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A mother kisses her child as she walks past graffiti in Mumbai
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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NO RUSH

Indian mothers have just got the best career booster—or have they?

By Ananya Bhattacharya

India’s expectant mothers will now be in less of a rush to return to work.

On March 09, the country’s parliament approved the maternity benefit (amendment) bill, 2016, increasing the duration of maternity leave from 12 weeks, as prescribed in 1961, to 26 weeks. The Lok Sabha, or the lower house, cleared the amendment to the law, which was passed last August by the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It applies to all employers with a staff strength of 10 or more and is applicable in the case of the first two children. For the third child, mothers will be eligible for only 12 weeks of leave.

Comparing data for 2015 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the 26-week hiatus places India right behind the top five countries with the longest maternity leave, on par with Israel and Poland.

“These changes…will have [a] positive impact on women’s participation in the labour force and will improve the work-life balance of women workers,” the government’s press information bureau said in a statement. The rule will be in place once the president approves it.

Labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya called the move “a humble gift to women,” while women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi said it was a “momentous step.” Twitter was abuzz with goodwill:

Under the new provision, surrogate mothers and women who adopt a child aged below three months, too, will be entitled to 12 weeks off, from the day the baby is born or handed to them. All private companies with over 50 employees are expected to provide crèche facilities within a certain distance of the workplace and must allow mothers four visits to the crèche daily. New mothers also have the option of reaching a work-from-home arrangement with employers.

The bill comes as a big relief to millions of working women who often consider pregnancy the end of their careers. A 2015 study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (Assocham) revealed that 25% of urban Indian women quit their jobs after having their first child. The bill might now reduce this insecurity and help increase women’s participation in the labour force as also the retention rates.

Hidden flaws

On the flip-side, the amendment to the law could deter employers from hiring women in the first place.

A collection of anonymous accounts on the website “Pregnant then Screwed“ shows how expectant and new mothers are discriminated against in the workplace, and passed on for jobs and promotions. Being fired on account of pregnancy is illegal but still happens under the garb of “underperformance” and other ruses. The new rules do not guarantee that this bias will end.

“A blanket maternity leave sounds like a good idea and the move is absolutely well-intended, but it could be slightly detrimental because six months is a long time,” Sairee Chahal, founder of SHEROES, a portal exclusively catering to women job-seekers, had told Quartz. “These are tough times for businesses and paying an unproductive employee for six months may not be practical for a small business or a small school.”

Besides, the bill reinforces the idea of only mothers caring for newborns. The law does not compliment new-age nuclear families that increasingly believe in splitting the burden of parenting between mothers and fathers. While nearly three-quarters of Indian organisations do offer (short) paternity leave, in legal terms, it remains an alien concept in the country.