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Longer and flexible baby break on cards

New Delhi, Feb. 10: Mothers-to-be could soon have a big reason for joy other than their bundle of joy.

A central government panel has recommended that the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, be reviewed with a view to increasing the number of days of paid leave.

Under the act, a woman employee is entitled to a minimum maternity leave of 12 weeks.

But the Planning Commission’s working group on women’s empowerment wants the limit enhanced, though it has not specified how many more days should be given. That decision will be taken by the government when it formally moves an amendment to the law.

“The recommendation was made with a view to increasing the number of days of leave that a woman worker can take and to give her the choice of utilising the period of paid absence as per her convenience,” the plan panel said.

Headed by the secretary in the women and child development ministry, the working group has said the act should be reviewed to give women flexibility in using the leave according to their convenience.

The act now lays down that the leave shall have to be taken in two phases six weeks up to and including the day of delivery and six weeks immediately after it.

Under the law, the average daily wage will be paid during the period. In cases of illness related to pregnancy, additional leave of one month can be taken.

The panel’s recommendations, if implemented, will apply to all organisations, whether in the private sector or the government.

“This is good news. It means that all organisations will have to allow women to take maternity leave for more days and also when she most needs it. That is something she will decide herself. I would hope that they increase it to at least 120-130 days (17 to 18 weeks),” said Sudha Nayar, a software engineer.

She pointed out that central government employees are already entitled to more leave. “It will be good for people like us (in the private sector) if we can at least get some more days,” Sudha said.

Central staff can get up to six months (180 days) of maternity leave, raised from 135 days by the Sixth Pay Commission.

For Bengal government employees, it is four months (16 weeks).

But last month, the Mamata Banerjee cabinet cleared “childcare leave” of two years for female government employees. That can be taken at one go or phases anytime till a child turns 18.

The plan panel working group has recommended another key amendment under which “no woman should be discharged from service during the period of pregnancy on any pretext”.

In its present form, the act terms the sacking of a pregnant woman “unlawful”. But it leaves scope for abuse as it has a clause saying such a woman can be dismissed because of “gross misconduct” “by (an) order in writing communicated to the woman, deprive her of the maternity benefit or medical bonus or both.”

Sudha, the software engineer, stressed the need for change on this count. “I have heard horror stories of women being sacked at the first sign of pregnancy. The act has a provision for appeal within 60 days of dismissal. But imagine (the plight of) a pregnant woman running around from one office to the other.”

Sudha hoped the plan panel group would recommend a clear rule “in which no woman can be dismissed during her pregnancy”. “Such a provision would greatly benefit us.”