Unfair Share

India is in deep denial about inequality

The Gini coefficient, which quantifies economic inequality, has been steadily rising in India since the 1990s. Massive wealth disparities have become routine. Jagdish Agarwal/Dinodia
31 January, 2022

In 2019, I spotted an infographic on Twitter that ranked a handful of countries by the number of weeks of paid maternity leave they mandated. It sought to make a case for paid maternity leave in the United States—where, according to the infographic, there was none. India occupied second spot, with 26 weeks, just behind the United Kingdom.

What struck me was that even though the Maternity Entitlements Act benefits only women in formal employment in the organised sector—a very thin slice of Indian women—its provisions were being projected as a universal entitlement. In fact, the meagre entitlements for other Indian women—Rs 6,000 per child in cash from the government, under the National Food Security Act passed in 2013—were not operationalised until 2017.

That year, the government notified the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana to deliver on the promise of the NFSA. On the one hand, the Maternity Entitlements Act was amended to increase paid leave from 12 to 26 weeks for women in formal employment; on the other, the rights of women covered by the PMMVY were reduced—instead of providing Rs 6,000 per child, they would get only Rs 5,000 as a maternity benefit, over three cash instalments and for the first child only. For perspective, for someone in my kind of privileged employment, teaching at a public university, the analogous compensation for a full 26 weeks of maternity leave would be at least a hundred times that amount. Yet when the PMMVY was announced, one reaction from some privileged commentators was that it was a bad idea because the cash benefit would incentivise more births.

To be clear, the problem is not that some women in India enjoy world-class maternity benefits, but that the same level of benefits has been denied for so long, even resisted, as a universal right. What sort of society is able to provide more and more for the privileged but grudges every penny set aside for those in greater need? One answer is a society that expects a nanny state for the rich but wants the poor to be aatmanirbhar—self-reliant.