Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 27 June 2023

Maternity leave for university students

Source: By Khadija Khan: The Indian Express

Allowing relief to a university student who was denied maternity leave, the Delhi High Court has said that citizens cannot be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy.

A Bench of Justice Purushaindra Kumar Kaurav said that in case the student is fulfilling the minimum 80 per cent attendance criteria in theory classes after taking a 59-day maternity leave, “let the appropriate steps to allow the petitioner to appear in the examination be taken” by the university without delay.

Can university students get maternity leave?

In “Renuka v. University Grants Commission and Anr,” a student of Chaudhary Charan Singh University, Meerut, approached the Delhi High Court for relaxation of attendance to complete her Master of Education (MEd) course. For this, she requested a 59-day maternity leave, adding that if her leave is considered under “theory classes”, she could still fulfil the 80 per cent attendance criteria.

Asserting that “citizens could not be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy,” the court highlighted the dichotomy that exists where a man can “enjoy parenthood while pursuing his higher education”, while a woman “necessarily has to undergo pre and post pregnancy care” not by her choice but by the “will of nature”.

However, the court made it clear that under Article 226 of the Constitution, it “cannot create a different compartment” for relaxation of attendance while indicating the need to balance the fulfilment of attendance requirements with the interests of candidates seeking maternity leave.

Adding that the Constitution is a pledge to “disassociate ourselves from the parochial notions of society that prevented the ushering of equality”, the court directed the university to reconsider the student’s application “in view of the observation made in this order to consider her 59 days of maternity leave application against theory classes.” The court also said that if the student missed any practical classes during her leave, they could always be rearranged “as a special case.

What does the Constitution say?

In September 1949, Dr BR Ambedkar moved an amendment to substitute the existing Entry 26 of the concurrent list in the Constitution, which deals with “legal, medical, and other professions”.

The amended entry, adopted by the Constituent Assembly and now part of the Constitution, reads, “Welfare of labour, including conditions of work, provident funds, employers, liability, workmen’s compensation, invalidity and old age pensions, and maternity benefits.”

Similarly, Article 42 of the Constitution, forming part of the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs), provides that the “State shall make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.” Besides this, the court also relied on multiple top-court rulings on reproductive rights.

What has the Supreme Court held?

In the 2009 case of “Suchita Srivastava v. Chandigarh Admn,” the top court held that reproductive choices are inherent to a woman’s right to privacy, dignity, and bodily integrity, which are covered under Article 21 of the Constitution.

In its ruling, the then Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, had said, “There is no doubt that a woman’s right to make reproductive choices is also a dimension of ‘personal liberty’ as understood under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.” Highlighting the crucial consideration that a woman’s right to privacy, dignity, and bodily integrity should be respected, the court said that “there should be no restriction whatsoever on the exercise of reproductive choices”. It also interpreted reproductive rights to “include a woman’s entitlement to carry a pregnancy to its full term, to give birth, and to subsequently raise children.”

Similarly, in the 2017 case of “KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India,” the top court held that the state must safeguard the citizen’s ability to make decisions. Life within the meaning of Article 21 is “not confined to the integrity of the physical body” and “comprehends one’s being in its fullest sense,” which facilitates the fulfilment of life within the protection of the guarantee of life, the court stated.

Before these, in “Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India,” the Apex Court, while considering workmen’s rights, held that the right to live with human dignity under Article 21 derives its life breath from the DPSPs and therefore “must include protection of the health and strength of workers, men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work, and maternity relief.”

Besides this, the University Grants Commission Regulations, 2016, and the 2021 circular issued by UGC also include provisions for granting maternity or childcare leave for women candidates.

Maternity leave for those enrolled in an MPhil or PhD course

In 2016, the UGC, by way of its “Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of MPhil / PhD Degrees Regulations,” allowed women candidates maternity or childcare leave once during the entire duration of their MPhil or PhD course, for up to 240 days. However, as the name suggests, this provision was restricted only to women scholars enrolled in MPhil or PhD courses.

Maternity leave for students enrolled in other courses

In 2021, the UGC issued a circular, which inserted provisions in the UGC Regulations, 2016, for providing “women students” with maternity or childcare leave once in the entire duration of the MPhil or PhD course for up to 240 days.

“In addition to the above, all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are requested to frame appropriate rules/norms with regard to granting maternity leave to the women students enrolled in their respective institution / affiliated colleges and also provide all relaxations/exemptions relating to attendance, extension in date for submitting examination forms or any other facility deemed necessary for women students,” the circular read.

However, in the present case, the court rejected the petitioner’s reliance on the 2021 circular, noting that the 5-6 year duration of an MPhil or PhD course is “distinctly different” from an MEd course, which lasts only for two years. “The circular relied upon by the petitioner issued by the UGC will not have a direct application under the facts of the present case,” the court ruled.

The court also clarified that an MEd course is essentially governed by the provisions of the National Council for Teacher Education Act, 1993, and the National Council for Teacher Education (Recognition Norms and Procedure) Regulations, 2014, made under it.

Is there any maternity leave for students enrolled in MEd courses?

The NCTE Act, 1993 was passed to establish the National Council for Teacher Education, which aims to “achieve planned and coordinated development of the teacher education system throughout the country”.

The Act, along with the 2014 regulations, governs teacher education in India and establishes the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), which regulates and oversees teacher education programs and ensures that teachers are qualified, trained, and equipped to provide quality education to students.

While the Act and the Rules include provisions for leaves for faculty to undertake research or teaching in universities and schools, along with leave and other medical benefits for the Chairperson, the Vice Chairperson, and the Member-Secretary of the NCTE, they do not include any specific provisions for students to take maternity leave.

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