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India Govt threatens to sack striking doctors

INDIA: India's government threatened to fire hundreds of striking doctors opposed to an affirmative action plan for low-caste Hindus, and said army, railway and retired doctors would be brought in to prop up crippled medical services.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, warned doctors to end their strike, saying patients were "at the mercy of God."

Alongside the striking doctors, tens of thousands of young people - most of them medical students, but supported by software programmers, engineers, bankers and others - have waged protests across India for more than two weeks against the plan to increase places reserved for low-caste Hindus and ethnic minorities in jobs and colleges.

On Tuesday, doctors and medical students blocked traffic in a handful of cities across India. In the western city of Ahmadabad, protesters briefly scuffled with police, while in northern Chandigarh, doctors squatted on railroad tracks before being forcibly removed.

Dozens of doctors and students have also gone on hunger strikes.

Federal Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said the government would begin hiring new doctors after the protesting doctors and medical students defied calls by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the court to end the two-week strike.

"We have been issuing deadlines for two weeks ... their attitude is unreasonable. If they don't join work, their services will be terminated," Ramadoss told reporters.

He said retired doctors, as well as those from the army and railways, would step in to ease shortages at hospitals and clinics, and those on strike would not be paid while they stayed away from work.

"Doctors have a right to expression, but not during duty hours," Ramadoss said after a meeting with the prime minister.

"Services have to be maintained, come what may," he quoted Singh as saying at the meeting.

The government's plan would increase quotas for low-caste students in state-funded medical, engineering and other professional colleges to 49.5 percent from 22.5 percent.

The plan has ignited an angry nationwide debate about affirmative action.

Affirmative action backers say the policy must be expanded to undo centuries of oppression and continuing discrimination in much of India.

Hinduism divides people into various castes, based on birth, and although the system has been officially outlawed, caste-based discrimination remains common.

Critics say the lower castes should be strengthened through compulsory education rather than an increase in the number of study and work opportunities, because many jobs and school spots reserved for the low castes remain empty.

The strike has crippled health services at government hospitals in several cities. Senior doctors have been running emergency services in the hospitals, but day-to-day services have been severely hampered. Several poor patients are being forced to go to expensive private hospitals. New Delhi, Wednesday, AP

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