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  • Writer's pictureDevika Agarwal

Explained: Delhi High Court ruling that maternity relief be made available to university students

In a path-breaking judgment delivered by the Delhi High Court, a university student can now avail maternity benefits even in the absence of such a provision by the university. In doing so, the judgment reiterates that ‘reproductive rights’ are an indispensable element of personal life and liberty. This article analyses legal and policy developments related to maternity provisions for university students in India.

RECENTLY, in Renuka versus University Grants Commission, the Delhi High Court (Delhi HC) held that maternity relief is part of the “personal liberty” of a woman under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and directed Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut to grant maternity leave benefit to a pregnant Master of Education (M.Ed.) student.

This judgment is important for two reasons. Firstly, the Delhi High Court observed that a citizen should not be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy.

Secondly, the Delhi High Court ruled that maternity relief should be available to pregnant students even in the absence of any university guidelines providing maternity benefits to students.

Existing laws and policies for maternity benefits in India

The law governing maternity benefits in India is the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 which was amended in 2017 to increase paid maternity leave to women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. However, the said Act covers only those women who are “employed, whether directly or through any agency, for wages in any establishment.” Therefore, the law does not apply to university students.

The Delhi High Court held that maternity leave is a part of the ‘reproductive rights’ under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Most higher education institutions (HEIs) in India are governed by the University Grants Commission (UGC). In 2022, the UGC issued the UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of Ph.D. Degree) Regulations, 2022.

Regulation 4(3) specifically provides that female Ph.D. scholars may be provided maternity leave or childcare leave for up to 240 days in the entire duration of the Ph.D. program.

The 2022 UGC regulation superseded the UGC (Minimum Standards and Procedure for Award of M.Phil./Ph.D. Degrees) Regulations, 2016 which contained a similar provision applicable to women students enrolled in either MPhil or PhD courses in India.

Through a circular dated December 14, 2021, the UGC urged all universities to frame appropriate Rules for providing maternity relief, including attendance exemptions, extensions for submitting examination forms or any other facility deemed necessary to female students pursuing undergraduate or postgraduate programs.

While the language of the circular is not legally binding, the circular makes it clear that the UGC intends to provide maternity benefits to students in all programs in HEIs in India.

Apart from UGC-accredited HEIs, certain institutes providing technical education are governed by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

The guidelines for AICTE Doctoral Fellowship Scheme 2022–23 provide, “Research scholars are eligible for maternity and paternity leave as per government of India norms issued from time to time at full rates of fellowship once during the tenure of their award.”

The court held that maternity benefits should be provided to students even in the absence of university guidelines or policies to that effect.

The AICTE guidelines recognize both maternity as well as paternity leave for students. Education is a subject in the concurrent list which means that both the Central as well as state governments may legislate on matters of education. Interestingly, on January 19, 2023, the higher education department of the Kerala government issued an Order, sanctioning a pregnancy leave of a maximum of 60 days for all women students above the age of 18 in state-run universities.

In the Renuka case, the petitioner student was enrolled in the M.Ed. course at Chaudhary Charan Singh University. The Delhi High Court found that the course was governed by the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) Act, 1993 and the regulations made thereunder. Therefore, the UGC circular on maternity leave was not applicable in this case and instead, the NCTE (Recognition Norms and Procedure) Regulations, 2014 were applicable.

As the norms and standards specified for the M.Ed. program in the NCTE Regulations did not provide for a maternity leave provision, the university argued that it could not provide maternity leave to the petitioner in the absence of such a provision.

Delhi High Court’s interpretation of maternity benefit as part of ‘reproductive rights’ under Article 21

The court in the Renuka case relied on earlier judgments to hold that maternity leave is a part of the ‘reproductive rights’ under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the “right to life and personal liberty”.

One of the cases that the Delhi High Court relied on was Suchita Srivastava and Another versus Chandigarh Administration, in which the Supreme Court established that “a woman’s right to make reproductive choices is also a dimension of ‘personal liberty’” under Article 21.

By allowing maternity relief to a student, the court also protected her right to education which is also implicit in Article 21.

Further, the Delhi High Court cited Bandhua Mukti Morcha versus Union of India and Others, a case primarily involving inhumane conditions of laborers in stone quarries, wherein the Supreme Court held that Article 21 derives its “life breath” from the directive principles of state policy such as Article 42 which mandates the State to make provisions inter alia for maternity leave.

In the above case, the Supreme Court ruled that the “right to live with human dignity” enshrined under Article 21 must include maternity relief.

Relying on K.S. Puttaswamy versus Union of India which decided that the right to privacy is part of Article 21, the Delhi High Court stated, “it is the duty of the State to safeguard the ability of its citizens to take decisions.” Applying this to the instant case, the right of a woman to make reproductive choices should be protected under Article 21 and the woman must not be penalized by being denied maternity relief.

While the Delhi High Court did not quote specific judgments, it observed that higher courts in India have upheld the right of women to avail of maternity leave as an integral aspect of the right to live with dignity under Article 21. For instance, the Chhattisgarh High Court in Sadhna Agrawal versus State of Chhattisgarh held that Article 21 includes the “right to motherhood”.

In this manner, the Delhi High Court read maternity relief as part of the ‘reproductive rights’ of a woman, which in turn is part of Article 21. It also noted that the petitioner in this case had requested merely 59 days of maternity leave which would still have allowed her to meet the 80 percent attendance criteria for theory classes.

Citizens should not be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy.

Given the Bonafide nature of the maternity leave, the court directed the university to provide the student maternity leave for 59 days. The court observed that this would allow the student maternity relief without compromising the academic standard of the university. Importantly, the court also asked the university to provide reasonable accommodation to the student. This included rearranging practical lessons in case the student misses any such lessons during the period of leave.

The court held that maternity benefits should be provided to students even in the absence of university guidelines or policies to that effect.

Importance of maternity benefits for the right to education

As stated previously, the court made an astute observation in the Renuka case that citizens should not be forced to choose between their right to education and their right to exercise reproductive autonomy.

By allowing maternity relief to the student, the court also protected her right to education, which is also implicit in Article 21, as held in Vandana Kandari versus University of Delhi which is another important case related to maternity leave for university students.

The National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP) recognizes the importance of equitable and inclusive learning for all, including women. The vision of the NEP to transform India into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society cannot be achieved without considering the factors which restrain women from participating in learning and education.

Building on the Delhi High Court’s ruling, universities across India must expressly provide maternity relief for women students which must extend beyond leave to cover inter alia relaxations in attendance and reasonable accommodations such as the provision to attend classes remotely for pregnant students.

Universities must go one step further and make provisions for paternity leave as well. This measure will duly recognize that childcare is not just the responsibility of the mother and must be equally shared by the father as well.

This article was originally published on The Leaflet here.


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