The draft rules for maternity entitlements under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) have been circulated to state governments for comments and are available on the website of the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD). The NFSA, passed in 2013, states that all pregnant and lactating women (except those working for government or in public sector undertakings) shall be entitled to not less than Rs 6,000 as maternity entitlement, subject to such schemes as maybe framed by the Central Government.
The Government of India took almost four years to frame such a scheme, thereby denying lakhs of pregnant/lactating women to a maternity entitlement that they were legally entitled to. Only women in 53 districts, where a pilot maternity benefit scheme has been implemented since 2011 were included. Here, the amount of cash transfer was increased from Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000 to meet the requirements of the Act.
It took five months since the announcement by the Prime Minister in his speech on December 31, 2016, for a scheme to be formally approved by the Cabinet in May 2017. The Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) whose guidelines were finalised in August 2017 is now the scheme through which the entitlement under the National Food Security Act is to be delivered. The PMMVY is applicable from January 1, 2017. There are serious concerns with how this scheme limits the scope of maternity entitlements and is in violation of the spirit of the National Food Security Act.
While the Act clearly states that “subject to such schemes as maybe framed by the Central Government, every pregnant woman and lactating mother shall be entitled to maternity benefit of not less than rupees six thousand…,” the PMMVY benefit is only of Rs 5,000. In a typical bureaucratic manner, the rules and guidelines additionally state that on an average women will get Rs 6,000 because a number of them will be eligible for the cash incentive under Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY). JSY is an incentive for institutional delivery of Rs 1,400 in low-performing states (LPS) and Rs 700 in high performing states (HPS). JSY is a scheme that was launched in 2005, with different objectives and a specific purpose. And it is not right to merge the two. Isn’t the right of each woman who is getting only Rs 5,000, not being violated? Does some women getting more than Rs 6,000 compensate for others getting less? Since when is it okay for legal rights stating individual benefits to be delivered on an average?
The Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana is reducing the amount that was already being given in the pilot districts and which is promised in the Act and is less than what some states are already doing. Tamil Nadu, which is giving Rs 18,000 to pregnant and lactating women under the Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Maternity Benefit Scheme and Odisha Rs 6,000 under the Mamta scheme. Both these states give these benefits to the first two births whereas the national scheme is restricted to only one birth. While the two-child norm excludes some of the most vulnerable women, limiting the scheme to the first birth alone makes over 50 per cent of pregnant women. The scheme further excludes women who are less than 19 years of age. Both these eligibility criteria are penalising women who are themselves victims.
If the government were seriously concerned about child marriages and family planning the focus would rather be on a number of other interventions such as providing good quality secondary education, ensuring access to health care including contraceptives, improving maternal and child health overall and so on.
One of the reasons why maternity entitlements were included in the NFSA is to provide an enabling environment for exclusive breastfeeding for children under six months. By restricting maternity benefits to only the first child, the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana is not only violating the rights of women but also of children who are not first-borns.
It must be remembered that such cash maternity entitlements serve multiple purposes. They can provide better nutrition and make access to healthcare more affordable for women, during a crucial period in their lives. If adequate amount is provided accompanied by additional efforts to promote exclusive breastfeeding, they can contribute to better child and maternal health outcomes.
In a context where more than 90 per cent women are in the informal sector and outside the purview of the Maternity Benefits Act (MBA), such benefits must also play the role of giving wages compensation for women during pregnancy and childbirth. For this they need to be linked to wages. It is indeed unfortunate that rather than using the opportunity provided by the NFSA to move towards comprehensive and universal maternity entitlements, the new scheme by the government is trying to get around hard-won legal guarantees by relying on the law of averages.
– Dipa Sinha teaches at School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi