At the start of the new year, we were excited to see forward momentum on the national maternity entitlements program: the prime minister announced that the program would be made universal and cover all districts beginning January 1st, 2017 (up from the 52 pilot districts in the current IGMSY pilot program). Additionally, an expanded budget allocation of 2,700 crore, up from approximately 433 crore last year, was announced a few weeks ago. Even though this amount falls far below what women are actually owed under the law, it was still heartening to see that the government was making plans to reach more women.
However, an Indian Express article last week reported that in the face of insufficient funding, the Ministry of Women and Child Development may limit maternity entitlements to only a woman’s first birth, instead of covering all births, which is what is mandated by law. Limiting the transfer to the first birth will prevent many children from benefiting from this transfer. Setting a one-child limit now could set an exclusionary precedent that may be difficult to change later.
In addition to this potential new limit, this article in Scroll yesterday covered many of the other problems with the maternity benefits program, including payment delays which have plagued the program since the beginning. In the article, Diane is quoted discussing the potential that the benefit can have in improving a mother’s nutrition and birth outcomes if given without delays, and as early in pregnancy as possible: “In order for [the transfer] to have a good effect, it will be essential for the government to give women the first transfer very quickly upon registration of the pregnancy, and to train health workers to educate women that the purpose of the transfer is to promote weight gain in pregnancy.” Unfortunately, in talking with women in Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, Diane saw that none of the women were receiving any of the money during pregnancy. Dipa Sinha of the Right to Food Campaign, who has also documented widespread payment delays in other districts and states, further discusses how the new exclusion will likely leave out the women most in need of nutritional support in pregnancy.
The funding shortfall and one-child limits are disheartening. When signs were finally pointing to expansion of the program four years after the law mandating maternity entitlements was passed, it seems that the program may leave out many babies. We hope that that the government makes a full effort to come into compliance with the law by deciding against limits on the number of children the program can be applied to, allocating additional funds in the near future to truly reach universalization, and addressing the massive delays that plague current implementation.