One year ago, on 31December 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the government would soon provide for maternity benefits of Rs 6,000 per child. He announced this as if it were a new initiative, possibly aimed at sweetening the demonetisation pill. What he did not mention is that maternity entitlements of Rs 6,000 per child had been a legal right of all Indian women since 2013 under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), and that his government had done nothing about it until then.
Nevertheless things started moving after the PM spoke, or so it seemed. The finance ministry made a modest allocation of Rs 2,700 crore for maternity benefits in the 2017-18 Budget – a fraction of what is required for universal coverage as per NFSA norms, but better than nothing. The women and child development ministry designed a new scheme for this purpose, the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY). Workshops were organised, guidelines prepared and software developed.
One year down the line, however, things have moved backward rather than forward. On the one hand PMMVY’s predecessor, the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) has been discontinued. On the other, PMMVY has been held up by a series of delays. According to a recent statement of the ministry of women and child development, only 10,000 women have received maternity benefits under PMMVY so far. This is barely 1% of IGMSY coverage before it was discontinued.
But there is worse. PMMVY involves a blatantly illegal dilution of women’s rights under NFSA. Not only are the benefits conditional, as with IGMSY, they are also restricted to one child per woman. In fact, they are restricted to the first living child. This means that any woman who already has a child today is excluded from PMMVY.
This is illegal, because NFSA clearly says that “every pregnant and lactating mother” is entitled to maternity benefits of Rs 6,000. Admittedly, the Act also states that maternity benefits are “subject to such schemes as may be framed by the Central Government”, but surely that is not a licence to dilute the legal rights enshrined in the Act – it is just an acknowledgement that some modalities are required to provide maternity benefits.
The central government itself had clearly accepted this interpretation of the Act in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on 3 April 2017. Here the government “respectfully submitted” that “all the pregnant women and lactating mothers would be given Rs 6,000 in instalments” (except those already covered in the formal sector), with retrospective effect from 1January 2017. Nothing of the sort is happening under PMMVY.
For good measure, in an extraordinary gesture of stinginess, PMMVY also reduces the benefits – illegally again – from Rs 6,000 to Rs 5,000 per child. Further, the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY), under which pregnant women currently receive cash incentives for institutional deliveries, is due to be phased out. And of course Aadhaar is mandatory at every step – not only the mother’s Aadhaar, but also her husband’s (every mother is presumed to have one).
The bottom line is that the government is comprehensively undermining women’s right to maternity entitlements, under the guise of promoting it. At every step, the main concern seems to be to save money. With benefits restricted to the first living child, reduced to Rs 5,000, contingent on Aadhaar, and subject to a host of conditionalities, the government is all set to minimise the cost of PMMVY. Mothers and children, for their part, will continue to be deprived of the barest economic support in their time of need.
It remains to be seen whether something will be done, in the forthcoming Union Budget, to make up for this demolition job. Not only must financial allocations for maternity benefits be raised, the entire scheme needs to be brought in line with NFSA norms. Two years ago the finance ministry itself wisely recognised, in its annual Economic Survey, that maternity entitlements “would have lasting benefits for health and human capital”. The time to act on this insight is long overdue.
The writer is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University