For over two years, more than a third of India’s districts have been dealing with drought and hunger. However, the Union government has failed to implement crucial provisions of the National Food Security Act, targeted at providing subsidised foodgrains to the poor. Deprived of maternity benefits, pregnant and lactating women from poor and vulnerable families are among the worst affected.

The government currently provides an entitlement of Rs 6,000 to pregnant women working in the organised sector in only 53 districts across the country. These numbers have remained unchanged since 2010, even though the National Food Security Act made it mandatory to spread this benefit to every district in the country.

In the latest Budget announced this February, the Centre did not set aside funds for the countrywide implementation of these maternity entitlements. It allocated Rs 438 crore for the scheme, while nationwide coverage is estimated to cost Rs 17,000 crore.

According to the National Commission on Self Employed Women, more than 12 crore women work in the unorganised sector. On Tuesday, a public hearing on maternity entitlement and child care was held in Delhi. It was attended by activists of the Right to Food Campaign and more than 200 members of women’s groups and trade unions. Participants said the government’s failure to allocate adequate funds means crores of women working on farms, in mines, at construction sites, or as domestic workers, are deprived of their legal right to access even basic nutrition, health services and child care.

No paid leave, no assistance

At the hearing, several women workers from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh said that in the absence of maternity leave and related benefits, they were forced to return to work within days of giving birth and that both mother and infant were deprived of adequate nutrition.

“I underwent several checkups at the government centre and used to carry my Mamta Card [maternity benefit scheme] regularly to the work site,” said Tiniben Nayak, a construction worker from Dahod district in Gujarat who had a high-risk pregnancy last year. “But I could not get any benefits when I delivered my child and paid Rs 2,500 to the doctor after pawning my silver.”

While Nayak returned to work within 12 weeks of giving birth, Sangeeta from Chandoli district in Uttar Pradesh had to return to work just 12 days after her first child was born. She earns Rs 120 day crushing chillies and developed night blindness owing to poor nutrition before and after her delivery.

In the limited number of districts where the scheme has been implemented, women reported delays, incomplete payments, and barriers in accessing maternity benefits.

“I was admitted to hospital but the doctors sent me back saying there was time before my delivery,” said Suman Devi, who lives in a slum near Delhi cantonment, one of two districts in Delhi where the maternity entitlements have been implemented.

Devi broke down as she narrated her ordeal. “I delivered at home in an emergency in extreme distress,” she said. “But because I delivered at home, the hospital supervisor said that I could not get the benefits because I had failed to deliver at a hospital.”

She said that her husband, a trained electrician, was unemployed at the time. With her being forced to quit her factory job in the late stages of pregnancy, the family was left with little means to support their baby, who suffers from malnutrition.

Elsewhere in Delhi, Pooja Devi from Jahangirpuri said that she had received only a first instalment of Rs 4,500 after delivering her second child, but was yet to receive the remaining Rs 1,500. She said she had saved the amount in a bank account for her younger child.

Barriers remain

Dipa Sinha, an activist with the Right to Food Campaign who surveyed the implementation in some of the 53 districts where the scheme is being implemented, said that women faced several barriers in accessing the entitlements.

“On paper, there are just two conditions for the cash transfer of these entitlements – that it will be given only for the birth of the first two children, and that the pregnant woman should be at least 19 years of age,” said Sinha. “But in practice, several governments have made it mandatory for women to submit proof of vaccinating the baby, attending nutrition counselling, and producing a self-attested affidavit by the mother that she had breast-fed the baby for six months before she can access her Rs 6,000 entitlement. This makes it very difficult for women from poor families to complete all formalities.”

Payal Hathi, a researcher with the research institute for compassionate economics, said that it would be best if women received the maternity entitlements in the weeks before the birth of the child, as that would help with financial support and nutrition supplements.

Aditya Shrivastava, a lawyer and member of the Right to Food Campaign, said that in December 2015, in an ongoing case in the Supreme Court, the Union ministry of women and child development had submitted that it was planning to scale up the entitlements programme first to 200 districts and then to all 680 districts once it received the required funds from the Union finance ministry. As it turned out, however, sufficient funds did not end up being allocated even in the last Budget.