New Delhi, May 5: The Lok Sabha today passed a Bill to make breastfeeding for infants up to the age of six months compulsory, falling in line with a long-standing international guideline.
Breastfeeding can be continued up to two years with supplementary food, the legislation says. It seeks to prohibit all forms of advertisement and promotion of infant milk substitutes and foods and feeding bottles.
Human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who piloted the Bill, also assured members that their suggestion to extend maternity leave would be considered. Several women members favoured six months to enable mothers to breastfeed their babies.
Joshi said serious action would be taken against companies promoting substitutes. But in view of the vast number of undernourished, anaemic and deprived women in backward rural areas, no penal action is contemplated against them if they fail to breastfeed their infants.
CPM member N. Premajam said mere enactment of legislation was not enough.
She said the “public distribution system is inadequate and the worst sufferers are women. Among poor women, 80 per cent are anaemic and deprived. When she herself is anaemic and deprived, how can she breastfeed'”
Experts, however, do not agree with this view. Ruchira Gupta, a child specialist, said: “Even if a mother is anaemic or undernourished, her milk is good enough to fulfil the requirement of the baby.”
Another said: “Even in famine-stricken Ethiopia, nature provides mothers with milk. The government and health agencies could provide anaemic and undernourished mothers with iron and calcium supplements.”
Doctors suggest these supplements for all lactating mothers.
Cutting across party lines, members supported the legislation but suggested that the government ensure that women living below the poverty line get a nutritious diet to be able to breastfeed their babies. Joshi said the government was alive to the requirement.
Congress member Margaret Alva said women have to be given the right to choose what they feel is good for their children rather than be dictated to by men.
In a resolution in 1994, the World Health Organisation had called upon member nations to make breastfeeding compulsory up to six months and encourage the practice until the infant attains the age of two years.
A law, stipulating breastfeeding up to the age of four months, was enacted in 1992, but during implementation it was found to have some flaws, Joshi said.