Cutting across party lines, Rajya Sabha today passed a Bill that provides for 26 weeks maternity leave, even as some members sought norms for paternity leave so that parents can share the responsibility of raising children.
The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which was moved for consideration and passage by Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, was passed by a voice vote.
The measure also seeks to increase maternity benefit from 12 to 26 weeks for two surviving children that would benefit about 1.8 million women in the organised sector.
"The very purpose of this Bill is to increase the working women force because in the work force, participation of women is decreasing day by day," Dattatreya said.
He said the law is applicable to all establishments employing 10 or more persons.
Citing the maternity leave rules prevalent in various countries, Dattatreya said post the enactment of the Bill, India will jump to the third position in terms of the number of weeks (26) for maternity leave, behind Norway (44) and Canada (50).
Highlighting that there are more nuclear families now, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said the Bill has its roots in malnutrition, as breastfeeding the child is recommended which is not possible unless the mother is in physical proximity of the child.
Moreover, after giving birth, a woman's body needs to heal over a period of time, she said, adding "it is a very stressful time for the mother, who should be with the child".
Observing that the legislation will go a long way to ensure that the future generations are healthier, Gandhi said the Women and Child Development Ministry had recommended raising maternity leave from 12 weeks to 8 months but it was considered too long for the employer.
The Minister said the Government was thinking of introducing direct benefit transfer for women and it was "under consideration".
The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, protects the employment of women during the time of her maternity and entitles her full paid absence from work, to take care for her child.
Cabinet had yesterday given ex-post facto approval to the amendments made to the Maternity Benefits Act, that aims to raise maternity leave for women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks.
When the Bill was introduced, Shantaram Naik (Cong) raised a point of order seeking to know its status.
He said the Maternity Bill was approved by the Cabinet yesterday. "Some bills have already been passed by the other House. What is the status, as Rule 7 of the Rules of Business of the Government requires a bill to be placed before the Cabinet."
To this, Deputy Chairman P J Kurien ruled that the Chairman has the power and he has suspended that ruling, which is why the bill was introduced.
Besides enhancing maternity leave to 26 weeks, these amendments include 12 weeks maternity leave to a Commissioning mother and Adopting mother and mandatory provision of creche in respect of establishment having 50 or more employees.
Participating in the debate, Rajni Patil (Cong) said no doubt it was a progressive bill but government should also address the "hidden biases against working women".
Seeking provisions for paternity leave, Patil said "the father too is responsible for raising a child". She also demanded provisions for women in the unorganised sector too.
Narayan Lal Panchariya (BJP) termed it as a much-needed step as infant mortality rate was 13 per cent in India. He said lives of children could be saved with proper nursing as even medical science has proved that the mother's milk was beneficial for the child and strengthened its immune system.
Vijila Sathyanath (AIADMK) said Tamil Nadu model should be implemented across India as the state had done pioneering work in this regard, resulting in over 90 per cent of deliveries carried out in an institutional manner.
Dola Sen (TMC) stressed the need for paternity leave as well saying it will result in sharing of the responsibility of the child by parents. At the same time she stressed that maternity benefits should also be extended to working women in the unorganised sector.
Kahkashan Parveen (JD-U) said the Bill has provisions to facilitate work from home, but government should clarify how it was going to ensure that it will benefit rural women who are devoid of gadgets like laptops and mobiles. She also sought steps to ensure that factory and mill workers benefit.
Tapan Kumar Sen (CPI-M) while supporting the Bill said government should ensure that its benefits are extended to the grassroot as barely 30 per cent women were benefitting from the existing legislation.
He pointed out that at many places women are forced to suppress their marital status to clinch jobs, an issue which should be addressed. Besides, he stressed the need to bring smaller factories too under its purview or else a large chunk of the workforce would not benefit from it.
Sen demanded an assurance from the government that under no circumstances working women of any segment be deprived from the benefits.
Sarojini Hembram (BJD) said India unfortunately ranked 127 globally when it came to gender equality and sought paternity leave as well terming it very important.
Vandana Chavan (NCP) while supporting the Bill, pointed out that the provision of 50 employees was in conflict with the Factories Act provision that entails mandatory creche facility for establishments having 30 or more women.
However, Dattatreya clarified that the provision of 50 employees will be applicable to even those organisations which do not have a single woman employee, highlighting that even a man can bring a child to the office creche.
Chavan also sought paternity leave to remove the gender bias prevalent in the society.
Jaya Bachchan (SP) urged the Minister to consider enhancing maternity leave to 8 months, pointing out that the seventh month of preganancy was extremely crucial for a woman whereas a child starts teething in the seventh month after birth.
Anu Aga (Nominated) also demanded provision for paternity leave to sensitise men towards their responsibilities.
Satish Chandra Mishra (BSP) sought clarity on whether surrogate mothers were included in the Bill, to which Gandhi replied that "since the purpose of the Bill is actually to bond with the child, she (surrogate mother) is not covered."
Pointing out that the infant mortality rate was high in India due to lack of care and malnutrition, Ashok Siddharth (BSP) said that after enactment of the Bill, women will benefit and the mortality rate will come down.
D Raja of the CPI said that while he supported the content and intent of the Bill, Government should not stop at this as more than 96 per cent of the women are in unorganised sector and should consider similar provisions for agricultural workers who mostly belong to Dalit or tribal communities.
Narendra Budania (Congress) said 26 weeks period was "not adequate" and suggested that it should be raised to a year.