Government of India programme violates both letter and spirit of National Food Security Act

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The Right to Food Campaign has demanded immediate implementation of Maternity Entitlements as per the National Food Security Act (NSA), 2013. Text of the statement:

The Right to Food Campaign demands justice for pregnant women and their infants. For more than four years, all Indian women except those working in government/public sector undertakings have been entitled by law to a maternity benefit of at least Rs. 6000, guaranteed under the National Food Security Act (NFSA, 2013). Yet, the government of India not only has failed to deliver this entitlement to its benefices, but has also amended it to make it even more exclusionary.

Malnutrition as well as infant and maternal mortality are serious problems in India. According to the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey, India’s infant mortality rate is 41 deaths per 1,000 live births. One in 20 Indian children die before their fifth birthday, while 38% of children under five are stunted, a sign of chronic undernutrition. World Health Organisation statistics show that 174 out of 100,000 Indian women die in childbirth, compared with 23 and 44 out of 100,000 in countries like China and Brazil. Poor nutrition of pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under age two are significant causes of these dire health conditions.

Maternity entitlements are a critical tool to fight malnutrition and infant and maternal mortality. A maternity entitlement recognises and validates women’s work, acknowledging women’s need for rest and replacement financial compensation around the time of their pregnancy and enabling them to breastfeed exclusively.

While passage of the NFSA in 2013 created an opportunity for the government to achieve the myriad benefits of a maternity entitlement programme, three years passed without any action by the government. Then on New Year’s Eve 2016, the Prime Minister again raised hopes by announcing the creation of new maternity benefit program to provide Rs. 6,000 to all pregnant women. Several times thereafter, the government repeated its promise–even in an affidavit to the Supreme Court–that “all the pregnant women and lactating mothers would be given Rs. 6,000 in instalments.”

But last May, the Cabinet dashed all hopes that the law would finally be implemented when it approved a truncated programme falling far, far short of the government’s promises and the law’s requirements. The Pradhan Mantri Matru Vendana Yojana (PMMVY) has deeply disappointed women, the Right to Food Campaign, and other advocates of mother and child health in India. The programme violates both the letter and the spirit of the NFSA.

Firstly, it is restricted to only the first birth, a conditionality shown to be fundamentally discriminatory to the most marginalised and vulnerable women from socially discriminated communities such as SC, ST and minorities, putting their lives at risk. Based on the Sample Registration System report on fertility indicators, 43% of the current live births in India are first order births, thereby straight away excluding more than half the births that take place in a year (about 57%). There is no justification for this other than keeping the government’s financial obligations to a minimum.

Second, the PMMVY provides just Rs. 5,000 to pregnant women. To appear to meet the legal threshold of Rs. 6,000, the PMMVY is expressly merged with an older benefit scheme called the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY). But such a merger is unwarranted. The JSY was started with an entirely different purpose: to incentivise institutional deliveries. The PMMVY is intended to provide wage compensation, just as it does in the formal sector under the Maternity Benefits Act. By merging the two programs, the government is muddling the missions of each, and saving itself Rs. 1,000 in maternity benefits to women.

Finally, the PMMVY falls short of the amount of benefit received by women working in the private sector. The Maternity Benefits Act (MBA) was recently amended to expand maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. While this was a welcome move, the MBA covers only about 18 lakh women in the organised sector, whereas over 2.3 crore deliveries take place in India each year. The MBA does not include in its ambit more than 95% of women in the country who work 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 women under the PMMVY. In fact, the modest maternity entitlement under the PMMVYis 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 MBA would, in fact, amount to discrimination and inequality of law under article 14 of the constitution.

With the PMMVY, the government has squandered the opportunity created by the NFSA. The Right to Food Campaign demands that the government take immediate action to implement a program that actually matches the law’s inclusive scope. We also demand that the upcoming budget allocation be expanded from Rs 2,700 crores to an allocation of at least Rs. 8,000 crores – 60 per cent of 13,000 crore, the amount necessary to meet the NFSA (assuming a birth rate of 19 per thousand and an effective coverage of 90%).

The campaign also demands universal, unconditional maternity entitlements equivalent to wages for at least 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.

*Endorsed by the National Federation of Indian Women, the National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights, Nazdeek and Sahyog

 

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