‘Maternity scheme exclusionary, need benefits for all’

Several clauses and lengthy documentation excludes single women and young brides, say activists

Published - December 15, 2019 11:01 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Three years after a pan-India maternity benefit programme promising ₹6,000 to new mothers was first announced, the chorus on its many exclusions is growing louder leading to a demand for a scheme that is truly universal. The many clauses introduced into the long and tedious documentation work totalling 32 pages has led to single women and young brides being left out of its purview, say activists working at the grassroots level.

The Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a televised address to the nation on December 31, 2016. Five month’s later when the Union Cabinet approved the scheme, it decided to give a benefit of ₹5,000 to pregnant and lactating mothers for the birth of the first child. This would be disbursed in three installments upon meeting several conditionalities — registration of pregnancy, at least one ante-natal check-up, registration of child birth and vaccinations. The remaining cash incentive of up to ₹1,000 is to be given under a separate scheme called the Janani Suraksha Yojana so that on an “average” women get a total sum of ₹6,000. The objective is to compensate women for wage loss due to child birth.

Activists say that registration for the scheme requires an applicant to provide her husband’s Aadhaar details along with her own, affecting single women which include unwed mothers, deserted wives and widows. Moreover, a mother seeking benefits needs to provide proof of address of her marital home, which proves challenging for a newlywed expecting a child and often residing in her natal home during pregnancy. She is then forced to go from pillar to post to claim benefits.

Newlywed woman

“A mother is unable to get the compensation when she needs it the most, i.e. during the nine months of her pregnancy. While the scheme is solely for the first living child, it ironically leaves out those who are most likely to give birth to one — a newlywed woman,” said Seema Shah of Right to Food Campaign, Gujarat Chapter, at a press conference on Friday.

She added that the requirement that the applicant has to be at least 19 years old also leaves out younger brides, who hesitate in getting their marriages registered as the legal age of marriage is 18 years. “30-35% first-time mothers are under the age of 18 years,” said Annie Raja, CPI leader and General Secretary, National Federation of Indian Women.

The application form requires separate undertakings from the woman and her husband that the child for whom they are seeking the benefit will be “the first living child for both of them”, further making it prohibitive.

Since the scheme came into effect on January 2017, it has benefited a total of 128 lakh women as per the government’s reply in Parliament last week. This is 80% of the total target the government has set out for itself — 53 lakh women per year. Experts estimate that the government’s target itself is 43% of the total 123 lakh first births in the country in a year as derived from the population size of 133.9 crore in 2017 and the birth rate of 20.2 per thousand.

Is this scheme supportive or exclusionary and punitive. Eligible beneficiaries have to jump through several hoops to claim their entitlement. Moreover, this is a woman’s right under the National Food Security Act, 2013, why then insist on the husband’s identity proof,” said Jashodhara Dasgupta, Feminist Policy Collective . She added that the documentation work is likely to result in many women living on the margins, such as sex workers, women in custody, migrant and those living in post-conflict situations unable to claim benefits even though they are most in need of monetary compensation.

‘Hefty bribe’

Sunita Singh who works for the Uttar Pradesh Chapter of the Right to Food Campaign says women have to pay a hefty bribe during the application process. “In U.P. there is a fee for everything. In Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s district of Gorakhpur this is as high as ₹500, which women have to pay with each of the three forms.”

The lengthy documentation work includes filling up six documents totaling 32 pages — an application form to be filled for each of the three installments, an application for linking the Aadhaar card with bank account, another one for linking the Aadhaar card with post office account and a feedback form. Applicants have to also submit at least nine other documents for verification — Aadhaar card (or enrolment slip when there is no card), an identity proof, voter ID card (as age proof) of the mother and her husband; ration card (for husband's address), copy of bank passbook and maternal and child protection (MCP) card.

‘Formal representation’

In response to a query on the concerns highlighted above, an official of the Women and Child Development Ministry said that activists and grassroot workers must make a “formal representation” to the government highlighting their concerns so that corrective actions can be taken.

Activists urge for a need for reviewing the scheme and making it universal by removing restrictions on the number of children as well as including all women, whether they are in the formal or informal sector, engaged in paid or unpaid work. The sum promised should also be at least on par with minimum wages for women in self-employment, unpaid work, or working for less than minimum wages. In order to raise these demands, protest marches are planned across several States on December 31, the third anniversary of the scheme. Workers, part of the Right to Food Campaign’s M.P. Chapter, have also started a signature campaign on the demands, which has so far been endorsed by 1,18,000 people.

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