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Demands from activists and economists for a raise in the budget allocation for the government's maternity benefit programme have failed to cut ice with the Centre.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development has not sought any increase for the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY), which promises Rs 6,000 to pregnant and lactating mothers for the birth of their first child, in its wishlist to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for Union Budget 2018, an official said.
The ministry has asked for Rs 25 billion for the programme, the same as last year.
An initial amount of Rs 27 billion was announced for the scheme during Union Budget 2017 but it was later revised to Rs 25 billion.
About 60 top economists of the country wrote to Jaitley in December last year, pointing out that the amount of Rs 27 billion set aside by the Centre was a third of what is required under National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, which entitles all pregnant women and lactating mothers to at least Rs 6,000, and not just mothers of first-borns.
It is reliably learnt that NITI Aayog had opposed the move to restrict benefits to only mothers of first-borns but the Prime Minister's Office stuck to its guns because of the cost factor.
The rollout of the scheme in its first year of implementation has been tardy with only 96,460 women receiving cash transfers until January 15, 2018. This is less than 2 per cent of the total 51.6 lakh women the government seeks to benefit annually.
This shows that the government is not serious, said Dipa Sinha, convenor of the Right to Food campaign, who was among those who wrote to Jaitley.
"By the government's own truncated estimate, 52 lakh women were to benefit from the scheme in the current financial year. But since only a fraction of them have received the cash transfer, it means the government needs to now reach out to double the annual estimate in the next financial year and, therefore, should have at least sought twice the funds allocated last year," Sinha explained.
She added that the scheme is violative of the NFSA, under which all pregnant and lactating mothers, except government employees, are entitled to a sum of at least Rs 6,000.
The PMMVY programme is, however, restricted to only one child per woman. The scheme also excludes any woman who already has a child today because it applies only to the birth of the first living child.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a televised New Year Eve address to the nation on December 31, 2016 announced the pan-India expansion of the maternity benefit scheme which was until then being implemented across 56 districts as part of a pilot project.
In May 2017, the Union Cabinet approved the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana for pregnant women and lactating mothers, effective from January 1, 2017.
Under the scheme, a woman would receive Rs 5,000 in three instalments upon meeting different requirements and remaining Rs 1,000 under Janani Suraksha Yojana after institutional delivery.
According to Sinha, by adding conditionalities such as institutional delivery for women to claim Rs 1,000 of the total Rs 6,000, the government is denying mothers their right under law.
Maternity benefits became a legal entitlement in 2013 under the NFSA, which states, "Subject to such schemes as may be framed by the central government, every pregnant and lactating mother shall be entitled to [nutritious food and] maternity benefit of not less than rupees six thousand, in such instalments as may be prescribed by the central government.