Maternity leave a basic human right; assault on woman’s dignity if denied: Orissa High Court

Maternity leave cannot be compared to or equated with any other leave and it cannot simply be denied on technical grounds, the Court said.

The Orissa High Court recently emphasised that maternity leave is a basic human right and that its denial would amount to an assault on the dignity of woman employees [Swornalata Dash v. State of Odisha and ors].

Justice Sashikanta Mishra held that maternity leave cannot be compared to or equated with any other leave as it is an inherent right for every woman employee. Maternity leave cannot simply be denied on technical grounds, the Court said.

 “It would be preposterous to hold otherwise as it would militate against the very process designed by nature. If a woman employee is denied this basic human right it would be an assault on her dignity as an individual and thereby offend her fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article-21 of the Constitution, which has been interpreted to mean life with dignity,” the Court added.

The High Court also relied on the Supreme Court’s observations in Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Female Workers (Muster Roll) and another, wherein the top court had opined that “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.”

While the remarks made in that case were with respect to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, the High Court opined that these observations would “equally applicable to women employees to whom the Act does not apply.

The Court was dealing with a writ petition filed by a teacher working in an aided girls’ high school in Keonjhar district.

The teacher applied for and took maternity leave in 2013. She rejoined for work in December 2013 and the school headmaster accepted her joining report and fitness certificate.

However, the District Education Officer at Keonjhar refused to sanction the maternity leave. On filing an application under the Right to Information Act (RTI Act), the teacher was informed that her maternity leave sanction could not be considered as there was no leave rule applicable for employees of the school.

This prompted the teacher to file a writ petition before the High Court for relief.

The District Education Officer countered the writ plea by contending that the Grant-In-Aid Orders of 1994 and 2013 were silent on the issue, as was the Odisha Education Recruitment and Conditions of Service and Staff of Aided Educational Institutions Rules, 1974.

The provisions of the Odisha Service Code relating to maternity leave was only applicable to regular government servants and not the employees of block grant high schools, the Court was further told.

However, Justice Mishra rejected such technical arguments and ordered the District Education Officer to sanction the teacher’s maternity leave within four weeks.

Refusal by the authorities to sanction maternity leave to the Petitioner is contrary to law and therefore, cannot be sustained,” the Court held.

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