20 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.

19 May 2017

Bhangar: Press Conference Invitation

In a shocking situation in West Bengal, where the TMC and their Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee came to power on the back of struggles against forcible land acquisition, the ruling party has unleashed unprecedented repression on a movement in Bhangur against similar forcible land acquisition. People of the villages Khamarait, Machhibhanga, Tona, Gazipur etc. in Polerhat 2 No. Panchayat in Bhangar Assembly Constituency, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal are facing desperate situation due to the Government decision to situate a Power Grid (440/220 KV) in that area.

Two people have been killed in police firing, 33 people are in jail, over 40 people have been charged with terror charges under UAPA, and almost the entire population of about 20 villages (men, children and women) have been charged with a number of falsely fabricated non-bailable offences, including eminent activists working for justice through a West Bengal level solidarity committee. An unofficial economic blockade has been declared with any person leaving the village being arrested. Despite repeatedly asking for dialogue, the Government is refusing to talk to the affected people.

In order to bring national attention to this struggle, we are organising a press conference on the on 5th May 2017 at 1.30 PM at the Women’s Press Corps office, 5 Windsor Place, New Delhi 110001.

The people addressing the press conference are Justice RajinderSachar, former Chief Justice Delhi High Court, KN Ramachandran, General Secretary, CPI(ML) Red Star, Dipankar Bhattacharya General secretary CPI(ML) Liberation, Anuradha Talwar, representative of Bhangur Andolan Sanhati (Solidarity) Committee, Achin Vanaik , writer and academic , Amit of Majdur Kranti Parishad,Sanjay Parikh, Supreme Court counsel and PUCL vice president, Bittu Convenor WSS, and Kavita Srivastava, People’s Union of Civil Liberties.

Thousands March For Right To Food

Undaunted by the heat and the sun, with temperatures reaching 400C, members of the Right to Food and Work Campaign-West Bengal reached Kolkata on April 27 for a deputation to the Food and Supplies Department. Those participating came from the Himalayan foothills of North Bengal, the islands of the Sunderbans, the burning red laterite soil of western West Bengal, the areas bordering Bangladesh and the green plains surrounding the Hooghly. Those in the processions ranged from sex workers to midday meal cooks, agricultural workers to van rickshaw pullers, housewives to members of self-help groups, domestic servants to tea garden workers etc. 

This huge group of over 5,000 people from 16 districts of the State, along with the urban poor of Kolkata, sent a delegation that met the Secretary Food and Supplies Department, Mr Durga Das Goswami and Joint Secretary and Nodal Officer (for the National Food Security Act), Mr Shubra Chakraborty. Their response was as follows:

Measures would be taken by the Department to segregate Government and tea management rations so that the management does not cheat tea garden workers by replacing its food grain component of wages-in-kind with Government rations.

The Department was already considering the Campaign’s demands to give wheat instead of bad quality atta. It was also in the process of issuing a circular to ensure that the five different types of cards are not used unfairly and to stop many poor families being enlisted as RKSY 2 and many better off families being given Antodaya cards. 

The delegation was assured that Vigilance and Monitoring Committees would be formed and made functional soon and representation from Campaign members in these committees would also be ensured.

The officials said that allotment copies of the amount of food grains transferred to each ration dealer would be provided to the members of the campaign. For this purpose, the delegation was asked to give a list of names with phone numbers in every block to whom they would give the allotment copy. Also the SMS system to provide ration card holders with information about their allotments would be re-started.

Issues such as universalization of the rationing system, formation of the Food Commission, bringing all food schemes under the Food Security Rules and providing all ration card holders with 14kgs of food grains, 1.5 kg pulses, 800 ml edible oil and 1 litre kerosene oil at subsidized prices were policy issues which they would forward to their superiors.

While the Department felt that the PoS machine could be used to stop corruption, they agreed to look at the Campaign’s experience in other states and to see that PoS machines and Aadhar cards do not become a means of exclusion.

The delegation was assured that on giving specific experiences, all food grains due to beneficiaries from their past quotas in the rationing system would be immediately disbursed to the beneficiaries;

The participants from 17 districts came to the Subodh Mullick Square in two rallies from Howrah Station, and Sealdah station. Throughout the rallies their main slogan was “Work in every hand and Food in every plate”, interspersed with songs and dances. 

While the original intention was to go to Khadya Bhawan itself, the police stopped the rallies at SM Square, where many participants made speeches in support of the demands while a delegation of 7 people met the Minister’s representatives.

Amongst the participating organisations, who are all members of the Campaign, were Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, Shramajeevi Mahila Samity, Udayani Social Action Forum’s self help group members, TUCC, Swayam’s Nari Suraksha committees, Durbar Disha Griha Paricharika Union, Durbar Mahila Samanvay Committee, BMCDM etc.
JANA SANGHATI KENDRA,1 Shibtala Road,Maheswarpur, Badu, Kolkata 700128

09 March 2017

Maruti Workers Union Appeal

Dear Comrades,
We are writing with an appeal, and update on the legal case. The Maruti Suzuki workers case ('State of Haryana vs Jiyalal & Others') is going on since July 2012 through a maze of evidence-less lies and clear pro-corporate anti-worker intent. Since 2012, 216 workers face possible convictions by a pro-corporate system, besides the terminations (and labour cases) of 546 permanent workers and 1800 contract workers, and a separate case of offences against 111 more workers in Kaithal since 2013.
The date for the Judgment from the Trial Court, the Gurgaon Additional District and Sessions Court, has been set for 10th March 2017. We are apprehensive and have grounds to believe that it will be a politically motivated anti-worker Judgement. The hand-shaking between the Maruti Suzuki company management and the Police, administration, the government and Judiciary could not be more clear as in this case. We are apprehensive about a Pricol-type 'life sentences' and long-term convictions against hundreds of workers and are preparing with a call for unity of all workers and all pro-worker forces. We appeal to you from the Provisional Working Committee, Maruti Suzuki Workers Union to be present in the Gurgaon Sessions Court premises on the day of the Judgement in the case on the 10th of March. We also appeal to you to be united and take solidarity actions in support of Justice for all Maruti Suzuki workers facing repression by the Central and State Government and the Company.

Update on the Legal Case as it Stands during the Final Arguments:

Context: We had 3 strikes in 2011 where we raised voice against the system of exploitation in the factory, and had to face continued management attacks on our Trade Union rights with complicity of the administration. We finally formed our Union – Maruti Suzuki Workers Union, Manesar (Reg. No.1923) on 1 March 2012. In April, we submitted their Charter of Demands, where the Union said abolition of contract worker system as one of its central demands, among others. This kind of assertion of our rights against their exploitation was not being taken lightly by the Company management, as it challenged their power and profits. They wanted to attack the Union through their power and conspiracy, which resulted in the incident on 18 July 2012, of a clash inside the plant and the death of an HR manager. Since then, 147 workers have been in Jail without having got bail for more than 3-and-a-half years on charges ranging from murder, attempt to murder, rioting, looting, setting fire to private property and various Sections of the IPC. Currently, 11 workers continue to be in jail without bail, which includes the members of the then Union Body. 66 more workers other than the 147 have similar charges under various non-bailable sections. Along with this criminalization of labour, 546 permanent and 1800 contract workers were terminated from their jobs, whose labour cases are also ongoing. 2500 working class families faced constant repression and penury on top of exploitation of the workers in the factory which created the basis for the management-labour conflict. We have had a movement against this regime of exploitation and repression till today.
The final legal arguments in the Maruti Suzuki workers Trial case concluded on 18 February, 2017 with arguments by Advocates Vrinda Grover, Rebecca John and RS Cheema against the State Prosecution. Find here some facts on the case as it stands in the Courts:

1.      It was established during the final arguments that there is no direct evidence linking ‘murder’ or ‘setting fire’ to the factory on any worker. No prosecution witness could establish any worker involvement in the same. Neither was any CCTV footage produced by the Prosecution even after Defence asked for the same. The management person Deepak Anand from GM Vigilance who filed the FIR against the 55 Maruti workers named therein, could not identify any worker. The witness Salil Vihari who named the main accused Jiyalal, could not identify him.

2.      On 18 July 2012, the incident of conflict happened at 7.20pm. But Police was called by the Company management at 11am itself, but Police was not allowed inside until the entire incident came to a boil. It has already been said by workers that it was a pre-planned conspiracy on behalf of the management so that a conflict is generated and workers can be implicated on this basis. Bouncers in workers clothes were also brought inside in the morning itself without IDs.

3.      The FIR mentions that 400–500 workers with rods, batons and sticks in hand entered the HR and beat the management but no witness mentions these weapons. Instead all the witness uniformly said that workers were carrying shockers and door beams – each doorbeam and shocker weighing over 4kgs, so around 4000kgs of weapons were supposedly recovered. On top of this, Police show that a major section of workers took all these weapons to their respective homes and kept them under their beds and almirahs. For another set of workers, Police showed that they caught 20 workers simultaneously siting under a tree conveniently possessing all these weapons.

4.   Also, witnesses had said that each manager was beaten up by 4-5 workers with these weapons with intention of murder. The also stated that no one came to rescue them. But if this was so, then how did they manage to rescue themselves with no serious injury? To this, they said that the workers themselves let them off, which clearly is no intention to murder! The witnesses testified that all of them uniformly stopped the attacks with their left hand. In the MLC done on management injuries show absurdities as a dental root canal as injury!

5.      It has been established how 89 of the 147 workers have been arrested on the basis of names given alphabetically by 4 contractors. None of these workers were identified. Court documents show witness Virendra alias Rajender Yadav has named 25 workers such that all workers' names fall in the alphabetical range of A-G. Another witness contractor Yaad Ram testified that he saw 25 workers rioting, all of whose names fall in the next range G-P. Witness Ashok Rana names 26 workers who were allegedly rioting whose names range from P-S. The final witness Rakesh of Tirupati Associates who supplied 900 contract workers to MSIL testified to allegedly seeing 13 workers whose names, continuing the alphabetic sequence, are in the range S-Y.

6.      The lists of workers arrested thus was provided by the Company to the Police, and not on the basis of its own investigation, pointing to an active collusion between the two.

7.      On ‘setting fire to the factory’:  There was no evidence whatsoever as to setting fire and no witness could explain how the fire was lit and who did it. First, there were contradictory statements as to where the fire was lit – in the conference (M1) room in the first floor, or outside it, or in the ground floor. Awanish Dev’s dead body was recovered from the M1 room, and the witnesses claimed that the room was lit on fire from inside where fighting was taking place, but while testifying they argued that the room caught fire from the outside.

Fire lit and burnt everything down but the match box (a new one) was conveniently unharmed and lying there to be discovered. This recovery of the match box itself was not immediate. At the place of the incident, when the security on-watch, Om Prakash, went on 19th July 2012 in the morning at 6 am, to the M1 store with a photographer nothing was recovered. Then on that very day at 12 pm FSL authority D. Sonu searched and recovered a new match box and a door frame, and where the room was entirely burnt there was no sign of the matches itself being lit. He neither signed the recovery report nor did he testify in court on the recovered matches and door beam.

On the setting of fire inside the M1 room, of the 16 witnesses that had stated that the room was lit on fire, and 3 witnesses took names of those who did it. None of these witnesses could identify any worker or wrongly identified.

8.      According to the postmortem report, Awanish Dev’s death was due to asphyxiation. The injury he had is below the knee on the right leg, which cannot lead to death which proves that neither is there a murder case possible against the workers nor is their intention to murder in this case. So Sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder) clearly do not hold. At max, only 2 people can cause such an injury, while 216 workers have been accused of murder and attempt to murder.
Thus even though this is, on the face of it, pertaining to the case on 18 July 2012 where a general manager of the company Awanish Kumar Dev died in the conflict that erupted that day after a Dalit worker Jiyalal was suspended from duty unilaterally when a supervisor attacked him and gave casteist abuse. But as is evident by now, it was a conspiracy from the management against assertion of workers for our Trade Union rights.
Even so, the considerations of the Judiciary are suspect as is evident from one of the High Court orders in May 2013 rejecting bail said “this is one one of the unfortunate incident that has lowered the reputation of India in the world. Foreign direct investment is likely not to happen due to fear of growing labour unrest”. The State has already spent crores of public money all these years against the workers. As per RTI, the government paid Advocate KTS Tulsi R.5.5 crore in just 2 years - s. 11 lakh per appearance - just in the Gurgaon Additional District and Sessions Court, Mr Tulsi's three assistants Rs. 66000 for each appearance and "clerkage" of over Rs. 1 lakh for his expenses each appearance. If this was not enough, instead of the Public Prosecutor from the State, Private Prosecutor from the Company, Vikas Pahwa again kept the 'last word' on their behalf in the Sessions Court Gurgaon during the final arguments.

Will there be Justice for Maruti Workers?

The 147 workers who have spent over four years in Jail, and 11 who continue to be jailed without bail since July 2012, the total implicated 216, the 2500 families, those who have lost their family members in that course of time or not been able to see their children grow up for those years or have not been able to part of the joys and sorrows of their family for that time - will there be justice?
In this industrial belt, workers struggle have happened from Rico Gurgaon (2009) to Shriram Pistons Bhiwadi (2014) to Honda Tapukhera (2016) and countless others against regime of exploitation on workers by the profit-hungry MNCs. Management. In all these cases, to control the simmering tension, there have been outright repression through terminations, violence, murders, lathi-charges, false criminal cases and prison terms by the Police-administration-government and local goons on the company’s payrolls. In current workers struggles, while the management says, “we will make Maruti-like situation for you” (repress you like the Maruti workers), the workers also say right back, “This can turn into a Maruti-like situation” (Workers will wage a collective movement relentlessly against exploitation-repression). We say this will be a ‘political judgement’ since this judgement becomes a measure and signal of which version of ‘maruti-like situation’ stands.
On 1st March 2017, we marked 6 years of the formation of our Union with a gate meeting in front of the factory in Manesar, where thousands of workers and Unions participated. After this,  the company has moved a stay order against 10 terminated workers in the leadership of the Provisional Working Committee, MSWU to stay 2kms away from the company gate. On 7th March, various Unions met in Gurgaon and resolved to hold factory gate meetings and give warning letters to their managements in solidarity with Jailed workers which happened on 8th March. There is lunch and dinner Boycott in various factories on 9th March. Hundreds of workers will gather in the Court premises at 10am and in the afternoon on 10th March.
We appeal to you to be united and resist this onslaught by capitalists and the government, and stand with the workers class movement in this crucial and decisive situation. We appeal to you from the Provisional Working Committee, Maruti Suzuki Workers Union to be present in the Gurgaon Sessions Court premises on the day of the Judgement in the case on the 10th of March. We also appeal to you to take solidarity actions in support of Justice for all Maruti Suzuki workers facing repression by the Central and State Government and the Company.

Provisional Working Committee,
Maruti Suzuki Workers Union

06 March 2017

Stop State Violence in Bhangar

The WSS (Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression) is a nationwide platform of various women’s organizations and individuals, whose member Sharmishtha Chowdhury is currently in jail for supporting the peasant movement against a power grid in the villages of Bhangar.  Over the past three days, a 12-member team of WSS has visited the affected villagers and concerned officials to understand the origins and the impetus behind the movement, and the response of the civil society and government functionaries to it.

Inquiries by the WSS team have revealed that since 2013, the peasant families of Bhangar have been repeatedly seeking basic information about the power grid and transmission line project that deeply impacts their lives and livelihoods, but have received no information or have been deliberately misinformed at every step.  They have tried to meet every statutory, legislative and constitutional authority in the area to register their concerns, but no one agreed to meet with them, and when they have demanded talks and dialogue with the administration to resolve their concerns, they have instead faced police encampments, arrests and bullets.

Such an irresponsible and insensitive response from the government has only heightened the tensions in the area and increased apprehensions about the project. This is the sole reason behind the situation today, where the villagers have lost all trust in the government and its intentions towards their well-being, and entire families, including women and children are resisting it despite the enormous hardship and violence they are continuously facing. This was definitely not expected of the current government that came to power on the back of people’s mass movements against large projects, and had thus won the confidence of the very people who are now so vehemently protesting.

Acquisition of Land Irregular, Illegal and Arbitrary

The Bhangar movement started around 2013, when around 13 acres of land were sought to be acquired by the government in the village Khamarait. The WSS team learned that the acquisition happened in a completely arbitrary and illegal manner, and that all processes of acquisition were handled by one person, Arabul Islam of the ruling party. He not only arbitrarily decided how much compensation was to be handed out to whom, but also took a cut from all these compensations. While a case against this forcible acquisition is still pending before the High Court, and 11 people have not yet taken the compensation, the construction of the grid proceeded at full place and was completed within one year. The Award has still not been shown to the villagers.

Not only was the acquisition procedures completely opaque to the villagers, they were even kept in the dark about the purpose of the acquisition – first it was meant for government flats, then for a power sub-station and only after the structure was half-completed, did the villagers learn from a board in front of the construction site that it was actually for a power grid.  And it was not until the last quarter of 2016, when giant transmission towers arrived in their village on the beds of the monstrous trucks did they realize that this project will impact the farms and lands outside of the 13-acre plot as well.

Escalating Violence 

When the villagers of Bhangar started asking questions about the impact of these High Voltage Transmission Lines on their lives, livelihoods, health and environment, the government dispatched police to the village on 3 Nov 2016, who beat up people including many women and terrorized them by arresting 6 people, and occupied the village for 18 days.  Since then, the police have been regularly harassing the local populations to the extent that several families have left their houses and are living with their relatives out of fear of the police.  

The situation further worsened on 16 January 2017, when the police entered the villages, beat up people and arrested villagers. The next morning, the police assaulted people going to work, destroyed homes, picked up more people, ransacked shops, attacked the women who had come to assist the shopkeeper, including the elderly Mayur Jan Bibi whose hand was fractured in three places. Those arrested were badly beaten up and  the hand and finger of one juvenile Zahir Husain, was broken and remained untreated for 6 days. Manwara Bibi was sexually assaulted and her disabled husband was beaten up

In response, the villagers protested and blockaded the roads, demanding the authorities should conduct a dialogue with the people, release the detained villagers, and withdraw the police encampments from the area.  Eventually, after an extended stand-off, the DM and the SP sent separate messages through the SDO and the DSP agreeing to a meeting within two days, promising not to oppose the bail of arrested persons and remove the police.  The organizers used the microphones in the masjid to inform the agitated villagers of this, and requested them to safeguard the safety of the retreating police. But even as the crowd of villagers parted to let the police vehicles go back, the police randomly fired bullets in all directions, killing two villagers, Alamgir and Mofizul Khan, and injuring Akbar.  The villagers recounted to the team how, after Alarmgir fell after being hit with a bullet, the police kicked him repeatedly, and shot him at close quarters in cold-blooded murder.  Maufizul Khan was killed when he was walking home from work. Akbar was shot in the back.

The WSS team witnessed first-hand the continuing violence that the affected villagers have to live with every day, when they were caught in Khamarait on 4 March.  While the team was still in the village, a raucous and a loud rally organized by TMC members tried to terrorize the people by going past the village, bursting bombs, firing bullets in the air and throwing stones. One young boy, Saiful Molla, was badly injured when a brick hit him on his head.

Police Response Lethargic and Incompetent

The WSS team also visited PS Kashipur in order to hear the police version of this violence, however, the ASP and DSP present at the thana refused to discuss these incidents.  It is notable that till date no one has been held responsible for the murders of two young men, and the numerous complaints of physical violence by the villagers against the police have gone completely unheeded.  Moreover, instead of initiating dialogue as promised on 17th January, on the 25th the police arrested Sharmishta Chaudhary, Pradip Singh Thakur and a young villager, on very flimsy grounds as shown by the FIR. Later charges under UAPA were slapped on the accused though they are neither members of banned organiations and nor were they shown to be indulging in any terrorist activity.

Unanswered Questions and Concerns

The government has yet to answer basic questions of the villagers as to what are the health impacts of the heightened Electromagnetic Field that permeates the dwellings, the constant loud high frequency humming that emanates from the wires, the static charge build up near the towers that can light a bulb without a power source.  How do these impact the fertility of their soil, the long-term health of the residents, their cattle and their fisheries? More importantly, the towers are being placed without the consent of the landowners, and the one time compensation for their use of land and the right to access is being compensated in a highly opaque and arbitrary manner, at a fraction of the economic hit being forced upon the villagers.

These are valid and genuine concerns and any government accountable to its citizens would rush to allay their fears and enter into dialogue about the costs and benefits of such a project.  The fact that the government is rushing police battalions into the area, instead of trying to win over the confidence of the people by addressing their concerns highlights its complete contempt towards local populations.


The WSS demands that the authorities de-escalate the situation by holding immediate and unconditional talks with the protesting villagers and their leaders, and undertake confidence-building measures to gain back the trust of the villages. This is in the best interests of a functioning and healthy democracy. The FIRs under which people have been imprisoned include dozens of other names, including those of many WSS members (Nisha Bishwas, Swapna Bannerjee, Anuradha Talwar, Krishna Bandopadhyay), and 500-1,500 others who are unnamed, which has given the police a virtual license to arrest and harass a large number of villagers.  Confidence building measures should include the quashing of such vindictive FIRs.  Immediate action must be taken against police personnel and goons involved in the violence.  Attempts to paint the legitimate and peaceful protest as unconstitutional or “terrorist” must stop. 

Members of the WSS team –
1.      Madhuri Krishnaswamy (M.P.)
2.      Adv.Shalini Gera (Chhatisgarh)
3.      Promila (Odisha)
4.      Swapna Bannerjee (West Bengal)
5.      Urmila (MP)
6.      Fatima Bibi (West Bengal)
7.      Sanchita Mukherji (West Bengal)
8.      Indrani Sen (West Bengal)
9.      Shashwati Ghosh (West Bengal)
10.     Sukanti (Odisha)
11.     Deepa (Chhatisgarh)
12.     Rajkali (M.P)

11 January 2017

Maternity Entitlements: A Case Of Too Little, Too Late

PIB press release today states that the Government of India intends to initiate universal maternity entitlements as per the National Food Security Act from 1 January 2017. However, the figures don’t add up. India’s birth rate is around 20 per 1,000. The current population is around 130 crore. So the number of births per year must be around 26 million.

Thus, at Rs 6,000 per birth, universal maternity entitlements (assuming, optimistically, that 10% births are already covered under the formal sector) would cost Rs 14,000 crore per year.

However, in the plan presented in the PIB press release, the central government’s contribution for the next three financial years is only Rs 7,348 crore, or Rs 2,449 crore per year. With a 60:40 ratio for centre/state contributions, this means a total of barely Rs 4,000 crore per year.

This is a fraction of what is actually required, even assuming that only the first two births are covered by maternity entitlements.”Women’s organizations and the Right to Food Campaign called upon Prime Minister Modi to make maternity entitlements truly universal instead of the extremely weak announcement of cash benefits for pregnant and breastfeeding women on 31st December 2016. In a country like India where more than 90% of women are outside of organised sector employment, state-provided maternity support becomes a crucial tool for protecting the health of women and their babies.

Kavita Srivastava of People’s Union for Civil Liberties stated, “The Prime Minister on 31 December 2016 has announced a cash entitlement of Rs. 6000 for pregnant women across the country; presenting it as an original idea and also as if it is somehow to mitigate the hardships caused by demonetisation. However this is far from the truth. This entitlement was unanimously passed by the parliament in Septemebr 2013 under the National Food Security Act, but the government had so far not provided the budgetary allocations for the same.”

“Maternity entitlements are women’s rights, and not a reward for good behaviour,” said Jashodhara Dasgupta of SAHAYOG, a women’s organization. With the passing of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013, a universal maternity entitlement of at least Rs. 6000 has been a legal entitlement for all pregnant and lactating women in the country.

Dipa Sinha, of the Right to Food Campaign stated, “The government, in complete violation of the Act, has failed to provide the required budget for its implementation. What is currently on the ground in 53 districts is the 2010 pilot scheme IGMSY (Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana) that provides Rs 6000 provided pregnant women meet certain criteria .

Sudeshna Sengupta of the Alliance for Early Childhood Development mentioned that despite repeated demands by women and civil society organisations  across the country  to provide universal maternity benefits in tune with the NFSA, neither the coverage nor the budget allocated for the scheme has been enhanced, despite the Supreme Court asking for an explanation for the delay in implementation.

Sejal Dand of the Mahila Kisaan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM) expressed the major concern regarding the inequity in the maternity entitlements available through the MBA (1961) amendments passed by the Rajya Sabha in the december 2016 session of the parliament which guarantees 26 weeks of paid leave to women in the formal sector which is only 5% of women workers in this country.  For the largest number of women workers- namely women farmers and agricultural labour, we will now  have a universal entitlement of a minimal 6000/- rupees.  

Denial of this minimalist entitlement to women who though no choice of theirs bear children under the age of  19 years of age or have multiparous pregnancies will deprive the most at risk women, largely from the   Dalit, tribal and poorest social groups from this essential support. There is an urgent need to ensure that technology is used for ensuring entitlements are made easily and timely available, rather than become one more hurdle to exclude the poorest"

The organizations expressed concern that the government already seeks to restrict coverage by imposing conditionalities on access to this entitlement; similar to the IGMSY. The Prime Minister in his speech mentioned that this is for women who have institutional deliveries and immunise their children. Dr. Vandana Prasad of the Working Group for Children Under 6 pointed out that such conditionalities are likely to further exclude the most marginalised women from much needed financial support, especially given poor availability of good quality maternity services.

The demand for universal unconditional maternity entitlements will be taken by campaigns throughout the year 2017 by the collective that issued this statement, including:Right to Food Campaign, Alliance for Early Childhood Development, National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human rights, Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, women’s groups, trade unions and a number of other organisations working for the rights of unorganized sector women workers based in small-scale production, construction and brick-kiln workers, domestic workers, agricultural labourers and tribal women collecting forest produce, and so forth.