Rajya Sabha

August 11, 2016

Dola Sen speaks on The Maternity Benefit Bill, 2016

Dola Sen speaks on The Maternity Benefit Bill, 2016

The object of maternity leave and benefit is to protect the dignity of motherhood by providing for full and healthy maintenance of a woman and her child when she is not working. In today’s age, more and more women are joining the workforce and in this scenario, it is important to ensure that a woman striving for self sufficiency does not have to compromise on her role as a caregiver to her child. Studies have shown that longer maternity leaves are likely to produce health benefits.

Expectant and nursing mothers require special protection to prevent harm to their own health and the infant’s health. They need adequate time to give birth, to recover, and to nurse their children. At the same time, they also require protection to ensure that they will not lose their job simply because of pregnancy or maternity leave. Such protection ensures a woman equal access to employment.

But one point I must say. The proposed Amendment is silent on the question on the aspect of paternity leave. This is one very important point that the Labour Ministry must address. Extending paternity leave will lead to men and women sharing responsibilities of child care. This we have already started practicing in West Bengal under the leadership of our Hon’ble Chief Minister and the Health Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. This is a progressive step which Bengal is already taking.

The present Bill seeks to increase the maternity leave for women to 26 weeks, as against the current provision of 12 weeks. This is a commendable reform, and I wholeheartedly support this provision. Another good provision is the option of “work from home” for nursing mothers, after completing the duration of their maternity leave, though this will be decided by the employer. It also provides 16 weeks leave for women who adopt a child or opt for surrogacy. In case an establishment employs 50 employees or more, a crèche will have to be provided by the establishment. These are all very progressive provisions and I laud the Government for bringing them.

However, it is important for us to go beyond the books and look at the bigger picture. Women are estimated to be only 30% of all economically active individuals, even though they account for 48% of the population. Only 1% of women are employed in State and Central governments, and 3% in legislative, management and senior official positions.

Maternity benefits are crucial as malnutrition continues to be a huge hurdle. In India, almost one in every three children, or an alarming 4.8 crore children are stunted.

Without benefits, it often becomes difficult for a single mother to provide adequate nutrition for her child. A mother also has to ensure that her child is fully immunised against all types of diseases. India is still a long way off from securing 100% immunisation for all children. In fact, the first phase of the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 revealed that the highest percentage of fully immunised children are from Goa, Sikkim, Puducherry and West Bengal.

Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana is a conditional cash transfer scheme for improved health and nutrition of pregnant and lactating mothers. This scheme is being implemented in 52 districts for women above the age of 19 years for their first two live births. It is estimated that about three crore women get pregnant every year. If Rs 6,000 is to be given to each of them, then Rs 18,000 crore is needed every year. However, in the present budget, only Rs 400 crore has been allocated to the scheme. This needs to be looked into by the Government.

Some more points for consideration. One, it should be addressed by the Government that the timing of this 26 weeks maternity leave should be flexible in nature, and according to the necessity and choice of the pregnant mother. Two, an establishment with 10 employees is entitled to ESI facilities; this Maternity Benefit Bill should not clash with the existing ESI facilities. Three, there are some provisions in the Act for maternity leave allowance or medical bonus for the pregnant mother. I would like to know whether the Government is planning to increase this allowance or medical bonus as it is not at all up to the mark. Four, it is there in the amendment that ‘every establishment shall intimate electronically to every woman at the time of her initial appointment about the benefits available under the Act.’ That means, this Maternity Bill should be implemented from the very first day of the service of the pregnant mother. This Maternity Benefit Bill must address the working woman of the unorganised sector.

I appreciate the thought that the Government has put behind the Bill. We also need to work towards building a future where women hold an equal stake in the every aspect of India’s social, political and economic life. For a child, the most important person in their life is the mother. Let us ensure that we build an India where every woman is free to achieve her dreams, and no child is bereft of the love that only a mother can provide.

Thank you, Sir.