May 15, 2006

India health services hit by protests over quotas

By Kamil Zaheer

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Patients in many hospitals in India
went without treatment on Monday as services were disrupted by
a protest by doctors and medical students against a government
plan to raise college quotas for the disadvantaged.

Hundreds of sick and disabled across the vast country were
left to fend for themselves in the searing summer heat. Some
lay drained on stretchers while relatives scuffled with
striking doctors.

In New Delhi, a woman with a knife wound could not get a
blood transfusion even as her desperate son tried to get help.

The protests, which began last month, have intensified as
the Congress party-led government has refused to back off from
a plan to raise the quota for lower castes in universities,
engineering and medical colleges.

"God created us equal, don't categorize us," read a banner
put up by mainly upper caste interns in the capital.

A similar government decision in 1990 to reserve more jobs
for lower castes led to nation-wide demonstrations and dozens
of upper caste students died after setting fire to themselves.

Passions over the latest quota move were further stoked
after TV showed police beating protesting medical students with
canes in the financial hub of Mumbai on Saturday, provoking
senior doctors at private and state-run hospitals to join the

"I was very upset and shocked at the police action," said
Delhi surgeon Ajit Mann Singh. "This strike is totally

In Mumbai, over a 1,000 medical students and interns,
shouting slogans like "Down with the police" assembled in a
public ground to protest the police cane charge.

Demonstrations were also reported in cities in northern and
central India where medical students boycotted classes.

But in the northern city of Lucknow, hundreds of lower
caste Hindus took a rally to support the reservation move.

India's health minister Anbumani Ramadoss lashed out at the
protesting doctors.

"They can't say one fine day they are not joining duty ...
here lives are being affected," he told NDTV news channel,
warning striking government doctors they could be replaced.


But those opposed to the move slammed the government for a
"divide and rule" policy.

"The government is hell-bent on balkanizing the country
(over caste)," Sanjeev Chhiber, a consultant surgeon, said at a
rally attended by dozens of doctors and medical students in New

Supporters of quotas say the government move is necessary
as lower castes -- who have traditionally had fewer
opportunities for quality education -- need the state's help to
enter top educational institutions.

They say the admission process for medical, management and
engineering institutions favor the more advantaged upper

"The disadvantaged groups do not have the advantage of
learning English at an early age or access to expensive
coaching centers," said Kancha Ilaiah, a pro-reservation

But critics say the move will cut the number of places in
top institutions for students competing on merit, and
ultimately affect the quality of education and professional

India's largely Hindu society is divided by an ancient
caste system that still lingers -- especially in rural areas --
despite official attempts to end discrimination.

At present, government-funded colleges have to allocate
22.5 percent of their seats to the so-called scheduled castes
-- formerly the untouchables of Hindu society -- and tribal
students who get admission with lower grades.

The government's latest move proposes an extra 27 percent
quota for other low caste group.

(Additional reporting by Sanjay Rajan in MUMBAI and Rupam
Jain Nair in Ahmedabad)