The three-day casual leave that NIDA (Nagaland In-Service Doctors’ Association) doctors took in protest against their governments’ silence on their demands around superannuation had a significant impact on medical care in Nagaland. And to make matters worse, has now descended into talk of a mass resignation of all medical practitioners in the public sector, following a district-wise survey undertaken by NIDA that is currently underway.

The doctors’ protest began earlier this month, with the association warning of a three-day mass leave if their demand was not considered. They have asked for an extension of superannuation from 60 to 62 years for all serving doctors.

The NIDA warned that should there be inaction even after the three-day leave, they would be moved to go on an indefinite strike. However, the state government has managed to avoid that eventuality so far.

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement in 2016 that the government would raise the retirement age of doctors due to a shortage of medical professionals in the public health sector, most states have implemented the increase in the retirement age from 60 to 65 years. Nagaland and Meghalaya remain two states in the northeastern region that are yet to see this shift.

“In 2017 we had political turmoil, and then in 2018 we had the general elections. After that Covid happened, so obviously for us this issue went on the backburner. The movement ignited again in late October 2020,” a high ranking member of the NIDA told The Citizen.

“Active deliberations have been underway with the government and NIDA officials since December 2020,” he said, with no concrete statement on superannuation forthcoming from the government.

Reports suggested that even recently, a committee under Nagaland Chief Secretary J. Alam sat down to discuss and negotiate with the NIDA in a closed door meeting in the presence of officers from the Directorate of Health and Welfare.

And then on April 17 last year, the doctors were told that the matter was “under active consideration” and that the committee would need a year to provide the doctors’ association with a comprehensive decision and plan of action, the NIDA doctor said.

However, when it became clear towards the end of the one year period that the state government did not really have a plan to share, the NIDA declared that they would all take casual leave from April 18 to 21, except doctors in emergency services and ICUs.

“When the demand for superannuation originated in 2016, the state government in response kept saying that the statement was a political move on the part of PM Modi, and that he did not intend for it to be actually implemented in all states.”

“Since we are government servants, our hands are tied,” said the doctor. He explains that any kind of protest or strike has to be approved by the state health ministry, so their decision to extend the strike or resign en masse might result in the government invoking the Essential Services Maintenance Act.

The Nagaland Government Servants’ Conduct Rules prohibit public officials from abetting or participating in strikes. Maintenance of public health falls under the Nagaland Essential Services Maintenance Act.

Another doctor based in Kohima, who has been a NIDA member for nearly a decade, says that PM Modi’s 2016 announcement on superannuation “was like a package: a gift so to say.”

Both doctors requested anonymity on account of the fact that as public employees, their giving unfavourable statements to the press would not be looked upon kindly.

While the initial demand from the NIDA was to make the retirement age 65, following “a series of meetings with the government and NIDA, it was decided that the superannuation being demanded would be 62 years.” The change was made taking into consideration the voices of other doctors’ and medical students’ associations in Nagaland.

It was a request that has turned into a demand due inaction from the state government, he told The Citizen. He says that since 2017 the government have not changed their mind, “and even after taking a year to provide a solution, they did not deliver. That is why we started agitating - because the government was sleeping over it!”

The NIDA held a general body meeting last week where representatives from all Nagaland districts were present, to discuss the possibility of a mass resignation. During the meeting they got word that the state government spokesperson, Mhonlumo Kikon had issued a statement saying the retirement age extension would be granted, but only under specific conditions.

The state government said that it would agree to extend the age of retirement for medical practitioners, but only on condition of reemployment elsewhere as doctors. The decision came a day after the Doctors’ Association ended their mass casual leave.

Kikon said in his address, “Extension of services till 62 years will be given under the condition that they will be reemployed in the clinical sector and till 62 years.”

“It really fooled us, and it was insulting,” said the highly placed source.

He said the association would soon issue a statement in response. “The official document for the cabinet decision has not yet been shared, and our district representatives must go back and speak with other doctors there and see if they can get a consensus on the mass resignation. Ideally we would like a 100% agreement from all members on anything, we are hoping for a majority in this case, if we decide to go through with the mass resignation.”

On what would be the fallout should government doctors remove themselves from service en masse he said, “I cannot imagine what will happen. It will be unprecedented. It will not only be national news, but it should become international news.”

NIDA President Dr Phyantsuthung Patton earlier stated at a press conference that if the state cabinet’s decision was not in favour of the doctors, the association would resort to “a severe course of action.”

So far, the mass casual leave of government medical practitioners, barring emergency services, had affected out-patient departments in public hospitals and health centres. If a mass resignation does come to pass in Nagaland, the impact on the state’s people will be much harsher, making it far more difficult for the state government to backtrack on the Centre’s declaration.