This afternoon I met Jacqueline. Quietly sitting on a chair in the corner of the room, silently watching people talking animatedly around her as they prepared to meet the Bishop. Someone pointed her out to me and I hesitantly approach her, not quite expecting to see her there. “How are you now?” I asked. A misty eyed glance and a slight smile, “Am fine” she replied. I sat down next to her.
On 17th July, Jacqueline, a staff nurse of CSI Hospital (Church of South India) for past 15 years in Kancheepuram town, 80 kms north-west of Chennai city in Tamil Nadu attempted to kill herself by swallowing 15 sleeping pills. This extreme step, taken at the heat of the moment, was to draw attention to the plight of over 100 staff in the hospital. “At that moment I could think of nothing, my small children, my husband…only the humiliation, the harassments, my husband being called a ‘pariah nai ’ (outcast dog) infront of the entire staff, patients, attendants…I wanted all this to end. I wanted justice.” Jacqueline has two young sons aged 5 and 10 years.
Whether justice can be achieved by taking one’s life is a matter of another debate which I will not discuss here, but what Jacqueline did manage to achieve was to draw attention to what’s been happening at this charitable hospital. Trouble started in this hospital in 2008, when a new Medical Superintendent (MS) took charge of the institution. Reportedly, she started a set of rules to ‘discipline’ the staff, a slight disobedience of which invited memos, fines and arbitrarily transfers and dismissals. These sudden and arbitrary actions by the new MS and lack of any forum for redressal led some of the older staff members—8 staff nurses to contemplate forming a union which would represent the grievances of the staff to the MS and the CSI Diocese. But the very ‘thought’ of forming a union was met with swift transfer orders to all 8 nurses to different CSI hospitals by the MS. Generally, a strategy one would see adopted by corporations to rein in their ‘wayward’ workers.
Between 2008 and now, around 25 staff of the hospital have been terminated from their services on various ‘frivolous’ grounds without ‘due termination process’ alleged the staff members. If people ‘disobey’ the MS or if there is a minor mistake, without any enquiry, a memo is served or fine levied or a 15 days suspension order is given and worse, a transfer order is handed. “And if you refuse to accept the transfer order, you are terminated from the service without any due process,” rued Jacqueline. “The authoritarian attitude of the MS is such that even a slight disobedience of her order, including not attending a picnic that she had asked the staff to go to would invite her wrath. One staff member who could not attend a retreat in March due to a family crisis was fined Rs 500 by the MS”, said Geeta Charusivam, member of Kanchi Makkal Mandram, a local organisation which has extended its support to Jacqueline and her colleagues.
Strange rules have been imposed by the MS including not allowing presence of attendants with patients in the post-operative ward. And if an attendant is found with a patient in the ward, nurses on duty get penalised and have to pay a fine of Rs 500. “This has added a lot of stress, we are constantly trying to chase attendants away even if we do not want to do so and also there is no need. Attendants are very helpful for patients in post operative care. This has antagonised patients and their family members who resent us for not letting in the attendants in the wards”.
In April this year, Jacqueline was fined Rs 500 by the MS when an attendant was found in the ward where she was the duty nurse. On refusal to pay the fine, Jacqueline was verbally abused by the MS, suspended for a month and asked to be thrown out of the hospital. Angered by MS’s action, Jacqueline spoke to her colleagues and they collectively decided to strike work. A 12 day strike followed with participation by majority of staff members, including nurses, ward boys, drivers, gardeners. Finally peace was brokered by the Revenue Department Officer and Supdt. of Police (Kancheepuram), who had, in an earlier occasion too brokered peace between the staff and MS. The CSI Bishop set up a committee to look into the strike and also a written letter was issued that ‘no action would be taken against the staff who had participated in the strike’. But following the April strike, few things happened that finally precipitated into a crisis. To keep a watch on the staff, CCTV cameras were installed in the wards and the main gate. An extremely ‘controlled and disciplined’ work condition prevailed, where the staff felt being ‘under vigil’ all the time. “If the MS or her cronies catch us chatting with each other, standing at the corridor, or drinking tea, we are immediately reprimanded. One of her ‘trusted’ staff member takes our pictures and videos on his cell phone. There is no respite from her disciple and reprimands” lamented Jacqueline.
The MS also issued transfer and termination orders of four staff, including a young staff nurse, a gardener and a driver. Purportedly, these actions were taken against these people due to their participation in the April strike. “The MS told these staff to go ask the people with whom they were striking to help them”, said Jacqueline.
On 17th July, when a young unmarried staff nurse Sheeba came to the hospital for duty, she was physically prevented at the main gate from entering the premise. “Sheeba had been given transfer order to join duty at Rainy hospital in Chennai. She had refused to accept the transfer order and had come to the hospital with her parents to request the MS to withdraw the order”, informed Jacqueline. Sheeba had participated in the April strike. But the “MS would not listen to any reasoning and plea of Sheeba’s parents, and asked her to go to the people with whom she had striked earlier”.
This led Solomon, Jacqueline’s husband who has worked in the hospital in the Medical Records Dept for 7 years (and is yet to be made permanent despite long years of service), and a few others to start a protest and erect a small pandhal (tent) infront of the hospital. Angered by the protest, the MS not just called the police, but also physically started dismantling the pandhal. “This led to a heated exchange of words between Solomon and the MS, with her calling Solomon names, including a ‘pariah nai’ and many other casteist names infront of everyone”, said Jacqueline. “I was not on duty that day due to my fractured foot, but when I heard of the strike I came to the hospital to participate in it and witnessed this altercation. I could not take it anymore”. Jacqueline then quietly went inside the hospital, shook out a handful of sleeping pills and swallowed them. She was found in a delirious state a few hours later by Solomon, who then alerted the other nurses, and took her to the hospital ICU. “The duty doctor in the ICU was instructed by the MS not to mention anything about her swallowing sleeping pills and her stomach was not washed”, informed Damayanthi, a senior staff nurse from the hospital who took care of Jacqueline after the incident. Jacqueline was later shifted to Kancheepuram Govt. hospital where she was given a stomach wash and then taken to a private hospital.Thankfully, Jacqueline was saved that day!
This incident precipitated a crisis in an already vitiated situation in the hospital, which saw number of demonstrations, physical altercations, arrests of over 50 staff members and their supporters and finally 6 members of staff being charged with IPC 307 (attempt to murder) when they tried to stop and meet the Bishop of CSI, who refused to meet them when he visited the hospital after the 17th July incident. Incidentally, the majority of the staff in the CSI hospital in Kancheepuram are from the dalit community whereas the MS and senior administrative members are from the higher Nadar caste, which the staff alleges to be the reason behind harassment and selective caste based discrimination in the hospital.
While actions have been taken and criminal cases filed against the striking hospital staff and their supporters, no action, not even a FIR has been lodged against the MS, whom Jacqueline named in her suicide note as the person whose actions instigated the extreme step taken by her.
Madhumita Dutta, Chennai, 25th July 2012