Is govt bluffing on universal maternity benefits?

While the PM promised universal maternity entitlement in his address to the nation, his Finance Minister appears to have slashed the plan which now hardly covers one-third of the pregnant women

Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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NH Political Bureau

Five women die every hour in India during childbirth, estimated the World Health Organisation in 2016. The Government of India’s own estimate is only marginally lower. However, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pledge made in his address to the nation on New Year’s Eve that his government would pay ₹6,000 to every pregnant woman who opts for institutional childbirth, a press release issued on Friday by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) suggests the government has actually backtracked.

Experts say an annual expenditure of ₹14,000-16,000 crore per annum is needed if every mother is to get the benefit for two childbirths each. The government though has set aside just ₹7,348 crore as its contribution for the next three years, less than ₹2,500 crore per year


This is similar to what the Prime Minister had held out as a ‘sop’ for senior citizens, which turned out to be a reduction in existing benefits


Experts have estimated an annual expenditure of ₹14,000-16,000 crore per annum is necessary if every mother is to get the benefit for two childbirths each. The PIB release however said that the government had set aside ₹7,348 crore as its contribution for the next three years, less than ₹2,500 crore per year. Even with 40% contribution from the state governments, the annual outlay will be barely ₹4,000 crore.


Noted welfare economist Jean Dreze reacted by saying, “The PIB release states that the Government of India intends to initiate universal maternity entitlements as per the National Food Security Act from January 1, 2017. However, the figures don’t add up.”


India’s birth rate, Dreze pointed out, is around 20 per 1,000. The current population being around 130 crore, the number of births per year must be around 26 million. “Thus, at ₹6,000 per birth, universal maternity entitlements (assuming, optimistically, that 10% births are already covered under the formal sector) would cost ₹14,000 crore per year.


However, in the plan presented in the PIB press release, the central government’s contribution for the next three financial year is only ₹7,348 crore, or ₹2,449 crore per year. With a 60:40 ratio for Centre/state contributions, this means a total of barely ₹4,000 crore per year.


The Prime Minister’s announcement on December 31 was widely criticised because while he gave the impression that this was a new provision that his government was making, it already figured in the National Food Security Act, 2013 and had not been implemented by his government.


Even the pilot project that he mentioned, was going on in 53 districts since 2010 under Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana. A study by the Centre for Equity Studies had revealed that in the 53 districts also, only 20% of the eligible women were receiving the benefit.


It’s worth recalling the following facts :

  • MMR (Maternal Mortality Rate) in India was 212 per 1,00,000 live births in 2007-09 which declined to 167 in 2011-13, according to information provided in Parliament by Minister of State (Health) Sripad Yesso Naik
  • WHO estimated the MMR in 2014-16 to be 174 while GoI insists it is 167
  • What is not under dispute is that an estimated 45,000 women still die every year during childbirth.


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