The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which was passed by India's Rajya Sabha recently seeks to amend the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 (Act).  The Bill increases the maternity leave for women from 12 to 26 weeks,  i.e. six months in all establishments to bring Indian laws in consistency with the International Labour Organisation Maternity Protection Convention No. 183 that provides for a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity benefit to women.

The Bill also goes a step further to provide 12 weeks leave for commissioning and adopting mothers, provides for a work from home option and makes it mandatory for establishments with 50 workers and above to provide crèche facilities.

While this is seen as a positive move in the direction of providing comprehensive benefits to working women and tackling the issue of child malnutrition which typically stems from lack of proper early child care, there are a few other issues that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the Bill does not make any amendments to Section 2  of the Act, i.e. the applicability and scope of the Act to expand the definition of a working woman, which means that these benefits are accessible only to women engaged in work in the organised sector. It therefore leaves out a large number of women who are working in the unorganized sector or otherwise fall outside the scope of the Act, without any maternity benefits.

Secondly, the Bill introduces a proviso which states that in case of a woman who has two or more children, the maternity benefit will continue to be 12 weeks, which cannot be availed before six weeks from the date of the expected delivery. A similar provision does not feature in the 1961 Act. This provision could be interpreted as being in line with the population policies in India by providing disincentives to have more than two children.

And thirdly, paternity leaves find no mention despite several calls for enacting similar leave provisions for expectant fathers so as to create an equal partnership/responsibility between parents with respect to child care.

Apart from these issues, the question of implementation and the challenges for women to get employed and sustain employment post-pregnancy/childbirth in a scenario where companies can potentially incur significant costs in complying with the maternity benefits under the law needs consideration.

While big companies may have accepted and adopted these new provisions even before they are passed into law, it bears mentioning that increased paid maternity leaves are potential disincentives for companies, (especially medium and small scale companies) to hire women because they simply can't afford to. This could prove to be counter-productive to the general belief that improved maternity benefits will encourage more women to join the workforce.

The Bill is yet to be passed by the Lok Sabha, following which it needs to receive the President's assent to come into effect as legislation.

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