The cover of the recently-released Economic Survey was pink and Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramaniam said that the message was to stand in solidarity with women’s movements across the country. And in this year’s first Mann ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid lip service to women’s empowerment. He emphasised that women in India have amazed the world and ‘nothing is impossible’. But, his government has failed to deliver even the benefits entitled to pregnant mothers.
Malnutrition and infant mortality are issues plaguing India. According to the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey, India’s infant mortality rate stands at 41 deaths per 1,000 live births. One in 20 Indian children die before their fifth birthday, while 38 per cent of children under five are stunted, a sign of chronic malnutrition. World Health Organisation statistics show that 174 out of 1,00,000 Indian women die in childbirth, compared with 23 and 44 out of 1,00,000 in countries such as China and Brazil. Poor nutrition of pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under the age two are issues which must receive the government’s immediate attention.
However, that hasn’t been the case so far. For more than four years, all Indian women except those working in government and public-sector undertakings have been entitled by law to a maternity benefit of at least ₹6,000, guaranteed under the National Food Security Act (NFSA, 2013). Yet, this government has worked towards amending it and making it even more exclusionary. There are also accusations that the Centre only pays states where its party is in power and works to obstruct the others on flimsy grounds.
The Prime Minister goes ahead and simply reduces the amount and complicates the deliverance of the benefits. “After the announcement of the Act in 2013, the government ignored to notify about the implementation of the programme. After demonetisation was announced in November 2016, the PM announced that the beneficiaries of NFSA would still get the benefits. But, in May 2017, Modi announced the Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana, which was previously the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY). His government restricted it to one birth and reduced the amount to ₹5,000, under the pretext that Janani Suraksha Yojana provides close to ₹700 to make up for the difference,” said Dipa Sinha, convenor of the ‘Right to food’ campaign.
This is a violation of the Act, especially restricting it to the first birth. “It is unfair to marginalised women, because Dalit and Adivasi women are getting excluded. The conditions for getting the money even for the first birth are onerous. “The money has not been reaching because they have made the process of application extremely complicated. Also, there was a huge delay in the release of funds from the Centre. We want to know what happens to all pending applications if they don’t allocate for them next year, there will always be a backlog,” added Sinha.
“The conditions for getting the money even for the first birth are onerous. The women need to register themselves at the anganwadi, they have to be linked to the Janani Suraksha Yojana, they have to provide their Aadhaar card, residence proof, voter’s id and prove that they have access to ante-natal care and immunisation, if the money has to be released,” says Sinha, with exasperation in her voice.
Instead of easing the process, the government has made it tedious. The PMMVY is ‘only’ 32 pages long. There have been cases where people have filled the form and yet there has been no formal response. The denial has not been given in writing. Since, the Aadhaar Card has been linked to the programme, it is “even more difficult for pregnant women to get their documents. They lose their daily wages, they have to run for medicines and then also face harassment in government hospitals”, noted Vandana Prasad of the Public Health Resource Network.
What should shock us all is that since the announcement of this Act, only 96,000 women have benefitted. The government has estimated that 53 lakh women are entitled to these benefits. Even by the Centre’s assessment, they have not reached the halfway mark. “According to the Act, the Centre has to fund 60 per cent of the scheme and the state governments, the rest. Even for that, the Centre needs to allocate `8,000 crore, but instead it has allocated ₹2,700 crore,” adds Sinha.
“The Economic Survey states that we have to invest in the health and nutrition of women and children, yet somehow we have not been able to do this. National Family Health Survey has found that the incidence of anaemia among women in age group 15-40 has not improved. The National Nutrition Mission was given a budget of ₹9,000 crore. How can this work, when the central government’s contribution to the maternity entitlement scheme should be ₹8,000 crore,” questions Jashodhara Dasgupta of Sahayog, a non-profit organisation that works for the health rights of women.
“The IGMSY was to be scaled up to all districts from 52 districts. Much before NFSA, Odisha had a universal ME scheme. It has been five years since NFSA was announced, but the scheme has not unfolded on ground. From the point of health equity, the government is restricting even the paltry sum of `6,000 to these women. The organised sector gets six months fully paid leave, which amounts to an average of `6,00,000. The government is wilfully insensitive and denying women their entitlement. The amount should be given before the child is born and not after,” pointed out Prasad.
In what seems to be a prejudice towards BJP-ruled states, the ministry of women and child development had released data, which claimed that they had processed most applications from Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, while they received the least number of applications from Delhi, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Meghalaya. “What is not immediately clear is if the state governments did not push for it or that they sent in applications, but were rejected,” said a source.
“The violation of the maternity entitlement in the NFSA has been filed in the Supreme Court by People’s Union of Civil Liberties. The case has been in court for more than two years. At every hearing the government says that they, now, have a new scheme and would not submit a memo. A hearing is expected in March. For the ongoing maternity entitlements campaign, case studies, public hearings and submissions have been made to the Standing Committee of the Parliament for women’s empowerment,” pointed out Sinha.