The union government is set to increase the maternity leave for women employed in private firms from the existing 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said the Ministry of Labour has agreed to increase maternity leave to six-and-a-half months. “We had written to the Labour Ministry asking that the maternity leave be extended taking into account the six months of breastfeeding that is required post childbirth. The Labour Ministry has agreed to increase it to six-and-a-half months,” said Maneka.
The Ministry of Labour is expected to amend the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, which presently entitles women to 12 weeks of maternity benefit whereby employers are liable to pay full wages for the period of leave. Officials of the WCD Ministry said they will push for extending the leave to eight months, or 32 weeks, for women employed in both private and government sectors.
But WCD officials said the Labour Ministry has expressed reservations about increasing the maternity leave any further as they perceive that doing so will adversely affect the employability of women.
“The Labour Ministry has decided on six-and-a-half months following meetings with various stakeholders. We, however, feel that eight months of maternity leave — for women in government as well as private sectors — is required. We will move a note to the Cabinet Secretariat in this regard. Six months of exclusive breastfeeding is very important to combat malnutrition, diarrhoea and other diseases in infants and to lower infant mortality rate,” said a WCD official.
The International Labour Organisation recommends a minimum standard maternity leave of 14 weeks or more, though it encourages member states to increase it to at least 18 weeks. At 26 weeks, India is set to join the league of 42 countries where maternity leave exceeds 18 weeks. It, however, falls behind several East European, Central Asian and Scandinavian countries, which have the most generous national legislation for paid maternity leave.
Women employed in government jobs in India get a six-month maternity leave as per the Central Civil Service (Leave) Rules 1972. The last circular in this regard was issued in 2008, when it was increased from four-and-a-half months. If the WCD Ministry’s recommendations to the Cabinet Secretariat are accepted, the Department of Personal & Training will have to issue orders to enhance it to eight months.
Moreover, women government employees are allowed to take childcare leave of up to two years in phases at any point till their child turns 18 years old. The Seventh Pay Commission recently recommended that only the first 365 days of leave should be granted with full pay, while the remaining 365 can be availed at 80 per cent of the salary. But Maneka recently petitioned Finance Minister Arun Jaitley against the proposal, terming it a regressive step at a time when women are trying to become more economically independent.
“Women in India need longer maternity leave in absence of any support in parenting from men. It should not be seen as a deduction in labour hours but as a long-term investment from the future economic point of view. This is in addition to the fact that women need long maternity leave to recuperate and invest in child care,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research.
She added that a recent analysis of the Maternity Benefit Act by CSR for the National Commission of Women showed that discrimination against pregnant women was widely prevalent in the corporate sector in the country.