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India's gender budget 2022-23: Will it foster women-led development?

The 2022-23 gender budget has failed to present a sensitive front to prioritise critical challenges that women face in light of the ongoing pandemic
Last Updated : 16 February 2022, 07:21 IST
Last Updated : 16 February 2022, 07:21 IST

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Gender budgets have come to be recognised as a fiscal tool to rectify gender inequities and ensure women have access to socio-economic benefits as much as men. With this aim in mind and to bridge the prevailing gender divide, India began issuing gender budgets in 2005. India's gender budgets have succeeded in drawing attention to pressing gender issues. Now, given the adverse impact of Covid-19 on women and girls, gender-responsive budgeting has become more critical than ever.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented India's 17th gender budget on February 1. In her speech, the FM emphasised shifting the focus from women's development to women-led development. In the context of the ongoing health crisis and the exacerbating gender inequalities, it is essential to understand whether the current gender budget truly serves as an instrument for ushering women-led development in the post-pandemic era.

A quick snapshot

The direction provided by India's 2022-23 budget predominantly focuses on stimulating growth, with several new initiatives launched to place the country on a well-defined path of economic recovery. Taking this vision forward, India's gender budget 2022-23 also aims to address challenges women face and create opportunities for inclusive development, a top priority of Amrit Kaal, the 25-year lead up to India at 100.

But unfortunately, despite the country's big vision, the quantum of this year's gender budget, like previous years, has continued to remain below five per cent of the total expenditure and less than one per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Meanwhile, in terms of absolute numbers, Rs 1,71,006.47 crore has been allocated for women-centric schemes under the gender budget 2022-2023, which is an increase of 11.5 per cent from Rs 1,53,326 crore allotted in the 2021-22 budget estimates (BE).

However, as a proportion of total expenditure, the gender budget has declined from 4.4 per cent to 4.3 per cent for 2022-23. This is despite the 4.72 per cent of the total expenditure allocated to women's programmes in the pre-pandemic era of 2020. According to an analysis by the All India Democratic Women's Association, the overall gender budget has decreased from 0.71 per cent of the GDP of the revised estimates (RE) for 2021-22 to 0.66 per cent of the BE for 2022-2023.

Under the current gender budget, the Part A component, which comprises 100 per cent women-specific schemes, has been allocated Rs 26,772.89 crore, increasing by six per cent from the last gender budget where Rs 25,260.95 was allocated. Part B, which includes programmes where at least 30 per cent of the allocation is for women, has witnessed a hike of 12 per cent compared to last year, increasing from Rs 1,28,749.83 to Rs 1,44,233.58 crore.

Shattered expectations

And though the gender budget in India has evolved with learning and recommendations year after year, witnessing an eleven-fold increase in the last 17 years, women have, in reality, continued to form the country's untapped potential. But the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has further heightened their vulnerabilities where women are experiencing disproportionate job losses, layoffs, and slower employment recovery.

In January 2022, the size of the female labour force in India was still 9.4 per cent smaller than in January 2020. Meanwhile, the rate of the male labour force has already recovered to the pre-pandemic levels. The Covid-19 health crisis has pushed more and more women towards casual labour. From January to March 2021, women accounted for 9.3 per cent of the casual labour force against 7.7 per cent during January to March 2020.

The current gender budget was, thus, expected to provide assistance to women to recover and grow through economic opportunities, tax benefits, formal sector jobs and better financial inclusion. However, approximately 91 per cent of the increase in this year's gender budget is from schemes in Part B, which are only 30 per cent reserved for women. In contrast, the increase in Part A that is entirely reserved for women only received a meagre hike. While one might think these percentages are staggered across ministries, the truth is that a total of 10 schemes constitute nearly 80 per cent of the gender budget 2022-23.

This clustering of the gender budget into a few schemes is, nonetheless, indicative of the lack of gender mainstreaming, particularly in job-creating sectors, including infrastructure or industrial development. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), of which women constitute a large number of the beneficiaries and often depend on it for employment, has been reduced by 20 per cent. Evidently, women-centred employment opportunities have not been prioritised in the current gender budget, especially in rural areas.

But apart from women employees, the situation of women entrepreneurs also appears calamitous. According to the National Sample Survey (NSS), less than 21 per cent of women are in the MSME sector in India, concentrated across industries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality, tourism, salons, etc. To help these women entrepreneurs to recover efficiently, the government should have provided tax relaxations or incubation centres so that small brands could sustain themselves. However, fiscal response measures in the current gender budget have failed to protect the affected women-led MSMEs and did not provide them with any tax relief.

In her budget speech, the FM announced that nearly two lakh Anganwadis would be upgraded this financial year to have better infrastructure and audio-visual aids to improve early childhood development environments. But the schemes that will cover these expansions, such as the Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 schemes of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, have received Rs 20,263.07 crore, a little hike of 0.75 per cent from last year's budget.

Apart from rising unemployment and income losses, growing vulnerabilities due to the pandemic have also confronted women in India with increased unpaid care work burdens, more domestic violence cases, and the widening gender digital divide. Yet, schemes that focus on providing safety to women, such as One Stop Centres, Mahila Police Volunteer, Women's Helpline, Nari Adalat, have declined from Rs 587 crore in 2021 to Rs 562 crore this year. In addition, the Digital Saksharta Abhiyan targeted towards the promotion of digital literacy saw a reduction of 17 per cent in this year's gender budget and allocation for the Digital India Programme was reduced to zero.

The education sector has been a significant gainer for this financial year, with allocations for the Samagra Shiksha scheme for school education increased by 25 per cent. The Department of Higher education received a 10 per cent hike. But despite this laudable move, allocations for the National Scheme for Incentive to Girl Child for Secondary Education, a key programme to bridge learning losses for teenage girls as schools reopen, has been provided with no allocation at all. Lest we forget, women's access to education at all levels is an essential prerequisite for development and building a better society.

Conclusion

Overall, the focus of the 2022-2023 gender budget might have been on alleviating gender inequality, but in reality, it has failed to present a sensitive front to prioritise critical challenges that women are facing in light of the ongoing pandemic. However, given that India's economic growth had already been witnessing a decline even before the onset of Covid19, its revival in the post-pandemic era will be impossible if women continue to be left out. It is perhaps time that the Indian government begins to walk its talk on bringing about women-led development.

(Akanksha Khullar is the Country Coordinator for India at the Women's Regional Network)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 16 February 2022, 07:21 IST

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