After many u-turns, has Modi finally recognised the importance of social security measures?

The announcement of maternity entitlements is belated and vague but its implementation needs to be ensured.

The National Food Security Act, 2013 legislated maternity entitlements as a universal right. The law required a new scheme be put in place to operationalise this right. “We need action not Acts,” Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, had said. He also blamed Manmohan Singh, then prime minister, who led the United Progressive Alliance government, for bringing in a weak food security law.

Three years later, there was neither action nor any Act.

Though the 2013 Act provided too little – Rs 6000 per child – the recognition of maternity entitlements as a legal right was important. Women in formal employment have had a right to paid leave for 4-6 months, but only a small fraction of women benefit from it as 90% of the workforce is employed in the informal sector. Maternity entitlements under the 2013 Act can be viewed as the informal sector equivalent – at a much lower scale – of the rights that women in formal employment have had. Implementing universal maternity entitlements at Rs 6000 will cost approximately Rs 16,000 crore, which is 0.2% of India’s Gross Domestic Product.

Some argue that this will slow down the decline of fertility levels. Intriguingly (yet thankfully) such an argument was never made when maternity entitlements were legislated for women in the formal sector. There is careful documentation of the importance of maternity entitlements for maternal and child nutrition, both of which can lower child mortality, and thereby lower fertility as well.

Neo-natal mortality rates – infants who die in the first month – are very high in India, at 29 per thousand in 2013, compared with 7.7 in China, as shown in research by Diane Coffey, a demographer who studies social influences on health in India. Low birth-weight is a major cause of high neo-natal mortality rates. Indian women are underweight to start with, and maternity entitlements, in the form of cash transfers, can help ensure that they are better fed, and hopefully gain adequate weight during pregnancy.

Of course, many other issues need to be addressed, including proper healthcare facilities, nutritious supplements (for example, in the form of eggs through anganwadis), adequate rest for pregnant women, and so on. Studying the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, scholars found that women did a disproportionate load of unpaid work. When benefits were not paid (or, were not timely), women reported no change in the burden of work during pregnancy. The scheme, implemented as a pilot in 53 districts, provided Rs 4000 per child since 2010 – it was raised to Rs 6000 in 2013. However, coverage remained very poor – only 28% (until 2013), rising to about 50% in early 2013-14 of targeted women received the cash transfer. Delays in payments and exclusion of the most vulnerable women were among the other findings.

Lessons from states

Meanwhile, two state governments – Tamil Nadu and Odisha – have implemented schemes for universal maternity entitlements. In Tamil Nadu, the Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Maternity Benefit Scheme, initiated in 1987, now provides Rs 12,000 per child (likely to be raised to Rs 18,000 per child). Odisha’s Mamata scheme provides Rs 5,000 per child since 2011. Both schemes involve minor conditionalities, such as registration of pregnancy at the anganwadi, ante-natal checkups, etc.

The Tamil Nadu scheme was able to cover one-fourth of all births in 2008-2009, though there was some evidence of disadvantaged communities being excluded. This year’s budget aims to cover about half of all births.

According to a survey conducted in the third year of its implementation, Odisha was able to reach two-thirds of eligible women through its Mamata scheme and 70% of respondents had received all instalments. Delays and corruption were the main problems – one-fifth of the respondents complained of delays and on average, women reported getting Rs 4,722 out of Rs 5000.

The prime minister’s announcement on December 31, promising implementation of maternity entitlements – belated and vague as it is – is a welcome reminder of the task ahead. Details of the scheme will prove to be all important and determine whether or not it will translate into action. What is required is a universal, unconditional and inflation-indexed cash transfer. The principle for fixation of the cash transfer should be six months’ wages (as Tamil Nadu has attempted to do) as partial compensation for wage loss due to child-bearing. Viewed in this manner, the proposed level of Rs 6000 as per the 2013 Act and the prime minister’s announcement is too low. The government should consider implementing it for all births since 2013, when the Act came into being.

In the past two and a half years of this government, we have witnessed so many u-turns on social policy that it is hard to keep track. After criticising the UPA draft of the 2013 Act for not going far enough, the Shanta Kumar committee under the present government proposed reduction in its coverage in 2015. The prime minister, who had said in 2015 that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was “a living monument” to the Congress’s failures, changed his tune in 2016, this time saying it “is not a monument of our success…it is our responsibility to improve upon the gradual development of this scheme”.

It would be interesting to see if the needs of electoral politics force the Bharatiya Janata Party to recognise the importance of social security measures (such as MNREGA, maternity entitlements and others) and contribute to the emergence of a broader consensus on the need for a robust welfare state in India.

Prof Reetika Khera is an economist and social scientist.

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