Parliament of India approved on Thursday a bill granting women working in the organised sector paid maternity leave of 26 weeks, up from 12 weeks now, a decision which will benefit around 1.8 million women.
The law will apply to all establishments employing 10 or more people and the entitlement will be for the first two children. For the third child, the entitlement will be 12 weeks.
With this, India becomes the country with the third highest maternity leave. Canada and Norway grant 50 weeks and 44 weeks respectively as paid maternity leave.
The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was passed by Lok Sabha on Thursday. Rajya Sabha had passed it in August last year.
Piloting amendments to the old law, labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya said that while framing the rules, he would try to ensure that pregnant women got maximum benefits.
"This is my humble gift to women, a day after the world celebrated International Women's Day," he said after a four-hour debate during which some members demanded paternity benefits too.
They argued that these days most children were born in nuclear families where both the father and mother have to take care of the child.
Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi said this was a major step towards empowering women. "I am very, very happy we have made history today. This will help thousands of women and produce much healthier children. We have been working on it for a long time,"she said.
The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 protects the employment of women during the time of her maternity and entitles her full paid absence from work to take care of her child.
Among other things, the bill provides for 12 weeks of maternity leave to a woman who legally adopts a child under three months of age and a commissioning mother (defined as a biological mother) who uses her egg to have a surrogate child.
The bill also requires every establishment with 50 or more employees to provide creche facilities within a prescribed distance. The woman will be allowed four visits to the creche a day. This will include her interval for rest.
It has also made a provision under which an employer can permit a woman to work from home, if the nature of work assigned permits.
Observing that labour falls in the Concurrent List, the minister appealed to states to ensure all benefits reach women. Participating in the debate, Congress's Sushmita Dev said since amendments raised the period of leave to 26 weeks from the present 12 weeks, it could act as a deterrent for the private sector to employ women.
"Since the employer has to pay the salary during the leave period, the amendment might turn out to be counter-productive. Innovative thing to do would be to bring in paternity benefit," Dev said.
Ratna De Nag (TMC) too made a case for paternity benefit and said her party's government in West Bengal was already providing paternity leave for 30 days.