Working mothers-to-be in India have it better than most of their developed world peers, but the country’s maternity laws may be just token gestures.

In 2017, the country passed the Maternity (Amendment) Bill that increased the right to paid maternity leave for working women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks—the third highest in the world.

Yet, there is a catch—the law is applicable only to those who work in a company with at least 10 employees. This is just a miniscule proportion of the small share of India’s working women, according to a new paper titled “Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State”.

This limited view of maternity benefits is a result of the Indian elite’s desire to merely imitate policies meant for, and implemented in, the West, without fine-tuning it to Indian conditions, researchers Shruti Rajagopalan of Purchase College, New York, and Alexander Tabarrok, of George Mason University said in the paper.

“The maternity bill is an example of what Antony Allott called ‘phantom legislation’: ‘the passing of laws which do not have, and most probably cannot have the desired effect. The illusion of progress, of doing something, is given, but the reality is far different,'” the researchers observed. “The law… has an ideological dimension. It’s part of what the Indian elite thinks is good, just, and prestigious in the international community,” they added.

Symbol of progress

Only Canada and Norway, with per capita GDPs 27 and 47 times higher than India’s, respectively, offer longer maternity leaves than India, according to the paper.

The main problem, though, is not the perceived generosity, but the applicability of the law itself.

The paper estimated that 70% of Indian women do not work at all. Of those who work, 84% work in the unorganised sector or for companies with fewer than 10 employees. Even among the 16% who do work in the organised sector, a large portion of the work is informal, where the maternity law does not apply.

“If we assume more realistically that only 20% of the workers in the organised, formal sector are female, then the law potentially applies to just 1.3% of the labour force, or less than 1% of all females,” the paper said.

Given these back-of-the-hand calculations, the question that remains is why India would spend its resources on a law that applies to such a tiny section of its burgeoning population.

Years of conditioning

Rajagopalan and Tabarrok say the answer to that lies in the British empire, going all the way back to the Macaulay Committee Report in 1853—and, consequently, the Indian elite’s affinity for the English language. “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” Macaulay said in 1835 in his now-famous “Minute on Education.”

The researchers also noted that “the Macaulay Committee, which gave India its first modern civil service in 1853, recommended that the East India Company’s patronage-based system should be replaced by a permanent civil service based on a merit system through competitive entry examinations.” This further led to an ambition for an English education, products of which were India’s early elites—Jawaharlal Nehru being the most prominent of them.

Today, the paper said, Indian elites live a life comparable to that in the developed world. And this West-facing perspective is what is furthering the “flailing” condition of the Indian state.