Thousands of women from the weaker sections, who are entitled to income support in their ninth month of pregnancy as part of a state-sponsored scheme, may have to go without it this year, with the Maharashtra government restricting the benefit only to those women who entered the last month of last trimester after mid-September 2015.
The restriction was imposed because of a failure to release the necessary grant for 2015-16 till September, according to officials. What this implies is that women eligible for the benefit between April 1 and September 15 last year may not be able to receive the financial assistance of Rs 4,000 provided by the government, unless the government reverses its decision to cap the benefit.
Under a welfare scheme, which is being implemented in 22 districts in Maharashtra, pregnant women from weaker sections are provided a one-time assistance of Rs 4,000 during their last month of pregnancy as unemployment compensation under the human development mission. The income benefit scheme, which was introduced by the previous Congress- NCP government in 2011, aimed to ensure that a pregnant woman stayed healthy and got adequate nourishment without being forced to take up menial jobs. Women from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families and all those living below the poverty line are eligible for the benefit.
A senior state official, who did not wish to be named, admitted that the “bizarre” benefit cap, if persisted with, would deny the benefit to several thousand eligible women. Official data shows that in Nandurbar alone, which is the state’s biggest tribal district, some 8,055 beneficiaries may miss out.
The partial implementation of this scheme has invited flak from activists. Some organisations have threatened to take to the streets and go to courts against the decision. Pratibha Shinde, general secretary of Loksangharsh Morcha, a tribal rights activists group, said her outfit would drag the government to court over it. “How can a welfare state allow such discrimination among beneficiary mothers,” she asked, adding that gram sabhas in 76 villages in Nandurbar’s Akkalkuwa and Taloda tehsils had already adopted a resolution against it. “We will submit these to the Maharashtra governor seeking his intervention,” said Shinde.
The Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) too has shot off a letter to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. NBA activist Chetan Salve said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. It exposes this government’s lack of commitment towards the welfare of the weaker sections.” Salve alleged that many beneficiaries were left out even last year. “The Centre runs a similar scheme (Janani Suraksha Yojana) under the National Health Mission. We have never seen such issues under it. How can such lapses then be justified in the state’s scheme,” he said.
A section of the state bureaucracy, too, has sought withdrawal of the cap. Radhakrishna Game, Chief Executive Officer of the Nandurbar Zilla Parishad, confirmed that his office had written to the Aurangabad-based Maharashtra Human Development Commissionerate in this regard.
Nandurbar Collector Pradeep P said, “We have proposed that the handout must be extended to all those eligible from April itself.”
State officials said authorities from Nashik and Chandrapur too had represented against it.
For now, the growing dissent has forced the government to review the move. Dr Kiran Girgaonkar, Assistant Commissioner, Maharashtra Human Development Commissionerate, confirmed that a proposal to withdraw the cap and extend the benefit to all those eligible for 2015-16 was discussed in a recent meeting at Mantralaya.
“There is a problem in how the government resolution for the scheme is worded. It states that the assistance must be given only during the last month of pregnancy. This needs to be rectified.” Sources, however, said while there was a consensus on the modification of the government resolution at the meeting, a formal decision on this was yet to be taken.
And even as the Fadnavis government takes stock, state officers on the ground are facing public ire.
Earlier this week, a nurse employed with a public health centre in Akkalkuwa was confronted over it by tribal families when she visited a village to administer polio drops to children.