Delhi HC Upholds Right of Pregnant Student to Undertake Final Medical Exam

Ruling that AIIMS is bound by the principles enshrined in the constitution, the court said, "It would be impermissible for AIIMS to include a clause which effectively penalises a student, who avails maternity leave."

New Delhi: Justice C. Hari Shankar of the Delhi high court on Friday allowed a pregnant medical student to undertake her Doctor of Medicine examination, and set aside the decision of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, to postpone her attainment of the DM qualification by six months.   

Although the court had in an interim order in November last year allowed the student to undertake the examination in December 2018 during the hearing of the case, it allowed her writ petition on Friday, thus confirming her right to undertake the examination, despite the grant of maternity leave.

AIIMS, in defence of its restriction, relied on a clause in the 2015 memorandum, wherein it was stipulated that if leave, in extension of the permissible periods stipulated therein, was granted, it would result in the postponement of the examination of a student by one session. 

The court held that the reach and sweep of the Maternity Benefit Act, being in the nature of a piece of social welfare legislation, has to be as expansive as possible rather than limited by any pedantic considerations of word or phrase. Therefore, the court held that a student to the DM course, cannot be excluded from the benefits available under the Act, just because it applies to employees.

Also read: Despite Promises, Women in Informal Sector ‘Still Waiting for Fair Maternity Benefits’

The court held that maternity leave, by its very definition, can never be of 24 or 30, or 36 days’ duration.   The court observed that a candidate applies for a DM course only after having already obtained her MBBS and MD qualifications and that, therefore, in the case of women candidates who secure admission to the DM course, the chance of a candidate seeking maternity leave is a live possibility – to which the AIIMS could not be regarded as having been blind. 

The court held:

“Given our avowed constitutional goals, if a clause, stipulating that availment of maternity leave, by a DM candidate, would necessarily result in delay in awarding of the DM qualification to the candidate by six months, were to be enforced, such enforcement might be perilously pregnable to challenge, as violating Article 42 of the Constitution of India.”

Article 42 directs the State to make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.

Saying that maternity relief is a sanctified constitutional goal, fossilised, as it were in Article 42, the court held that AIIMS has all the trappings of a public authority – indeed, of “State” – and is therefore, bound by the principles and precepts enshrined in Parts III and IV of the constitution of India.  

The court held:

“It would be impermissible, therefore, for the AIIMS to include, in the order of appointment, a clause which effectively penalises a student, who avails maternity leave, for having done so, by extending the period of the course to be undertaken by the student by any length of time.  Such an interpretation, if accorded, would render the said clause violative of Article 42 of the Constitution of India, and even that reason, unenforceable”. 

The judgment reads:

“The ability of woman to create, nurture, and sustain, life, is celestially unique, and, even in the most conservative and puritanical of cultures, commands reverence and respect.   The protection and preservation of this ability is central to the most basic human rights which govern existence, and any dispensation, customary or in statute, which derogates therefrom, is constitutional anathema.  Adverse consequences can never be allowed to visit any woman, solely by virtue of the fact that she availed maternity leave, perhaps in excess of the maximum leave admissible – provided, of course, the maternity leave was necessary and required for the health of mother and child.”

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