Examining the 2021-22 union budget through a gender lens, Nalini Gulati discusses what the budget does – and does not do – for women in the Indian economy, particularly with respect to the digital push, public transport, other public services, health sector, and the boost to the textile industry.
In a budget speech by Nirmala Sitharaman – who was part of the commission that spearheaded the adoption of gender responsive budgeting (GRB)1 in India in 2005-06 – the announcement of this year’s gender budget allocation is conspicuous by its absence. Digging into the budget documents,2 one finds that the gender budget stands at Rs. 153,326.28 crore for FY2021-22. Last year’s allocation was Rs. 143,461.72 crore (budget estimate) revised3 to Rs. 207,261.02 crore.4 As a proportion of total expenditure, the allocation (budget estimates) has fallen to 4.4%, from 4.7% last year and 4.9% in the July 2019 budget. Two years ago, when GRB completed 15 years in India and Sitharaman presented her maiden budget, she had proposed the formation of a broad-based committee with government and private stakeholders to evaluate GRB and suggest actions for moving forward. However, the current status of this proposal is unclear.
It is important to reiterate that ‘gender-blind’ does not equal ‘gender-neutral’, as we run the risk of exacerbating existing inequalities. In a country that ranks 112th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (2020) and is notorious for its low female labour force participation rates (FLFPR),5 it is bewildering that there was almost no mention of women’s issues under ‘inclusive development for aspirational India’6 and ‘reinvigorating human capital’ – two of the six pillars of this budget. As half of India’s potential talent pool, women warrant more than a fleeting remark (“women empowerment”) in the discussion of Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India), a key thrust of the current regime.
There have been two broad strands of the discourse around Covid-19’s impact on women’s economic participation. The positive aspect is that the pandemic is changing the workspace, creating more opportunities for remote, location-agnostic working. This may loosen constraints for women who are unable to work outside the home or relocate for a job on account of norms or safety concerns, or those who are overburdened with domestic responsibilities. On the other hand, the new normal at home seems to have worsened women’s “time poverty”. Besides, in a crisis situation, women are expected to be more adversely affected than men, say, in terms of allocation of limited resources within the household, and more at risk of losing their human capital (more girls are expected to be forced into child marriage this year). Surveys have found that both women and men believe that when jobs are scarce, men have more right to a job than women.
While the budget is mainly about financial allocation, it also signals broad policy direction and government priorities. As we speak of India heading to become a “5 trillion dollar economy” and playing a “leading role” in the “new world order”, an explicit focus on the importance of women in the economy could have set the tone for women occupying their rightful place in this “reset”.
Digital India and gender disparities
Budget 2021-22 – the first digital budget of India – has given a strong push to digitisation. The forthcoming Census may be the first digital Census. Allocation for financial incentives has been announced to promote digital modes of payment. Turnover limit for tax audit exemption has been increased from Rs. 5 crore to Rs. 10 crore, for those who carry out 95% of their transactions digitally.
However, this focus on going paperless has not been complemented with acknowledgement of the ground realities of the digital infrastructure, cybersecurity systems, access to internet and devices,7 and digital skills. Without addressing the glaring gender gap in digital access and skills, digitisation could potentially contribute to women getting left behind even more. According to data from the 75th National Sample Survey (NSS) conducted in 2017-18, 12.8% of females reported being able to operate a computer versus 20% of males, and 14.9% reported being able to use the internet as compared to 25% of males. Seventy-one per cent of men in India own mobile phones, while only 38% of women do. Anecdotally, we see that even if a household owns a digital device and has internet connectivity, the male members are likely to have priority in using the devices for work or study.
From a budget perspective, a move such as giving out free/subsidised devices to women – potentially linked to participation in public skilling programmes – could have an immediate positive impact.8
Gender-sensitive public transport and safe public spaces
The massive boost in the budget to urban public transport is well-received. However, women face particular challenges in accessing public transport, which restrict their physical and economic mobility. These new investments should be seen as opportunities to create gender-sensitive infrastructure designs, especially last-mile connectivity. Although the issue is intertwined with social and cultural norms, the lack of safety for women in urban, public spaces may be a key reason why the startup ecosystem – one of the few segments of the economy that has been thriving in recent times – seems dominated by ‘delivery boys’. Both in terms of entrepreneurs and workers, as the government implements the announced measures to promote the gig and platform economy, it should be cognisant of integrating more women into this space.9
Under the Nirbhaya Fund (scheme for safety of women), there is an allocation of Rs. 10.4 crore versus Rs. 855.23 crore budget estimate for FY2020-21. The revised estimate for FY2020-21 was slashed to Rs. 8.53 crore, which might possibly be because this scheme is for women’s safety in the public space and 2020 was about staying in for most of us. However, we see no compensatory focus on funding interventions to address domestic abuse – termed as the ‘shadow pandemic’ by UN Women – such as shelter homes and legal aid. The “women helpline” and “one stop centre” line items in the gender budget, both show reduced figures under revised estimates for FY2020-21, and these are, in fact, empty for FY2021-22. For FY2019-20 – the latest year for which actual spend figures are available under the gender budget – the actual spend for the Nirbhaya Fund is Rs. 11.38 crore versus an allocation (budget estimate) of Rs. 891.23 crore.
Health sector: Mental dimension, giving ASHAs their due
While the budget claims to take a holistic approach to healthcare, there is no mention of mental health except to acknowledge citizens for “the endurance shown in facing what was an undeniably…tough year for all our physical and mental well-being.” Mental health is known to affect worker productivity, and emerging evidence on the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable groups has noted differential effects of the crisis on the mental health of women and men.
The Finance Minister did express gratitude towards frontline workers and those that kept essential services running during the lockdown months, early on in the speech. However, there was no announcement for increasing the number of ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) and improving their terms. Already overworked and underpaid, these female community health workers in rural areas have been shouldering additional responsibilities during the pandemic and facing the Virus risk.
The health sector focus could have been a chance to underscore its role in job creation for women but the only announcement that could potentially impact women workers in the sector was the introduction of the National Nursing and Midwifery Commission Bill, to promote transparency, efficiency and governance reforms in the nursing profession.
Textile industry, as an employer of women
A major thrust of the budget is the textile industry. There are plans to launch a scheme of Mega Investment Textiles Parks (MITRA) to enable the industry to become globally competitive, attract large investments, and boost employment generation. This is in addition to the ‘Production-linked Incentive’ Scheme, which was earlier announced for 10 key sectors, including textile. There has also been rationalisation of duties on raw material inputs for the sector.
To ensure that expansion of the sector translates into greater employment for women, enabling conditions should be created such as provision of targetted skilling and apprenticeship, reliable childcare facilities, safety at the workplace and commute to work, fair pay, parental leave, flexible hours, and so on. A positive move in this regard is the labour code provision of women being entitled to all kinds of work, including in night shifts with “adequate protection”.
The rise of the export-oriented garment sector in Bangladesh – a country where women traditionally did not work outside the home – helped enhance female labour force participation. Research has shown that the greater availability of jobs for women led to other social benefits such as delayed marriage and greater educational attainment for girls. However, it is also noted that female workers in garment manufacturing in Bangladesh face a ‘glass ceiling’ and often do not progress to supervisory or managerial roles. While this again has a norms element, as these textile parks are created in India, suitable skilling and favourable work conditions from the get-go can ensure that women engage productively with the industry at all levels.
In terms of women’s well-being, time use, and participation in paid work outside the home, anything that improves the provision of public services, eases the burden of domestic work, which tends to be disproportionately borne by women. Hence, the spotlight on universal water supply under the Jal Jeevan Mission is welcome.
This budget prioritises the issue of air pollution in urban areas but does not highlight the problem of indoor air pollution – caused by use of unclean fuel for cooking, which has a greater negative impact on the women of the household. It is well-known that the Ujjwala scheme has expanded the coverage of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) in rural India but the usage of LPG by households remains limited.
Finally, under Swachh Bharat, Swasth Bharat (clean India, healthy India), the focus is mainly on proper waste management and clean air in urban centres – two significant matters – but excluded aspects like public toilets that are important for women venturing out of their homes.
Indirect, potential gains
The allocation for the vaccination drive announced as part of the budget seems generous. If this is rolled-out efficiently and the pandemic is controlled over the next few months, it can have an immediate positive impact on services such as hospitality and beauty as these tend to have high person-to-person contact. Such services have emerged as vital avenues for women’s economic participation in recent years, particularly in cities.
Here’s wishing that the aspirations of India’s women are realised, in this “land of promise and hope”!
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- GRB does not merely involve earmarking of funds for women; it is an exercise that scrutinises the entire budget through a gender lens. The Gender Budget Statement comprises two parts: Part A includes women-specific schemes with 100% allocation for women, and Part B is constituted by pro-women schemes wherein at least 30% of the allocation is for women. GRB is based on the recognition that national budgets benefit women and men differentially, and may even reinforce patriarchal social norms and biases.
- The gender Budget Statement is available under the ‘Expenditure Profile’ (Statement 13; pgs. 150-163) in the budget documents.
- Budget estimates refers to the amount of money allocated in the budget to any ministry or scheme for the coming financial year. Revised estimates are mid-year review of possible expenditure, and need to be authorised for expenditure through parliamentary approval or by re-appropriation order.
- Notable areas for this revision during the last financial year include direct benefit transfer to PMJDY (Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana) women account-holders and widow pension scheme in Part A, and MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and health sector funding in Part B.
- The Economic Survey 2020-21 states that LFPR among productive-age women was 26.5% in 2018-19, and attributes this mainly to their high participation in domestic duties (Volume II, pg. 249).
- The only exception is that under the new labour codes, “women will be allowed to work in all categories and also in the night-shifts with adequate protection.”
- The only related announcement is custom duty rationalisation measures to promote domestic value addition in the mobile phone industry.
- In the pre-Covid world, when the Bihar state government provided girls with bicycles, the programme helped reduce the gender gap in secondary school enrolment. See details here.
- A reskilling/upskilling focus, with digital skills being centre-stage, would also be crucial here.