Jaipur: The recent Jaccha-Baccha Survey 2019 conducted in six states – Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, is a picture of the hardships faced by pregnant and nursing women in rural India, who have to contend with frugal diet, lack of rest, weakness, dismal health services and insufficiently-supporting government schemes. The survey also reveals how maternity benefits are restricted to a handful of women in India.
Background of maternity benefits in India
In 2013, maternity benefits became a legal entitlement of all Indian women (except those already receiving similar benefits as regular government employees or under other laws) under the National Food Security Act. “Every pregnant and lactating mother shall be entitled to [nutritious food and] maternity benefit of not less than Rs 6,000, in such instalments as may be prescribed by the Central government,” a provision in the act read.
At that point, a pilot scheme called Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) that entitled women to receive a monetary benefit of Rs 4,000 per child [restricted to two live births], was being implemented in 53 districts.
On October 30, 2015, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, claiming that it was planning to extend IGMSY from 53 to 200 districts in 2015-16 and all districts in 2016-17.
Yet, the budget allocation for IGMSY in the 2016-17 Union Budget remained the same at Rs 400 crore, as it was in 2015-16 and 2014-15.
On December 31, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that pregnant women across India would get maternity benefits worth Rs 6,000. An allocation of Rs 2,700 crore was made in the Union Budget 2017-18. However, that too wasn’t adequate for effective coverage.
What’s wrong with PMMVY
In August 2017, ministry of WCD released the guidelines and draft Rules for Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) that provided for maternity benefits worth Rs 5,000, but restricted to the first live birth in a flagrant violation of NFSA.
An RTI query has revealed that only half of eligible women have received PMMVY benefits in 2018-19. “Since 55% or so of pregnant women are not even eligible (because of the ‘first living child’ condition), this means that the effective coverage of PMMVY is just 22%. In fact, in terms of disbursement of all three instalments of PMMVY women, coverage is just 14%,” reads the survey.
Apart from the statistics, the survey points to several other difficulties in implementation of the scheme in rural India.
To receive the benefit, eligible women need to fill a long form of about 23 pages for each of the three instalments. They are also required to produce various documentary proofs like a mother-child protection card, an Aadhaar card of their own, plus their husband’s Aadhaar card and bank passbook, aside from proof that their bank account has been linked with Aadhaar.
All the applications are required to be submitted online, which poses yet another challenge as online applications are often rejected, delayed, or returned with error messages for a series of issues related to Aadhaar-enabled payments of welfare benefits.
Signs of hope in Odisha
The survey noticed positive results in Odisha, that has its own maternity benefit scheme called Mamata. This scheme covers two births and seems to work relatively well. Not only do children aged between three to six years get an egg five times a week in their mid-day meal, it is also distributed as Take-Home-Ration (THR) for younger children as well as pregnant and nursing women. In fact, eggs are included in the menu in primary and upper-primary schools.
Signs of active team work between anganwadi, ANM and ASHA workers in Odisha was also reported in the survey. Basic services like health check-up, tetanus injections, iron and folic acid tablets and food supplements are provided to pregnant and nursing women registered at the anganwadis.
Odisha was the only survey state where a majority of the households were covered under some form of health insurance – Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, Ayushman Bharat or the state’s own health insurance scheme (Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana that was launched in 2018).
Chhattisgarh was also found to have made sustained efforts to improve anganwadis and primary health care by initiating a joint health checkup and immunisation session, involving the ASHA, AWW and ANM forces.
Maternity benefits for only a handful of women
India’s Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act in 2017 was widely celebrated as it raised the number of weeks of paid maternity benefits to 26 weeks. However, these provisions apply only to a tiny fraction of women in the country – those working in formal employment.
A legal recognition of universal maternity entitlements in India came with the enactment of the National Food Security Act, 2013 which made a provision of a benefit of Rs 6,000 per child. Even the PMMVY is in violation of the NFSA as it restricts the benefits to the first child and reduces the amount to be paid to Rs 5,000.
In other words, some women are more equal than others as far as maternity benefits are concerned. The most privileged women get maternity benefits using the wages compensation principle (as they should), but the most disadvantaged are entitled to very low amounts. The existence of stark discrimination is not even acknowledged.