How the Centre Can Ensure Women Receive Maternity Benefits

Increased budgetary allocation is a welcome step, but key aspects of the Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana scheme need to be reviewed.

The Union Budget brought with it a 17% increase in this year’s allocation for the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD).

Approximately 9% of the total allocation, which is Rs 29,000 crore, has been earmarked for the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY). The PMMVY is a Centrally sponsored conditional cash transfer of Rs 5,000 for pregnant and lactating women, being implemented since January 2017. This amount is meant to enable women over 18 years to rest and avail of better nutrition during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding their first child.

In India the argument often made regarding welfare provisioning is that there is no shortage of policies, however implementation is where the real problem lies. 

Though this is largely true, in the case of the PMMVY, both design and implementation issues exist simultaneously.

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The National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA) recognises the right of every mother to a maternity benefit of no less than Rs 6,000, that is to be provisioned via schemes framed by the Central government. Given this, the PMMVY should account for the universal right to maternity entitlements, and the minimum cash amount mandated by the NFSA. However, in fact, by limiting the cash provision to Rs 5,000 and restricting the benefit to the first live birth of women over 18 years, the PMVVY subverts the NFSA.

Last December, 60 experts had written to erstwhile finance minister Arun Jaitley, stating that a Central government budget of Rs 8,000 crore is necessary to ensure the right to maternity benefits of all women defined as per the NFSA. This estimate was based on the crude birth rate of 19 per thousand and the 60:40 PMMVY fund share ratio between the Central and state government.

Despite this, the 2019-20 budget allocates only Rs 2,500 crore for the PMMVY. While this is more than the previous year’s budget, it is still significantly lower than the required amount.

In addition to the issues related to the design and funding of the programme, the conditions specified for receipt of the three instalments (see Table 1) rely heavily on the local-level government functionaries. While this approach would make sense in a situation of adequate training, incentivisation, and accountability, a qualitative study conducted by the authors in Manika block in Latehar, Jharkhand in June 2019 reveals this is not the reality.

Anganwadi workers, the ground-level functionaries of the program, stated that they have not received their salary since January 2019. Despite this, they are expected to shoulder a large part of the responsibility of implementing the PMMVY, as well as other state-run programmes at the village-level.

Information gaps regarding the PMMVY are widespread amongst anganwadi workers. For instance, most were uncertain about the cut-off point for submission of applications, what to do in the case of a miscarriage, or that an Aadhaar card application number is sufficient to register a beneficiary.

Conversations with anganwadi workers also revealed that sometimes they face challenges in registering women as they do not get Aadhaar cards, or open bank accounts despite repeated reminders. This situation is confounding and begs the question – why are women in situations of deprivation not enthusiastic about the PMMVY? It is difficult to identify a precise reason for this, however the complexity of,  and the lack of clarity regarding processes is a likely factor.

Even when women have the necessary documentation to open a bank account, the process is intimidating and difficult. For instance we met a nervous young mother with her three-month old child at the State Bank of India, Manika branch. 

They had made eight trips to open an account in order to apply for the PMMVY, but a bank employee rudely told her that no accounts were being opened for the next 15 days, without providing a reason for the same.

A PMMVY application is processed only if an applicant’s name is identical on her Aadhaar card and bank account. In this region, post-marriage many women change their surname from ‘Kumari’ to ‘Devi’, and subsequently update their Aadhaar cards to reflect this. As a result womens’ Aadhaar and bank account details often do not match. We met several women facing this issue and at a loss for a solution.

These cases illustrate the types of hurdles women face in procuring mandatory documentation for applying to the PMMVY. Given this it is hardly surprising that some stop trying.

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Finally, payment delays are chronic. Owing to the highly centralised payment architecture, the local functionaries are not equipped to understand the reasons for delay. The non-payment of benefits has led to a reluctance on the part of anganwadi workers to submit PMMVY applications, because they are repeatedly questioned by applicants when they do not receive their entitlements. In this way the absence of timely payments is resulting in a disincentive to register future beneficiaries, and in turn further exclusion. Furthermore, it is serving to defeat the fundamental objective of the programme, i.e. enabling added rest and nutrition during pregnancy and after childbirth.

Given the reality of service provision, administrative inefficiencies, and awareness levels at the local level, this year’s increased budgetary allocation for the PMMVY is a welcome but inadequate step. Incidentally, the budgeted estimate for the PMMVY in 2018-19 was Rs 2,400 crore, which was revised downwards to Rs 1,200 crore, presumably due to underutilisation. To avoid a repeat of last year, there is an urgent need to review the approach, design, and the implementation of the PMMVY, to ensure it is inclusive and enables all mothers to claim their right.

Vanita Leah Falcao is a PhD student at King’s College London, London. K.C. Sachin is a student of public policy at Sciences Po, Paris. Sabhil Nath Painkra is a community worker in Latehar, Jharkhand.