New Delhi: On a wintry morning of January in Delhi’s Connaught Place, a two-month-old baby, not yet named, sleeps outdoors under a blanket. Her mother, Shabana, who is a vendor, has brought her to work.
In another part of the city, like Shabana, women daily wage workers take small breaks during work to be with their babies. These women are not covered by any maternity entitlement scheme meant to compensate them for lost wages and give them access to nutrition and necessary care.
On the eve of the New Year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that Rs 6,000 would be transferred directly to the bank accounts of pregnant women across India.
The elite and the middle class on Twitter mocked the Prime Minister’s speech for the mention of a scheme concerning pregnant women. But these comments displayed ignorance. The announcement created awareness among the beneficiaries and put the focus on the important issue of maternity entitlements.
According to Sample Registration System 2013 survey, every year 44,000 women die while giving birth, 1.068 million children below the age of one die and an estimated 747,000 newborns die within first four weeks of birth.
According to activists, while women employed in the formal sector are entitled to maternity benefits like paid leave by their employers, such benefits are absent for women in the unorganised sector, which employs 90 per cent of women.
Dr Vandana Prasad, National Convener, Public Health Resource Network, said, “There is an issue of inequality. If you look at the government sector, a person working as secretary in the government gets maternity benefits. She gets childcare leave for 2 years.”
However, what the Prime Minister left out of his speech was that universalisation of maternity benefits has been due since 2013.
According to Section 4B of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, it is mandatory for the government to provide maternity benefits of not less than Rs 6,000 to all pregnant women.
“The National Food Security Act recognised that from conception, the next 1,000 days are the most critical and any malnutrition that sets in cannot be set right,” said Harsh Mander, Special Commissioner, Supreme Court, Right to Food case.
But the Union budget had so far not provisioned for universal maternity benefit of Rs 6,000 and so this part of the National Food Security Act had not been implemented.
For the organised sector, however, the Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill of 2016, extended the period of maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. This bill does not cover women in the unorganised sector.
Maneka Gandhi, Union Minister, Women and Child Development, said, “I don’t know how to apply it in the unorganised sector. They are all on daily wages, they are not employed long-term. So if they don’t want to work, they don’t work. For instance, a lot of them go home during Diwali. So their work stops and then some of them come back and some of them do not come back. So there is a huge unorganised, poor sector, but I don’t know how to deal with it. The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t come under me. The labour ministry will now have to do some thought on how to bring the unorganised sector in.”
Seven years ago, the UPA Government had launched the first central government scheme that provided cash maternity benefits to pregnant women. Called the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana or IGMSY it was implemented as a pilot programme in only 53 districts of the country.
To comply with the provision under the National Food Security Act of 2013, the NDA government increased the cash incentive provided under the scheme from Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000. But the scheme was not universalized.
Now there will be a few changes. Though guidelines have yet to be issued, the scheme has been renamed as the Maternity Benefit Programme and there is a 60:40 cost sharing between the Centre and states.
The good news is that the Maternity Benefit Programme will be implemented in all 650 districts of the country.