Bhanoli is a tribal hamlet situated in the craggy hills of Nandurbar district, less than 10 km from the border of Gujarat and Maharahstra. On the rainy afternoon of September 3, a tired Sunita Pawara, just back from work in her family’s rice field, sat in her brick-and-mud hut in the village, breastfeeding her 17-month-old son Sameer.

The hut had one charpoy, a few steel utensils stacked against a wall, and a partition to carve out some space for the kitchen. Rainwater dripped through its bamboo and straw roof. This was home to the 11 individuals of the Pawara household – which included Sunita’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, and her brother-in-law’s family.

The Covid-19 pandemic had hit the Pawara household’s earnings hard. Members of the family often migrated for labour, but this came to a halt during the pandemic. Farm work on their own small piece of land was also hampered, since sales of seeds and other inputs came to a halt. This left the family reeling from a cash crunch.

But when Sunita Pawara became pregnant with her first child in 2020, she saw a glimmer of hope. A maternity benefit scheme, called the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, offered a total of Rs 5,000 in three installments as financial aid to women during their first pregnancy.

Launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017, the scheme aims to provide compensation for the wage loss that a woman might face as a result of her pregnancy, so that she can get the rest she needs before and after the delivery of her first child. It is also intended to motivate women to get more regular health check-ups through this period.

Pawara explained that the money would have allowed her to take a break from labour-intensive farm work, and buy food and some clothes for the baby.

But there was a problem. To access the scheme, Pawara would need an Aadhar card, which displays an individual’s 12-digit unique identification number, linked with their biometric data. Pawara did not have an Aadhaar card. In a bid to obtain one, she paid an agent Rs 100 twice and made two trips to an enrolment centre 13 km away.

But her efforts left her tangled in governmental red tape. Staff at the enrolment centre demanded to see her birth certificate. Sunita Pawara was born at home and did not have one. The Pawara are a Scheduled Tribe in Maharashtra, mostly spread across the hills of Nandurbar, and live in isolated huts or hamlets away from the city. Most residents of Bhanoli do not have a birth certificate.

When she told the staff this, they asked her to obtain a letter from the local tahsildar, or revenue officer, to support of her application. When she visited the tahsildar, he too demanded to see her birth certificate before he would give her the letter she needed – seeming unconcerned that it was precisely the lack of this certificate that had brought her to him in the first place.

With each trip to the enrolment centre, Pawara had to miss out on field work. The trip itself cost her between Rs 100 and Rs 200. “Eventually I stopped trying,” she said. “I could not register for the scheme.”

Without the financial cushion of the scheme’s payment, Pawara worked on her family’s field until the day of her delivery; she returned to work two days after giving birth in April 2021. Sameer weighed 2 kg at birth, below the average weight of 2.5 kg-3 kg for a new-born. Pawara herself was anaemic and underweight at the time of the delivery, and remains so today, a local health worker said.

“Women in these areas do labour work because families are poor and every member has to earn to support them,” said Bhanoli resident Saisingh Pawara.

Sunita Pawara is now pregnant with a second child. She continues to do heavy labour, and since the family cannot afford to buy wheat or vegetables, she subsists largely on urad dal and rice. When there is no money, the family avoids using oil and salt in their food.

Sunita Pawara, a resident of Bhanoli, a hamlet in Nandurbar district, could not register for PMMVY because she did not have an Aadhaar card, and did not have the necessary documents to procure one.

Pawara’s experience is far from unique. In the nearby village of Thuvani, 22-year-old Emna Padvi visited an enrolment centre four times to try and obtain an Aadhaar number. She was unsuccessful because she did not have a birth certificate and marriage certificate, both of which the staff demanded to see. She, too, was unable to enroll for the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana scheme. She delivered a baby girl in August 2021 and resumed farm work immediately after she was discharged from the hospital.

Exclusion across the country

Stories like those of Pawara and Padvi are common across Nandurbar, which is Maharashtra’s most backward district and has the lowest human development index ranking in the state. According to a district health officer, an estimated 10,000 women deliver their first child in the district every year. Since 2017, then, approximately 55,000 women from the district should have been enrolled in the scheme – but in reality, only 42,497 women have been enrolled. Thousands of women have been excluded, and, in many cases, have been forced to continue working through their pregnancies and soon after their deliveries, compromising their health as well as the health of their babies.

But even of the women in Nandurbar who did enroll, 4,414 are yet to receive any maternity benefits. “The delay in funds happens because of some or the other issue in documentation of beneficiaries,” said Dr Nitin Ambadekar, who heads Maharashtra’s directorate of health services.

The problem of women who enrolled for the scheme not receiving benefits is not limited to the district, or Maharashtra. Of the total of 2.8 crore women who have so far enrolled in India, government data shows that between the scheme’s launch in 2017 and July 15 this year, 32.33 lakh women had not received maternity benefits.

The largest number of them are from Uttar Pradesh, where 5.7 lakh women have not received benefits. In Bihar, 3.8 lakh women have not received benefits, and in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, 3.5 lakh and 3 lakh women have not received benefits respectively.

Kemsingh Pawara, a Nandurbar-based health activist described it as a vicious chain. “If poor women don’t get money on time, how will they buy food and remain healthy during pregnancy?” he said. “The new-born will have low weight and slip into malnutrition.”

While no detailed studies exist on the reasons for the exclusion of these women from the scheme, conversations in Nandurbar with social workers, anganwadi workers, experts, and government officials indicate that the requirement that applicants have to furnish their Aadhaar number has been a major hindrance.

This is particularly ironic because, in 2010, the Aadhaar project was launched from Tembhli, a small village of 1,600 individuals in Nandurbar, whose residents were among the country’s first to be assigned the identification numbers. Manmohan Singh, who was prime minister at the time, and Congress President Sonia Gandhi were in attendance at the occasion.

Reality on the ground today belies the promise of that moment. “We must understand that the tribal population lacks adequate identification proof,” said Latika Rajput, an activist from the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Nandurbar. “They have to spend a lot of money to open a bank account or make an Aadhar card.”

Earlier, she explained, payments for other maternity benefit schemes were made with bearer cheques. “That was easy and quick,” she said. Now, she noted, “Aadhar has complicated the system.”

Other hurdles

The predecessor to the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana was the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, a pilot scheme launched in 2010 in 53 districts across the country. The scheme offered pregnant women a cash benefit of Rs 6,000 in three instalments, for the first two children they delivered. In 2017, three years after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance came to power, the government changed the scheme’s name and relaunched it. It also modified crucial aspects of it – reducing the payment to women to Rs 5,000, and limiting eligibility only to women who were giving birth to their first child.

Earlier, women would receive a cash payment after submitting forms to local anganwadi workers. In the revised scheme, payments are made through bank transfers. This meant, for one, that women had to open bank accounts.

To receive benefits, a pregnant woman had to submit her Aadhaar card to an anganwadi worker, link her number with her bank account, and also furnish her husband’s Aadhaar card.

Once a women registers for the scheme, the first instalment, of Rs 1,000, is to be credited to her account within 150 days of registration. A second instalment, of Rs 2,000, is to be paid after six months of pregnancy and one ante-natal check-up,. A final instalment, of Rs 2,000, is to be paid after the delivery and a first round of immunisation of the newborn.

The requirement that women furnish their Aadhaar cards acts as a hurdle for several reasons. In some instances, as with Pawara and Padvi, women simply do not have Aadhaar, and cannot obtain the documents needed to register for a number.

But this is far from the only problem women face. Nineteen-year-old Bharati Pawara, a resident of Gopalpur village, has an Aadhaar card, but cannot use it for the scheme because it mentions her father’s name, not her husband’s. “On the portal, we have to upload the pregnant woman’s and her husband’s Aadhar card,” explained anganwadi worker Gulshan Pawara who tried to register Bharati several times. “If the husband’s name does not appear on the woman’s Aadhaar, the software cannot match the details.”

Gulshan Pawara, an anganwadi worker in Gopalpur, said that to enroll for PMMVY a woman has to submit her Aadhaar, which has to mention her husband’s name. She also has to submit her husband’s Aadhaar.

Bharati Pawara’s baby, Pratiksha, was born in March 2020. In December, the infant developed a high fever and died. “If we had got the money from the scheme, I would have used it to treat my baby and save her,” said Bharati Pawara, who like the rest of her family, works as a labourer on land owned by others, in the village and elsewhere. The family’s annual income is less than Rs 50,000 – so the scheme’s payment could have represented more than a month’s earnings for them.

Technical glitches like the one that prevented Bharati Pawara from enrolling for the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana are common – in Nandurbar alone, 2,714 beneficiaries whose applications have been held up due to such glitches have been waitlisted in a category termed the “correction queue”.

Slashed funds

But even those who manage to register for the scheme don’t always receive the payments they are due.

On September 6, Sonu Vasawe, a jowar farmer, visited the Son Budrukh primary health centre, cradling his seven-month-old son Pradeep in his arms. He had lost count of the number of times he had visited a government authority to try and secure the payment that was due to his wife.

Vasawe’s wife registered when she was five months pregnant. At great inconvenience, Vasawe managed to enroll her for Aadhaar, and opened an account at the nearest bank in Dhadgaon, 20 km from their home in Atti village. “I had to make several trips to open an account,” he said. “Every time some document was missing or an official was absent. I mortgaged silver jewellery to pay Rs 4,000 for trips, to pay bank officials.”

Sonu Vasawe spent Rs 4,000 in his futile efforts to avail of the Rs 5,000 benefit under PMMVY for his wife.

After registering under the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, he made two trips to the bank to check if the money had been deposited. As of early September, it had been 11 months and even the first instalment had not been transferred.

The centre’s medical officer, Rattilal Pawara, pleaded helplessness. “The entire system is online,” he said. “The form is submitted on portal and money is directly credited in the bank account. We have no role to play.”

Pawara said that he has received innumerable complaints of delays in processing funds under the scheme, as well as of fund transfers not being made at all. “Every time I communicate it to district officer,” he said. “That is all we can do.”

While delays are common, conversations with district officials indicate that the problem has been particularly acute in recent months. Dr Gangaram Valvi, the medical officer who oversees the scheme in the district, admitted that no funds had been released in Maharashtra for two-and-a-half months. In Nandurbar, this had affected 1,700 beneficiaries who were due payments under the scheme.

“These problems are similar to what we are seeing in other places,” said economist Jean Dreze who has studied the scheme extensively. “Even Niti Aayog in one of its reports found that payments are not reaching one-third of women.”

Dreze described the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana as a good scheme that had been ruined by technical glitches and restrictive guidelines, and had thus failed to serve its purpose. He noted that the state of Odisha had its own maternity benefit scheme that was “running smoothly” – a woman does not need to furnish her husband’s Aadhaar to enroll for that scheme.

Dreze also noted that the number of Aadhaar enrolment centres across the country had reduced over the years, meaning women have to travel even further to register themselves or apply for corrections or updates to their information. “In Jharkhand, there is just one centre in Manika block where people have to wait for hours,” Dreze said.

Dreze also argued that the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana violates the National Food Security Act, Section 4 of which states, that every pregnant and lactating mother is entitled to nutritious food and “maternity benefit of not less than rupees six thousand, in such installments as may be prescribed by the Central Government”.

Said Dreze: “The scheme pays lower than National Food Security Act and it does not even include every child born.”

Even as the women who seek the benefits of the scheme face many hurdles, the Central government has been allocating less money to it in recent years. The revised budget from the Centre declined from Rs 2,300 crore in 2019-’20 to Rs 1,863 crore in 2021-’22.

Disbursements, too, have seen a decline. (Money disbursed can differ from budgeted funds, owing to factors such as delays.) In 2019, the Centre and states together spent Rs 3,317 crore on the scheme. This reduced to Rs 2,475.8 crore the next year, and then Rs 1,817.8 crore the year after – representing a decline of 45% over the three years. The number of targeted beneficiaries, meanwhile, has remained almost the same each year, at 51.7 lakh, indicating a dramatic fall in the number of women benefitting from the scheme.

The government has taken note of the problems that women face in accessing the scheme. In February, Women and Child Development minister Smriti Irani announced that a woman would no longer have to submit her husband’s Aadhaar to receive benefits under the scheme.

But Dr Nitin Ambadekar, who heads Maharashtra’s directorate of health services, noted that the software to register beneficiaries still requires the husband’s Aadhaar details. “Until the centre changes it, we will have to request for husband’s Aadhaar,” he said.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.