On Wednesday, the Union Cabinet took a drastic decision, cutting maternity assistance to mothers for the first two live births, to just the first live birth.
Not to be confused with the Maternity Benefits Bill that was passed this March, the Maternity Benefits Programme (MBP) has been running since 2010 as the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana in over 50 districts. Under it, mothers over the age of 19 were being given ₹4,000 each for two live births. As this was a pilot programme, the plan was to universalise the MBP to reach more women, and reduce maternal mortality in India. And on December 31, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the amount would be raised to ₹6,000.
Despite his announcement, and the emphasis laid on the MBP in this year’s Budget Speech, the Cabinet’s decision is a major setback. Some sources suggest we might have expected it all along. The budget allocation for the programme this year was ₹2,700 crore. That’s about five times lower than the ₹14,512 crore estimate put forward by the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. The Indian Express had earlier reported that this “was a precursor to the government’s plan to cover one live birth, instead of two.”
Commenting on the move, independent community health researcher Tania Sheshadri told NDTV: “The most vulnerable women who are trying to reach out to the government aid won’t be able to get it. In most parts of the country there is a two child norm and a scheme like this will not benefit most women.”
But the MBP is crucial. And a statement by the Ministry of Women and Child Development explains why: “Owing to economic and social distress, many women continue to work to earn a living for their family right upto the last days of their pregnancy. Furthermore, they resume working soon after childbirth, even through their bodies might not permit it, thus preventing their bodies from fully recovering on one hand, and also impending their ability to exclusively breastfeed their young infant in the first six months.”
In addition to addressing the issue of mortality, the scheme also aims at compensating women for wages lost during pregnancy. A cash benefit of ₹5,000 will be available in three installments. According to the report by NDTV, “[t]he mother will receive the initial ₹1,000 after early registration of pregnancy, ₹2,000 after at least one antenatal check-up (after six months of pregnancy), and ₹2,000 after registration of child birth and confirmation that the newborn has received the first cycle of BCG, OPV, DPT and Hepatitis-B or its equivalent/substitute vaccination.”
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