Maternity Leave: Right to Dignity and Life

July 25, 2023
Maternity Leave

By Anuradha Gandhi and Isha Sharma

“Maternity Leave cannot be compared or equated with any other leave as it is the inherent right of every woman employee which cannot simply be denied on technical grounds”

-As rightly observed by Hon’ble Mr. Justice Sashikanta Mishra on July 21, 2023.

A landmark judgment has been passed by the Hon’ble Orissa High Court on July 21, 2013, wherein it was held that the refusal to grant maternity leave to a female employee is “an assault on her dignity as an individual and right to life”.

The instant case is of Swornalata Dash, who was an assistant teacher in the Practicing Girls’ High School, Keonjhar, an aided educational institution. On June 17, 2023 she applied for maternity leave from June 17, 2013 till December 13, 2013. She delivered a female child on August 20, 2013 and remained on leave till December 13, 2013. She then resumed her duties on December 14, 2013 and applied for sanction of maternity leave but the same was denied by the District Education Officer (DEO), Keonjhar.

On an application filed by the petitioner under Right to Information Act, it was duly informed that no leave rule is applicable in respect of employees of the School and hence, sanction of maternity leave could not be considered. Being aggrieved, the said petition1 was filed under Article 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India in 2015.

Counter Affidavit was filed by the DEO taking a stand that the Odisha Grant-In-Aid Order, 2013 is silent about sanction of maternity leave or any kind of leave except casual leave for 15 days under the relevant provisions of Odisha Leave Rules. 1966 and Odisha Service Code. Further, it was contended that there was no rule governing the employees of Block Grant High School which provides for grant of maternity leave to its female employees.

Emphasis was drawn towards the observations of the Apex Court in the case of Municipal Corporation of Delhi vs. Female Workers (Muster Roll) and another wherein it was held that:

“A just social order can be achieved only when inequalities are obliterated and everyone is provided what is legally due. Women who constitute almost half of the segment of our society have to be honoured and treated with dignity at places where they work to earn their livelihood. Whatever be the nature of their duties, their avocation and the place where they work; they must be provided all the facilities to which they are entitled. To become a mother is the most natural phenomena in the life of a woman. Whatever is needed to facilitate the birth of child to a woman who is in service, the employer has to be considerate and sympathetic towards her and must realise the physical difficulties which a working woman would face in performing her duties at the work place while carrying a baby in the womb or while rearing up the child after birth. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 aims to provide all these facilities to a working woman in a dignified manner so that she may overcome the state of motherhood honourably, peaceably, undeterred by the fear of being victimized for forced absence during the pre or post-natal period.”

It was remarked that: “Even though said observations were made keeping the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 in view, they would be equally applicable to women employees to whom the Act does not apply”.

The Single Bench of Hon’ble Justice Mr. Sashikanta Mishra ruled in favour of the petitioner emphasizing that the refusal by the authorities to sanction maternity leave to the Petitioner was contrary to law and therefore, cannot be sustained.

As a result, the said petition2 was allowed and the DEO was directed to sanction maternity leave as claimed by the Petitioner within a period of 4 weeks from the date of communication of the said order or on production of certified copy thereof.

This significant ruling embarked that right to seek maternity leave is a basic human right of a woman employee and if any woman employee is deprived of such right, it would offend her fundamental right to life as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which has been interpreted to mean life with dignity.

1 W.P.(C) No. 620 of 2015
2 Swornalata Dash vs. State of Odisha and others

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