar (Banur) college? The government played no role in the admission of these students. If tomorrow you park your money in some bank which then closes down, you can’t hold the government accountable as government will say it never gave a license to operate a bank. Students wanted the government to shut down the college.”
I felt that Dr Bhatti tried to hold the students accountable for the failure of the college and justified non-payment of stipend to the interns. But, here’s why I hold that his arguments do not hold much water.
Firstly, Gian Sagar college was set up after the government’s approval. According to The Tribune, The ‘essentiality certificate’ is a mandatory requirement for the establishment of a medical college. The college was shut down when the Punjab government withdrew its essentiality certificate.
Secondly, Gian Sagar college was shut down after its management failed to pay its staff, which led to the suspension of classes for months. Then, the government withdrew its essentiality certificate.
Thirdly, the owner of the college is said to be politically well-connected. Gian Sagar college was governed by Nirmal Singh Bhangu of Pearl group, who spent nearly ₹35 crores over four years on the then-Punjab Deputy Chief Minister, Sukhbir Badal’s, Kabaddi World Cup.
When I asked an intern, who is posted at Faridkot, to comment on Dr Bhatti’s statement, he said, “We don’t mind the duty, but We mind the inequality. We complete all shifts, I haven’t taken a single leave till now. It is about getting paid for work.”
It’s true that private colleges and hospitals have the right to decide whether to pay a stipend to trainee doctors or not. But, the students who had been shifted from Gian Sagar college have completed nearly half their education from government colleges. Moreover, they are working shoulder-to-shoulder with doctors on the frontline to combat the Coronavirus pandemic in government hospitals. Now, it’s the government’s moral and social obligation to pay them the stipend the way it pays government college students.