In March 2017 a new bill was passed in the Lok Sabha amending the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. The Bill extends the period of Maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for all women in the organised sector. However, a woman with two or more children will be entitled to 12 weeks of leave only. The Bill also introduces leave of up to 12 weeks for women adopting children below 3 months. It also makes childcare a socially-shared responsibility by making it mandatory for employers with 50 or more employees to provide crèches in close vicinity of the workplace. The bill was passed on International Women’s Day and the Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya had called it a ‘humble gift’ to all the Indian women. According to a report by the Indian Express, it will benefit around 1.8 million women across the country.
The bill, although a very good initiative still leaves a lot to be desired. It does nothing for women employed in the unorganised sector, which amounts to 90% of the total women workforce. A suggestion was put forward in the parliament to address women working in the unorganised sector but no action was taken for the same. As said by D.Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI), “There are a lot of women who are working in the informal, unorganised sector. Government shouldn’t stop with this bill alone”. Secondly, the amendment will not be applicable for the third child. Only 12 weeks of leave will be given for the third child, which puts in jeopardy the health of the third child.
It will also put in jeopardy the employment opportunities for women. Employers will now be hesitant to hire female employees as they will have to bear the cost of their 26 weeks of leave. In many progressive countries like Norway and Sweden, half the cost is borne by the government which ensures proper implementation. The bill also caters to the existing patriarchal hierarchy and makes no mention of a paternal leave. It fails to initiate an attitudinal change towards perception of women as bread earners. Fathers have an equal responsibility towards the well being of a child, hence the Paternal leave, but the bill fails to acknowledge this fact.
According to the UN MDG report 2015, India lags far behind in the Infant Mortality rate and with this new bill that is definitely going to improve. While the government has made a fundamental move by increasing the number of weeks to the maternity leave, it still hasn’t gone the full nine yards by including the unorganised sector and making provisions for a paternity leave. The government could do well by narrowing this gap and making the bill rock solid.