With the country getting its first full-time female finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, under the Modi 2.0 government, hopes of a more gender-responsive budget were fanned like never before. She, however, failed to live up to the expectations of millions of women who were expecting a more women-friendly and women-employment generating budget. Sadly, this has not happened.
We saw Sitharaman waxing eloquent on the role of women in Indian society. She quoted Swami Vivekananda to state, “There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on one wind.”
The gender budget allocation for 2019-20 is Rs 131,699.52 crore – increased from Rs 121,961.32 crore in 2018-19. The budget of the Ministry of Women and Child has seen a 17% sectoral allocation increase from Rs 24,309 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 29,164.89 crore. The lion’s share of this allocation will be spent on Anganwadi services under the umbrella of the Integrated Child Protections Services while the allocation for the National Nutrition Mission has also been increased as has the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana.
But when we go into nitty-gritties of the midday meal scheme, it has hardly seen any significant expansion or increase. Funds for the allocation of the National Mission of Empowerment and Protection of Women have been slashed as also has the Nirbhaya Fund. The issues of safety and mobility are key to women working outside their homes, but she has made no reference to this in her maiden speech.
Sitharaman also waxed eloquent about women moving from ‘Naari to Narayani’, whereby the government would make a push from women-centric to women-led initiatives. She also went on to state that the role of women in the growth of economy and especially in the rural economy was a very sweet story, which her government was determined to encourage.
But does the finance minister have a clue about what is going on in rural India? The number of women in India’s workforce is on the decline, more so in rural India, which is in the throes of a catastrophic drought and tremendous agrarian distress. The result is that there are fewer women working today than there were six years ago.
The most alarming figures have emerged from rural India where latest government employment data collected by a team of researchers at the Azim Premji University has found that only 18% women are employed in the workforce as against 25% in 2011-12. In urban areas, compared to 15% in 2011-12, the figure is now 14%. This survey comes with a rider emphasising that the number of women in salaried jobs (from this pool of 14%) in urban areas has increased from 35.6% in 2004 to 52.1% in 2017.
There is no sweet story in our villages and it is the women and girl children who are bearing the brunt of this distress.
To mitigate this rural distress, one scheme Sitharaman has proposed that the self-help groups (SHGs) scheme be extended to every district in the country. Every woman SHG member, who has a Jan Dhan bank account, will be allowed an overdraft of Rs 5,000 and that one woman in every SHG will be eligible for a loan up to Rs one lakh under the MUDRA scheme.
Other initiatives that were mentioned were the Stand Up India for female entrepreneurship, Ujjwala for smokeless kitchens and the Swachh Bharat Mission for protecting the dignity of women.
The main limitation of this budget is that it has failed to increase public expenditure in order to rejuvenate the agrarian section, which is the key to providing livelihood to millions of women.
Malini Bhattacharya, heading All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), provided a detailed critique of the Budget. Bhattacharya said, “While the size of the budget remains at 13.2% of the GDP, which is calculated at a nominal growth of 12%, if we go by this, the allocations of women-oriented schemes have decreased from 0.66% of the GDP in 2018-19 to 0.64% of the GDP in 2019-20.”
Bhattacharya said that the scheme to provide pension to the widows has seen a decline in funding as has the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Food subsidy has gone up by around 7%, but this may not be enough to even cover the cost of inflation, which is likely to rise with the increase in petrol and diesel prices.
AIDWA believes that one of the central features of this budget is the liberalisation of the financial markets, which will make women vulnerable to non-banking finance corporations.
“We would have liked if interest-free loans were given to the SHGs. It also recapitalises public banks to service these non-banking financial companies (NBFCs) so that they can give credit to the women. In this sense, this budget marks a new stage in the integration of women into financial markets thereby increasing their vulnerability,” Bhattacharya added.
No attempt has to been made to provide a rehabilitation package to the families of the farmers who have committed suicide or for the millions facing economic hardship.
AR Sindhu, general secretary of All India Federation of Anganwandi Workers and Helpers, expressed her disappointment at the allocation made for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).
“In view of the tragic death of children in Muzzafarpur due to malnutrition and given the poor infrastructure of our Anganwadis, the government should have made a strong move to strengthen the Angwandis and keep full-time Anganwadi workers. Instead, the finance minister has given a pro-rich push for privatisation of national assets. Changing of labour laws shows little concern for our children and for the lakhs of women who take care of them,” said Sindhu.
Dr Ranjan Kumari, heading the Centre for Policy Research, pointed out, “The budget has been high on rhetoric. She has made no tax concessions for women, given them no special investment opportunities, nor has the government come up with any health and insurances schemes for the growing population of aging elderly women,” said Kumari.
It is obvious that women’s issues do not form a core part of the national policy agenda even though women’s vote share was sizeable that has helped the BJP come to power this second time around also.
There are other key areas as well that affect women directly such as degrading environment. The budget for environment and forestry on which many women and their families are dependent has been slashed. The budget for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which acts as a bulwark for crores of women – as their husbands migrate from their villages in search of work – has been slashed from Rs 61,084 crore to Rs 60,000 crore.
The BJP election manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections tom-tommed promise of 33% reservation in Parliament and state Assemblies through a constitutional amendment for women. It also promised strengthening of the 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao' programme, ample financial support and "subsidised education loans" for higher education for girls and a comprehensive roadmap to increase the presence of women in the workforce. The manifesto also spoke of timebound trial for rape victims, threefold increase in child care facilities and a dedicated programme for skill training of women.
Given the present budgetary allocation, we can expect to see only a few of these promises materialise on the ground.