The Rajya Sabha passed Thursday an amendment to the Maternity Benefit Bill increasing maternity leave from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. It makes it mandatory for employers with more than 50 employees to have a crèche on the office premises.
Cutting across party lines, members welcomed the bill that, though piloted by Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, saw Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi intervene to make the point that the leave period has been extended to facilitate bonding between the mother and child and also to allow the mother to breastfeed the child. It is Maneka’s resolute pushing of the Bill with the labour ministry that is seen as having prioritised it.
Members, especially women, repeatedly demanded paternity leave too be increased. If responsibilities are shared there is a better domestic balance, they argued, and if men too are given leave following childbirth then there would be less discrimination against women at the workplace.
“Paternity leave is important because men leave childcare entirely to the mother and then glorify motherhood. There should not be overt or subtle pressure to a woman to breastfeed her child. It is her decision,” nominated member Anu Aga said on a day when speeches by many male members did glorify the act of breastfeeding.
CPM MP Tapan Sen expressed apprehensions that the Small Factory Amendment Act, which is in the pipeline and has provisions for exemption from several labour laws including that on maternity benefits, would make the amendment bill infructuous. The government did not give him the assurance he wanted.
BSP MP Satish Mishra asked why the benefit of maternity leave has been extended to both an adoptive mother and a commissioning mother in case of a surrogacy but not to the surrogate mother herself. Maneka replied the very idea behind the enhanced leave is for creation of the mother-and-child bond and hence a surrogate mother who has given her child up would not qualify. MPs including the DMK’s Kanimozhi took objection to the statement that 15 days’ sick leave is enough for a surrogate mother to recover but the government refused to yield to demands for an assurance that the rights of the surrogate mother too would be protected.
The bill finally got passed by a voice vote.
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