Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never stinted on his commitment to women’s rights, so it came as no surprise that he spoke in his New Year address of pregnant women getting ₹6,000 each for hospitalisation, immunisation and nutrition. Such a scheme already exists in the form of the Indira Gandhi Matriya Sahyog Yojana begun during the tenure of the last government. While women will indeed benefit, there are some worrying aspects to this.
One, of course, is the inadequacy of budgetary allocations. The other is that this is a scheme applicable to pregnant and lactating women in the age group of 19 and above who have two living children.
The good parts of the scheme are that hospital births will lead to fewer maternal and child mortality cases. It will also make up to some extent for the loss in wages for the woman during her confinement. Poor women are not able to take the necessary leave for childbirth fearing a loss in income at a huge cost to their own health and that of the child.
For all its advances, India still has alarmingly high child and maternal mortality. It is no secret that poor nutrition for the mother leads to underweight babies. According to the latest Sample Registration Survey the infant mortality rate is still 40 per 1,000 live births with neighbouring countries leaving India behind.
The most worrying part is that the scheme extends only to two living children. While family planning has worked very well in many southern states, the same has not been the case in the more populous northern ones.
In India, the family size is not decided, by and large, by the woman. At least 60% of women in the age group 19-50 have more than two pregnancies. The figure is more in the region of three to seven.
According to the National Population Policy put in place by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, there were to be no such limitations on family size. The government was to offer a slew of family planning measures so that women did not always have to bear the burden of sterilisation and also not have to opt for this largely irreversible method of contraception.
Restricting benefits to women with two living children leaves a vast number of women out of the purview of such schemes. Unless there is adequate budgetary allocation and an urgent upgrade of the public health system, these worthy schemes will not meet their targets.