India will move into a select league of just 16 countries when the amendments to the Maternity Benefits Act 1961 extending paid leave for new mothers to 6 months comes into effect. This is the recommended time that is universally recommended for the well being of both mother and child. However, while some of the bigger organisations have already implemented this, the smaller ones seem unable to do so easily. As of now, 48% of women in the organised sector in India drop out of work mid-career citing family responsibilities. But to address this, extending maternity leave alone is not enough, it requires an attitudinal shift at workplace.
Some NGOs have expressed fears that this may lead to a bias against employing women. This could well happen in some cases, but across the world, there is the growing realisation that women are a valuable resource at the workplace and that there is a need for more not less women in the workforce. One way to help women along would be to expand the scope of paternity leave. But the real problem is that these amendments do not touch the unorganised sector where at least 85% of women in India work. The earlier government had introduced the Indira Gandhi Matrivita Sahyog Yojana that comes under the National Food Security Act. Under this six weeks of maternity leave is provided for women as well as a conditional cash transfer of ₹6,000 to pregnant women and lactating mothers for the first two live births. This was tried out in a pilot project across 53 districts last year, but it has suffered several delays.
Women who are daily wagers in the cities and who work in the agriculture sector are most in need of leave after childbirth since they suffer from poor health in the first place, something aggravated by their working conditions. So even six weeks, if implemented, is simply not enough for the woman to recover and also care for her infant. Even in the organised sector, the new amendments will apply to those who have up to 10 employees or more. This leaves out small outfits where women are either hired on daily wages or are out of the purview of laws which regulate their working hours and leave. If these benefits which are now proposed are observed in both letter and spirit by companies, we could well see more women joining the workforce and staying in it for longer periods. But for this the government also has to institute stringent checks to see that women benefit from such enabling legislation.