Dr Sanjit Nayak at One World South Asia
Health being a state subject, states have used their own discretion to interpret and implement the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). While this has resulted in some activities being implemented the broader goal of the NHRM to empower local communities has been lost. This has lead to the dilution of the agenda of placing people's health in people's hands. The current government approach is to mandate community participation by issuing government orders to its functionaries at the district level. In rural areas, village and district action plans based on community need assessment have remained a non starter and in urban areas the poor remain marginalized from this process. The NRHM talks about health sector reforms but the specific objectives of the reforms appear unrealistic and unlikely to result in the improvement of the health status of the individual or the community. In effect the Mission remains more target oriented with a disproportionate emphasis on inputs rather than focused on output or performance. The concept of Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), which forms the core through which the NRHM will be operationalised, cannot be described as being an innovation but rather is old wine in a new bottle. In earlier versions of the health programme similar human resource mechanisms have been proposed - for example the community health worker, link worker, multi- purpose worker amongst other things. In India, the polices, plans and schemes have often been comprehensive but the implementation has remained poor and as a result the desired result as envisaged by policies and programmes has never been actualised. The ASHA as has been mentioned earlier forms the core implementation mechanism for NRHM, who will undertake the bulk of the activities at the community level.
Inspite of playing this critical role, women who are selected are seen to be volunteers and the programme itself does not define any type of financial compensation for the work they will undertake. Recent findings show that it is proving to be extremely difficult to motivate individuals to undertake the work where no remuneration is forthcoming. As part of the ASHA scheme an incentive system has been proposed under the supervision of Sarpanch and Auxiliary Nurse Midwife. This has lead to non-integration (architectural correction) of all the other health programmes at the community level. Furthermore, there is an extremely high expectation from ASHA whose envisaged work profile does little justice as a part time worker.
The ASHA work under severe constraints with regard to infrastructure as a result ASHAs often have to resort to referring their patients to private service providers. In addition, ASHA has replaced the male health worker. ASHA's work profile is different and primarily to support the ANM. The numbers of male MPWs is already reduced and it is likely that their role will soon be written out of health programmes. It is important to point out that MPWs have a key role to play in other programmes e.g. prevention of communicable diseases and undertaking surveillance, none of which can be undertaken by ASHA. As part of the reform process of the health sector, which remains an important component of NRHM, the strengthening of public-private partnership has been mooted.
However, many health activists feel this is the governments' way of shirking responsibility to provide health services in particular primary health care as has been envisaged in the Constitution. The government is now trying to even privatize primary health care and does not want to invest in improving the public health sector. Upgrading infrastructure, especially PHC to FRU/ UPHC in un- served and underserved areas with doctors unwilling to provide service will further privatise primary health care. Contracts to private practitioners will be the only solution to man these PHC. Indian Public Health Standards (IPHS) to provide quality health care in the public health system by ensuring minimum requirements of infrastructure, accountability of doctors, the need for standard treatment protocols and social audit through rogi kalyan samiti (RKS) has been a non- starter. This has been the scenario previously as such policy directions have not translated into action. T
he guidelines for IPHS do not address the real issue which requires an analysis of failure of previous schemes. An attempt was made by the National Commission of Health and Macro-economics but its recommendations are gathering dust. NRHM aim is to reduce infant mortality and maternal mortality by improving access through the ASHA and the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) scheme by strengthening Community Health Centres. The emphasis is on technology alone. It has failed to address the correlates to nutrition and thus to poverty. The belief that reducing total fertility will reduce infant mortality ignores the links between the socio-economic status of the community especially that of women and health of an infant. It is important to note that access to care is also linked to discrimination as well. Additionally unskilled human resource and poor infrastructure in un-served and under-served areas compound the problem. Targets to reduce infant mortality rate (IMR) and maternal mortality ratio (MMR) by only increasing health sector expenditure needs to address issues of equitable distribution and resource allocation. Conceptual problems do exits in NRHM. Much of NRHM today depends on public- private partnership and not on strengthening the public health system. By outsourcing and contracting we have subscribed to privatisation of the health care delivery system. It is also difficult to comprehend how ASHA can bring about inter- sectoral coordination. In conclusion the link between poverty and ill-health are cursorily mentioned and are ignored in the actual implementation plan laid out as part of the NRHM. Based on the above analysis it might be fair to say that attainment of the goals envisaged by NRHM by 2012 remains wishful thinking.
The author is a public health specialist with the Population Foundation of India New Delhi. The views expressed are that of his owns as an activist and not that of the foundation