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The Modi government on Wednesday virtually halved the number of beneficiaries under its Maternity Benefit Programme (MBP) by restricting the scheme to firstborns instead of 'first two live births' as applicable earlier.
PTI had earlier reported that reduced allocation of funds of Rs 2,700 crore for the scheme in the Union Budget 2017- 2018 might lead to reduction in the number of beneficiaries.
A government committee had estimated Rs 14.512 crore.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a televised address on new year eve last year, announced the pan-India expansion of the existing Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, which was being implemented across 56 districts on a pilot-basis since 2010. The scheme was applicable for the first two live births.
The Cabinet at its meeting on Wednesday decided eligible pregnant women and lactating mothers (PW&LM) will now receive Rs 6,000 in nearly all blocks and districts of the country for improving their health and nutrition status. The scheme seeks to bring down maternal mortality.
Pregnant women and lactating mothers are eligible to receive a cash benefit of Rs 5,000 in three installments through direct benefit transfer from the women and child development ministry.
The mother will receive the initial Rs 1,000 after early registration of pregnancy, Rs 2,000 after at least one antenatal check-up (after six months of pregnancy), and Rs 2,000 after registration of child birth and confirmation that the newborn has received the first cycle of BCG, OPV, DPT and Hepatitis-B or its equivalent/substitute vaccination.
The maternity benefit scheme will come into effect from January 1, 2017.
The scheme excludes women who are regular Central or state government employees or with Public Sector Undertakings, or those who receive similar benefits under any law for the time being.
Activists have criticised the move, saying it was aimed at cost-cutting and discriminated against children who are the second born.
"The most vulnerable women who are trying to reach out to the government aid won't be able to get it. In most parts of the country there is a two-child norm and a scheme like this will not benefit most women. The government should concentrate on good, quality care for pregnant women and make available the benefits to every woman who reaches a government health care centre," said Tania Sheshadri, an independent community health researcher who works with rural women in Karnataka.
The amount granted to the women and child development ministry for the programme is a fifth of what was recommended in the report of the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution in January, 2013. The committee had then suggested earmarking Rs 14,512 crore for implementation of MBP.
"At the rate of Rs 1,000 per month for 6 months, the scheme expenditure towards maternity benefits to 2.25 crore pregnant and lactating women works out to be Rs 14,512 crore per annum," said the report.
Activist, Aparajita Gogoi, national coordinator of White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, an advocacy group for maternal health and childbirth, criticised the move.
"Reducing the scheme to firstborns will deprive many mothers of getting the benefits of the welfare scheme," she said.