Finding a Win-Win Solution to Doctors’ Strike in Balochistan

By Malik Siraj Akbar

At least 12 patients, all in critical conditions, have died in Balochistan for not receiving immediate medical treatment because of the ongoing protest initiated by disillusioned doctors. More injured and sick people are destined to die in a similar indifferent fashion as the strike shows no signs of coming to an end in the near future. Uncompromising positions taken by the Balochistan government and the doctors has hindered a quick settlement of the standoff so that people in the province, who have access to the poorest health facilities in Pakistan, once again receive whatever medical treatment is available.

For more than six months, doctors have been on the roads protesting for one or the other reason. Earlier in the year, the Young Doctors Association protested, and also clashed with the local authorities, while demanding an increase in salaries. They demanded packages equal to what their counterparts received in the Punjab province.

The ongoing strike, which began 49 days ago, draws attention to a more important and genuine concern: The issue of deadly attacks on doctors and their kidnapping for ransom. These are very pressing concerns the doctors have raised and they have every reason to be upset with the government for utter inaction against those involved in unchecked crimes.

Doctors were forced to go on a strike when, on July 22nd, 2012, Bolan Medical College (B.M.C.) surgeon Dr. Din Muhammad Bangulzai was kidnapped from Mastung district on his way to Quetta. The Pakistan Medical Association (P.M.A.) played a wonderful role in mobilizing the doctors to stand up for their rights. However, when the government could not do anything to release Dr. Bangulzai, his family had to pay Rs. 8 million (against the earlier demand of Rs.50 million) to the kidnappers as ransom to secure his safe release. While Dr. Bangulzai safely returned home on July 30, another prominent doctor and educator at Balochistan’s lone medical college, Dr Ghulam Rasool, a psychiatrist, was kidnapped on August 1, by armed men who intercepted his car and took him away. After remaining in the custody of his kidnappers for more than two weeks, Dr. Rasool was eventually freed on August 17 presumably after his family too paid ransom to the kidnappers.

This did not end the cycle of violence against the doctors. Because the government’s failures further emboldened the kidnappers.

Hence, on October 16, Dr. Saeed Khan, an eye specialist affiliated with the Layton Rahmatullah Benevolent Trust-run hospital in Quetta as its Superintendent, was also kidnapped for ransom. The kidnappers helped Dr. Khan for nearly 42 days before releasing him on November 28. According to Dawn, Dr. Khan’s family had to pay “heavy ransom” (approximately Rs. 8 million) for his release.

While endeavoring to press the government to ensure Dr. Khan’s release, the doctors encountered stiff government resistance. Embarrassed over its failures, the government, on November 19, arrested at least 70 doctors who had taken out a rally on Zarghoon Raod, where the official residences of the Governor and the Chief Minister are located, in support of kidnapped Dr. Khan. Furthermore, the government gave a 24-hour ultimatum to the doctors to end their strike or face termination.

On November 25, Balochistan’s Health Secretary announced at a press conference that the government had officially suspended at least 73 protesting doctors, stopped their salaries and ordered them to evacuate the their official residences. The government said it reprimanded the doctors because they had entered the ‘red zone’ of the city where they were not allowed to demonstrate.

The doctors, on their part, defied the official warnings, tightened their protest by deciding not to attend even emergency duty during the hypersensitive month of Muharram when the government had warned of possible terrorist attacks from Sunni militant groups against the Shias. In order to grapple with the uncontrolled frenzy, the Balochistan government requested the Pakistan army to send military doctors to the province.

Despite the safe release of Dr. Khan, the P.M.A. refuses to call off its strike. It has put forward a list of demands to the government. The organization says now it has given the government an ultimatum of at least seven days to meet their demands. The P.M.A. has warned of a nation-wide strike on the lines of what is being currently observed in Quetta if the government does not comply with its demands.

Firstly, the P.M.A. wants the Balochistan government to pay back the amount the doctors have had to pay to the kidnappers because, they rightly argue, it is the government’s job to protect the citizens and bring them back safely if and when they are kidnapped by the criminals. The doctors also want the government to withdraw all the cases registered against the protesting physicians and and reinstate those who were suspended from their jobs.

While we fully support all demands tabled by the doctors, we would also like to implore their top leadership to immediately find a way to end this strike in the greater interest of the ailing patients. People’s sufferings are increasing day by day in Balochistan because of this prolonged strike. The doctors should understand that they are not the only victims of bad governance and rampant lawlessness that has engulfed the province. Almost everyone in Balochistan lives in a constant state of fear of being killed, kidnapped, tortured or robbed. The best thing the doctors can and should do is to tell their patients and fellow citizens that they, unlike the government, do care for them.

Originally published in The Baloch Hal on December 4, 2012


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