Delhi HC Upholds Right To Undertake Examination Of Candidate Who Availed Of Maternity Leave

Delhi HC Upholds Right To Undertake Examination Of Candidate Who Availed Of Maternity Leave

The Delhi High Court on Friday allowed a medical student to undertake her Doctor of Medicine (DM) examination, ruling that she cannot be denied of her right to undertake the examination just because she availed of maternity leave.

Justice C. Hari Shankar began by acknowledging that the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 would apply to students such as the petitioner.

Notably, the Kerala High Court had, in June, 2016 ruled that a pregnant B.Ed student cannot claim any special exemption due to her pregnancy, to appear for an examination. While Justice Shankar was also apprehensive about application of the Maternity Benefit Act to the case at hand, the judge ruled in favour of its application, owing to the terms of engagement of the petitioner with her institute, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

"Though I must confess, I had some misgivings regarding the applicability of the said Act, as the petitioner was, essentially, a student of the AIIMS, rather than an "employee" thereof, as understood in its classical sense, a reading of the Memorandum, dated 4th December, 2015 (supra), in extenso, would merit applicability of the Maternity Benefit Act even to "students" such as the petitioner," the court observed.

It added, "In so holding, I am also persuaded by the fact that the Maternity Benefit Act, being in the nature of a piece of social welfare legislation, the reach and sweep thereof has to be as expansive as possible, rather than limited by any pedantic considerations of word or phrase."

The court then ruled that such denial of examination, leading to a delay in awarding of the DM qualification to her, would violate Article 42 of the Constitution of India, which requires the State to provide "for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief."

Further, asserting that the petitioner cannot be put to a disadvantage merely because she availed of maternity leave, the court observed, "Adverse consequences can never be allowed to visit any woman, solely by virtue of the fact that she availed maternity leave, perhaps in excess of the maximum leave admissible – provided, of course, the maternity leave was necessary and required for health of mother and child."

The court was hearing a petition filed by one Dr. Ankita Baidya, a Senior Resident of AIIMS, seeking a direction to the institute to allow her to undertake the DM's final examination.

The Memorandum which governed her admission to the course prescribed 24 days leave in the first year, 30 days leave in the second year and 36 days in the third year. It did not stipulate any other leave for the course participants, but added that extension of leave would result in postponement of exam for one session. The petitioner, however, applied for 180 days of maternity leave, as she got pregnant during the course.

While allowing her leave application, AIIMS had informed her that the DM qualification would be postponed by 6 months on account of the leave as she would only be allowed to appear in the final examinations in May 2019, instead of December 2018.

Subsequent to the expiry of the period of her maternity leave, the petitioner rejoined AIIMS on September 4, 2016, and in March, 2016, presented her thesis for the DM programme, which was duly approved by the competent faculty member. She then began working towards completion of the thesis, so that she could submit it at least three months prior to the final examinations, scheduled for December, 2018.

In May, 2018, she then addressed a representation to AIIMS, requesting that the maternity leave granted to her be not considered as an "extension of leave" in terms of the terms and conditions of her admission to the DM course. To this end, she had relied on a government directive dated March 14, 2018, which had stated that maternity leave should be considered a part of the tenure and not as an extension to the leave ordinarily available.

This and her subsequent representations were, however, rejected by AIIMS in June last year, with the institute merely stating that the request had been "examined by the competent authority but the same cannot be acceded to".

The court's judgment, however, began with an Oprah Winfrey quote, "The choice to become a mother is the choice to become one of the greatest spiritual teachers there is", and chose to side with the petitioner.

It observed that the concept of "extension" connotes carrying the leave beyond the period for which it was originally granted. It explained that since the Petitioner never sought any extension of the leave granted to her, the leave sanctioned to her was never "extended" at any point of time in terms of the "extension clause" in the Memorandum which attracted consequences.

Thereafter, noting that the Memorandum does not contain any specific stipulation for maternity leave, it further observed, "In my view, it would be unreasonable to interpret the clause as postponing the final examination of the course being undertaken by the candidate, in every case where the candidate sought maternity leave during the tenure of the course, especially where no such express stipulation is to be found therein."

The court then ruled that the petitioner's right to undertake the final DM examination in December, 2018 would not be defeated by reason of the maternity leave availed by her, or the duration thereof. It, however, added that her participation in the examination would necessarily be subject to her fulfilling all other requirements or pre-conditions required to be fulfilled to enable her to do so.

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