Mamta Kundu, 31, was in the habit of getting up at the crow of the cock, preparing her five-year-old daughter’s morning meal and then heading out to work as a daily wage worker at a construction site. Between her and her husband, the two made just enough to feed themselves and their child.
But ever since she got pregnant a second time, things changed.
Now, Mamta, who was blessed with a second daughter in May last year, stays at her one-room shanty in Govindpuri, taking care of the baby. When she tried taking the baby to work out of desperation one day, two months after the delivery, other women at work discouraged her.
Not because the dust was harmful to the child or that there were no creches or services she could rely on while she worked. The reason they gave Mamta (whose name ironically means mother's love) was actually a question: “How will you breastfeed?”
Mother’s milk is essential for babies for 6 months. Her own mother had taught her that. Neither she nor her mother before her had every heard of a breast pump and were unlikely to pay for one if they did.
“Carrying my baby to work is not a problem,” she said in a matter of fact manner. There are many women who come to work and one can take turns to care for the baby. “But they don’t want me to nurse in public as they say it’s obscene and ‘not right’.” She added that her husband was also not very pleased with the idea.
Mamta is one of the over 190 million Indian women (roughly over 90 percent of the woman workforce) who work in the unorganized sector. While the Indian government recently mandated six months of paid maternity leave for working women, the unorganized sector lies beyond the purview of the legislation or any such that could aid new working mothers.
Women like Mamta often have no recourse when it comes to pregnancy - they have to either leave their babies with family members or creches and continue work to earn the baby's sustenance or quit heir jobs to nurse their babies. While the Prime Minister Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) provides Rs 5,000 to women in the informal sector at the birth of their first child, the aid is not linked to wages. However, Maneka Gandhi, former Women and Child Minister had revealed that till 2018, only 31 lakh women had benefited from the scheme.
Previously, women like Mamta could access creches under the 2005 National Creche Scheme, that was meant to provide working women, specifically those in the unorganised sector, to take care of young infants while working via a network of neighborhood creches.
However, in 2017, the scheme's funding was amended. Initially borne 90:10 by Centre and State, the amendment reduced the Centre's share to 60 percent of the funding while states have to cough up the rest. As a result, the creches have suffered in various states.
Mamta was also irked by the one-child, one-aid rule. "I just had my second child. I need even more aid as now I have two mouths to feed," the migrant from West Bengal's Purulia lamented.
Is Paid Maternity Leave Enough?
However, beneficial as it is, paid maternity leave is not nearly a complete solution for new working mothers as women in the organised sector also have a considerably hard time post-partum, if not equal to that in the unorganised sector. Despite maternity pay, lack of a supportive work environment and additional stigma regarding pregnancy, breastfeeding and motherhood continue to keep even the brightest and privileged women outside of the workspace.
And often, some very small changes could go a long way in helping new mothers ease back into work.
For example, instead of the standard 9-5 shifts that most offices follow, mothers could be allowed to work in alternate shifts that allow them to do the requisite 8 hours while also getting to spend time with a child.
"The biggest issue, perhaps, is inflexible timings," Shipra Chopra, who currently works in an investment firm in Dubai after working for several years in a tech company in India, said. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy last year and ever since then, she has noted hostility toward new mothers. Especially when it comes to nursing.
"The popular opinion is that new mothers become less efficient employees as they have to tend to their babies at home," Shipra said.
However, flexibilities at work only come when companies start thinking about pregnant women or working mothers as assets rather than liabilities. This reflects in the severe lack of dedicated nursing spaces in public and private institutions.
It's not just offices. Most establishments including malls, cineplexes and restaurants do not have provisions for nursing rooms. For most women, it is either a choice between nursing the baby in often unhygienic toilet cubicles or finding a vacant room in the office to feed the child.
According to Health and Nutrition specialist for CARE India Dr Rita Prasad, it was common for women to feed bottled milk to babies in public to avoid embarrassment. She added that this was an important reason why many women in India did not continue breastfeeding for six months.
Guilt vs Job
Mansi Paul, a professor who recently gave birth to a baby girl and has now gone back to work, said that this is a period of anxiety and mental stress. Emphasising on the "emotional turmoil" post-partum, the Amity University professor said, "We sometimes feel guilty of leaving our children back home and sometimes we feel it’s good to start early so they adjust better," Mansi said.
Luckily, Mansi was blessed with cooperation from her workplace and an environment conducive of working-motherhood. Those like daily wage worker Mamta, however, have no co-operation, no monetary aid, no paid leaves, no one to help or advice.
Dr Anibha Pandey of Apollo Cradle Royal hospital in Delhi told News18 that the energy demands of lactation exceed pre-pregnancy needs by approximately 640 kcal/day during the first 6 months post-partum. She suggested that at this critical stage when women's hormones are also in flux, consuming fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals; calcium-rich dairy products; and protein-rich foods such as meats, fish, and legumes was essential.
When given the chart, Mamta laughed and simply said, "I cannot afford all this!"