New Delhi, Dec. 31: The Prime Minister's announcement that his government would give Rs 6,000 as financial assistance to pregnant women is merely a pledge to implement something that the government is mandated to deliver through a law passed in 2013, health experts said.
Narendra Modi said in his New Year's Eve speech that his government was introducing a nationwide scheme under which Rs 6,000 would be directly transferred to the bank accounts of pregnant women who underwent institutional delivery and vaccinated their children. (A part of the money may be delivered after the child is vaccinated.)
"So far, pregnant women in 53 districts were being given a financial assistance of Rs 4,000 under a pilot project," Modi said.
Health specialists said the Rs 6,000 assistance had been incorporated into the law through the Food Security Act, passed in 2013, but had remained unimplemented.
"This is nothing new; we have been campaigning for this for a long time," said Jashodhara Dasgupta, a coordinator with the National Alliance for Maternal Health and Human Rights. "It is fantastic that the Prime Minister has announced this, but it should have been done earlier."
This particular Food Security Act provision was itself a follow-up on a 2010 scheme called the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahayog Yojana that pledged Rs 4,000 in 53 districts from across India.
"But the existing scheme (Indira Yojana) is flawed because it disqualifies many pregnant women, many among them from the most vulnerable sections of society - women under the age of 19, women who already had two children, women who did not attend antenatal clinics are all left out," Dasgupta said.
"Such clauses often exclude the most vulnerable women from receiving the benefits," she said. "The government should remove all such restrictions."
Some health experts cautioned that there was no reason to cheer yet. "We estimate that universal implementation of this initiative would require about Rs 16,000 crore. The government will need to increase its health budget to keep this promise," said Narendra Gupta, a physician with an Jaipur-based health NGO called Prayas.The Union budget outlay for health for 2016-17 was Rs 37,000 crore, a 19 per cent increase over the previous year's allocation. But health experts have argued that the increase did not come close to meeting what was needed to implement universal health care and merely offset the budget cuts of previous years.
Health experts said the promised financial assistance to pregnant women had come at a time the government was also trying to expand various immunisation and other health initiatives.
"If the government only shuffles funds from within the health budget, other programmes are likely to suffer," Gupta said.