The government has doubled the paid maternity leave to six and half months for women in the organised sector.

Nishu was 27 when she became pregnant with her son five years ago.  She was working with a start-up then. For a young employee like her, working in a start-up that was growing fast had been satisfying. Like other startups, her company offered unusual and attractive perks to their young staff.

However, Nishu discovered that this was only one part of the story. When Nishu informed her employers about her pregnancy, she was told the company had no paid maternity leave policy.

“I was asked to meet the head of the company. He told me “You know how pregnancies are,” and asked me to take some time off. I remember going to the roof of my office and thinking that I have made a big mistake by getting pregnant,” she said.

Nishu noticed a change in her colleagues’ attitude. “No one used to come to my desk or interact with me. I also came to know that they are hiring someone in my place. There was a rumor being spread that I am unable to take the work pressure because I am pregnant,” she recalled.

Nishu had no option but to quit the company two months before her delivery. Looking back, Nishu feels pregnancy was major career setback for her. “You can’t bounce back in the same manner,” she added.

The Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 makes it mandatory for all companies employing more than 10 people to provide a three-month paid maternity leave. Nishu’s company employed about 50.

The government has now made a significant amendment to the Act. In August last year, through the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, the government has doubled the paid maternity leave to six and half months for women in the organised sector. The Bill has been passed by the Rajya Sabha, and is currently pending in the Lok Sabha.

According to the government, India is not ready for a paternity leave.

According to the government, this bill has roots in the problem of malnutrition. “We have children who are malnourished and the basis of that malnourishment is lack of breast feeding in the beginning and lack of attention and care.  The trend today is towards single families.  When a working woman leaves the baby behind, the baby goes into unnatural feed and then for the rest of his life, it is sickly,” said Women and Child development Minister Maneka Gandhi.

“We need to have the mother and child bonding in many ways. We never give women a chance to heal,” she said.

According to the World Health Organisation, six months of exclusive breastfeeding is crucial for the child’s early development.

Some corporates like Pepsico have not waited for the law to determine their policies. For over two years now it has granted a generous maternal leave policy of six months. “We want women in the workplace as it meets two objectives. One is business sense – they bring perspectives as our consumers and give us insights on all our products. Second is their richness in decision making our talent pool bigger with the brightest minds, said Suchitra Rajendra, Vice-President and CHRO, PepsiCo India.

A maternity leave policy allows companies to retain talent and expertise, sending out a message that the company is gender-sensitive. However, a number of young companies have failed to consider this issue seriously and have not put in place a maternity leave policy.

When a company offers paid maternity leave, it signals that a woman employee is a valuable contributor and that her parental and professional roles can coexist.

30-year old Sukriti, a development professional, had an experience similar to Nishu’s. Her company wasn’t pleased when she announced her pregnancy to them, one month into her new job. “There was a lot of apprehension and suspicion about “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” I gave them my scans and medical reports because they were trying to tell me that I lie to them about my pregnancy during the interview. It was harassment.”

Sukriti’s employers saw her paid maternity leave as a cost to the company. “They wanted to put me on a consultancy basis because if you are a consultant, you are not entitled to any leaves. On paper it would mean that they don’t have to pay me during my maternity leave,” she said.

When the stress of dealing with pregnancy discrimination at work started taking a toll on her, she quit. Sukriti was lucky to get another job months before her delivery that offered her paid maternity leave. “It is a chunk of money that the employer has to give to someone without getting anything in return, but what you get in return is a much more loyal employee. If I can’t walk, it is a disability but if I have ramps all around my house, I am enabled to do anything. Maternity leave is just a way to enable the woman to continue working.”

A company is considered sensitive to the woman’s and baby’s needs when it allows a woman to take time off after her delivery without the risk of losing her job.

The start-up companies, however, feel they depend heavily on funding from investors for survival and these investors seek returns.

Onkar Khullar, founder of a start-up ‘I Impact India’, said that younger companies have little resources to spare. “For a start-up like us, in business language, if you have someone who is going to have a child, their minimum pay grade would be Rs 40-50,000 a month. Rs 50,000 for six months means Rs 3 lakh. Since, I will have to hire a replacement too, so at the end of the day I will end up paying paying Rs 6 lakh. This is twice the amount, for the same work. That’s a bad idea. As a start-up, we are already cutting corners by operating out of our houses to avoid electricity and rent costs.”

While a few start-ups like Flipkart, Urban ladder, InMobi already offer six months paid maternity leave, others believe the government’s move to make the six month maternity leave compulsory will compel them to hire staff on contract, a contract that doesn’t promise benefits like a paid maternity leave. “If we have to look after employee’s insurance, mediclaim, and run a start-up too, then one can’t run a company in a country like India. To avoid these costs, we’ll have to start hiring people on contract. Nothing against women, but this is just a business decision. Nothing else.”

Studies point to an increase in informalisation of jobs in the formal sector. According to National Sample Survey Organisation 2011-12, only 17 per cent of the total Indian workforce is employed in the organised sector. Over half of them (55 per cent) are employed informally. This means that only a mere 8 per cent of the total workforce has access to social security benefits like a paid maternity leave.

Dipa Sinha, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ambedkar University  points out that there is no mechanism to monitor the reach of the law.  “We find that even in the organised sector where women should be getting a maternity leave, employers find ways around it. Women are employed under contract or are not shown in the records. Therefore, a law this one reaches out to a very small proportion of women. The definition of who are working women needs to be expanded,” she said.

“Currently the government is not spending any money on monitoring the law. It is left completely between the employer and the employee and that is a big gap in the act”, she added.

The current law places the responsibility of providing three months’ paid maternity leave onto the employer, but activists believe this may discourage employers from hiring women.

A six and half month maternity leave is essential for the health and well-being of the mother.

According to an International Labour Organisation report, 58 per cent countries finance maternity benefits through a governmentt social security scheme. A quarter of the countries (26 per cent) put the onus only on the employer, while 16 per cent relied on a combination of payments by both employers and the government.

Activists Jashodhara Sengupta, a senior advisor with Sahayog, said, “These women are producing the workforce of tomorrow. So the country as a whole needs to have a welfare cess through which we create a fund for companies who are unable to pay for a paid maternity leave for their employees. The companies can draw from this government corpus. We need this cess to ensure that there is wage protection,” she said.

Meanwhile, the bill amending the Maternity Benefit Act has raised a number of concerns. It does not cover about 95 per cent of women who work in the unorganised sector and does not take into account the need for providing a paid paternity leave. While the new maternity bill has been welcomed as a progressive move for women, the mention of paternity leave is absent from the bill. By discounting the role of men, the proposed bill seems to view childcare as an issue that concerns only the mother and not the father.