Maternity entitlements have been in the news several times over the last year. In August 2016, the Maternity Benefit Act was amended to extend the period of paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Later, in his New Year’s eve address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the expansion of a maternity benefit scheme to all districts. Last week, the Cabinet approved a Maternity Benefit Programme that does cover all districts across the country but dilutes the entitlements to each beneficiary and imposes conditions that will exclude many women.

The new Maternity Benefit Programme will give Rs 5,000, going up to Rs 6,000 on an average by taking into account the incentives women receive from other schemes in case of an institutional delivery, as well as in the course of their first pregnancy and child birth. This is conditional upon them registering birth and pregnancy, accessing antenatal care and immunisation and is an extremely inadequate step towards achieving universal maternity entitlements. It is an expansion of the pilot Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana which is currently being implemented in 53 districts, in an even more diluted form to the entire country.

Women’s right to maternity benefits has been a largely unrecognised issue in the mainstream media as well as among policy makers in the country for all these years. This is basically linked to the non-recognition of women’s unpaid work including the care work that they carry on within the household. Now, although there is some discussion around it, universal and comprehensive maternity protection remains a distant dream.

Large gaps

The Constitution of India under Article 42 of the Directive Principles states that, “The State shall make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief”. The International Labour Organisation Convention to which India is also a signatory states that pregnant women should get at least four months of paid leave in recognition of their contribution to the role of social reproduction. It emphasises that pregnancy and childbirth is a vulnerable period for the woman and child who require additional support in the form of nutrition and health services and wage compensation. However, the present situation on the ground on accessibility to maternity entitlements for the large majority of Indian women is pretty grim.

The Maternity Benefit Act after the recent amendment provides for 26 weeks of paid leave but only for those women who are employed in certain sectors that fall under the definition of “establishment” under this Act. This leaves out more than 90% of women in the reproductive age who are engaged in work outside this formal sector, like agricultural labourers, home-based workers, domestic workers, unpaid workers doing work in the fields and homes, and so on. In fact, the definition of “work” itself where only paid employment is accounted for is problematic in a situation where all women are working but many of them are not being paid. Without going into further details on the issue of measurement and recognition of work, it can be stated here that all women work and that this needs to be recognised for the purpose of maternity entitlements.

A woman working at a construction site. (Photo: Pixabay)

The present Maternity Benefit Programme does state providing wage compensation as one of its objectives but the design of the scheme is faulty and exclusionary. One of the major problems is that the amount of compensation of Rs 6,000 is without any basis and is too low. Six months is the minimum period for which compensation must be given as that is the recommended period for exclusive breastfeeding. In fact, women in a number of occupations would require a longer period away from work because of the strenuous conditions under which they work – both paid and unpaid. If we take 26 weeks of 6 days a week in the Maternity Benefit Act and a wage of Rs 175 per day, which is close to the current National Rural Employment Guarantee Act wage rate in many states as the benchmark, then we arrive at an amount of Rs 27,300 as full wage compensation, which is more than four times what is being promised.

Tamil Nadu’s Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy Maternity Benefit Scheme, which is the pioneering scheme of cash based maternity benefits, now provides Rs. 18,000 per woman, while it was Rs 6,000 about five years back when the National Food Security Act was being drafted. During this period, while the amount has increased three-fold in TN, the roll out of the National Food Security Act entitlement is long delayed and now finally being done but still only partially. The inequity becomes starker when compared with the benefits that central government employees get – six months of fully paid maternity leave and an additional two years of paid child care leave.

Who needs benefits the most?

In spite of this low amount, the inclusion of universal maternity entitlements of at least Rs 6,000 under the National Food Security Act was a welcome step, as it was seen as the first recognition within the legislative framework of women’s work in the unorganised sector and their right to wage compensation during pregnancy and lactation. However, even this minimal entitlement is now being undermined further through the half-hearted Maternity Benefit Programme.

First is the issue of reducing the amount to Rs 5,000 and trying to claim that it is Rs 6,000 by including the incentive given under Janani Suraksha Yojana, which is a completely different scheme with a different set of eligibility criteria as well as objectives. Second, the outreach of the scheme is being restricted to only the first birth thereby keeping out a large number of women. Given higher fertility rates, which in itself are a result of poor health conditions, the exclusion due to this condition would be more amongst those women who are poor, living in less developed states and belonging to socially marginalised communities. Third, the other conditions related to using health services can also result in many being left out due to reasons such as being unable to access these services due to unavailability, poor quality etc.

If the government and the Prime Minister are really serious about their commitment to women’s right to maternity entitlements then what is required is that there is an immediate universalisation of the Maternity Benefit Programme without any conditions. Women who are working in the public sector or receiving higher wage compensation from their current workplace need not be included. But, all other women must be covered. Further, a concrete plan for a comprehensive maternity entitlement linked to wages must be made and implemented soon. For this, the proposed Labour Code on Social Security and Welfare might be the apt opportunity. The current draft is just a rehash of the Maternity Benefit Act, but it is hoped that the comments received from a number of civil society groups will be seriously considered.

The writer teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi.