19 May 2017

Right to Food Campaign Rejects Cuts To Maternity Benefits In Food Act


The Right to Food Campaign expresses deep disappointment over the truncated Maternity Benefits Programme (MBP) that was approved by the Cabinet yesterday. Maternity benefits of at least Rs. 6000 for all pregnant and lactating women (except those working in government/public sector undertakings) have been a legal entitlement for almost four years now, guaranteed under the National Food Security Act (NFSA, 2013).  

Despite this, there was no scheme formulated to deliver this entitlement by the central government. Only the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) a pilot scheme in 53 districts continued to be implemented. The Prime Minister in his speech on December 31st announced expansion of maternity benefits to all districts without making any reference to the NFSA. Since then there have been indications that there will be a number of exclusions, a fear expressed by the RTFC as well in response to the underfunding of the scheme as reflected in the annual budget.  

The cabinet approved MBP goes against the letter and spirit of the NFSA. Firstly, it is restricted to only the first birth. There is no justification for this other than keeping the financial obligations to the minimum. All conditionalities attached to the current IGMSY scheme such as two child norm and age of marriage have been shown to be fundamentally discriminatory to both women and children affecting the most marginalised and vulnerable women large from socially discriminated communities such as SC, ST and minorities putting their lives to risk. In the process of universalisation rather than withdrawing all conditionalities from IGMSY, the new scheme makes it even more restrictive.  

In another unwarranted move, the MBP has also been linked to institutional deliveries, possibly to further reduce the funds allocated, and therefore merged with the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY). The JSY is an older scheme that was started with an entirely different purpose which was to incentivise institutional deliveries whereas the MBP is intended to provide wage compensation, just as it does in the formal sector and has been included in the NFSA as a minimum of Rs 6000 for that purpose alone. Based on data from the latest National Family Health Survey, 21% of children born at home are already ineligible for JSY.

The Maternity Benefits Act (MBA) was recently amended to expand the maternity leave from 17 weeks to 26 weeks. While this was a welcome move, the MBA covers only about 18 lakh women in the organised sector whereas over 2.7 crore deliveries take place in India each year. The maternity benefits act does not include in its ambit more than 95% of women in the country who are in the informal sector. When the requirement of six months of paid leave has been accepted for women in the formal sector (public and private), it is unacceptable that a wage compensation of less than half of minimum wages, that too only for one birth should be the norm for the rest of the women in the country. In fact, the modest maternity entitlements under MBP are barely equivalent to five weeks of minimum wages in Bihar [compared to the more than 6 months of paid leave offered in the formal sector]. Such meagre wage compensation in light of the amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, would in fact amount to discrimination and inequality of law under article 14 of the constitution.

The campaign demands universal, unconditional maternity entitlements equivalent to wages for a minimum of six months at no less than the prevailing minimum wages. Maternity entitlements must be seen as a right for all women and also as wage compensation for those in the unorganised sector.

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