By Ila Ananya
When the budget came out last year, we wondered what exactly Arun Jaitley and his Finance Ministry thought they were doing. They had quite happily decided to ignore maternal mortality, primary education, and malnutrition, among many other things, and there was no mention of any women-oriented policies (except cooking gas). Even the scheme meant for the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act hadn’t got any allocation.
A year on, with Uddhav Thackeray wondering just why we have the budget every year when the previous year’s budget isn’t implemented, and Mamata Banerjee poetically tweeting, “A controversial #Budget2017 which is clueless, useless, baseless, missionless and actionless. Heartless,” after the session, it seems like this year hasn’t really been any better for women.
If you spent your morning following various Twitter feeds to find out what people were saying about the budget, while watching Jaitley on television announcing it morosely (he even broke into poetry once), you might have come across GIFs on his poetry and people waiting to hear about tax cuts with baited breath. But the general impression is that you’d have to strain your ears a bit to hear what the budget had for women — in most cases, women were included within allocations for other disadvantaged classes, with no understanding that there might be different problems for each of them. This is even though conversations about gender budgeting (that the Kerala and Kolkata governments decided to implement in 2017) have increased this year.
Gender budgeting itself is based on the argument that the outcomes of policy reform aren’t usually gender neutral and can end up adversely affecting minorities. Of course, the government doesn’t seem to have thought about it as something other than women-specific schemes. As Priyanka Chaturvedi and Vidisha Mishra argue in their piece in The Hindu, the idea of gender budgeting, it seems, is to rigorously look at every policy decision through a gendered lens rather than having just these few women-specific schemes: Something that last year’s budget certainly didn’t do. And while women this year were wondering about demonetisation, tax cuts, housing loans, and benefits for start-ups, it seems like things haven’t changed much, despite numerous reports about how a lot more women were involved in the budget-making process this year.
What’s making the rounds as a big announcement — Hindustan Times has even said that women and child welfare continues to be “a key thrust area of the Narendra Modi government” — is that there has been an allocation of Rs 1.86 lakh crore (increased from last year’s Rs 1.56 lakh crore) for women and children across ministries. But there were unanswered questions here too, with the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) wondering whether this increase included Dalit and Adivasi women. They stated explicitly that their demand was for schemes that would directly help the community, with a special focus on Dalit and Adivasi women (which was unsurprisingly lacking).
Strangely, what’s being presented with even more fanfare (the Ministry WCD and others have been tweeting about this incessantly with #Budget4Women), is the scheme for pregnant women that our Prime Minister Narendra Modi had come up with on New Year’s Eve, as though it was a big shiny present for women living in rural areas everywhere. It guaranteed a transfer of Rs 6,000 to women who underwent institutional deliveries, but if you’ve happily blanked it from your memory, it’s the same scheme that wasn’t really new. While Modi had played it up as an attempt to curb infant mortality rate, the scheme conveniently ignored a huge section of women and the range of problems women face in accessing healthcare. It came with many conditions, as reported in The Ladies Finger, and shifted away from what should have been the focus: To improve the quality of health services in government hospitals, and making home deliveries safer.
It seems like the only other two schemes exclusively for women are the Mahila Shakti Kendras and a doubled allocation for the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao to Rs 200 crore. For the Mahila Shakti Kendras, the government has promised to set them up with a budget allocation of Rs 500 crore in 14 lakh anganwadi centres in what the government claims will promote “self-reliance” among women. Then there’s also to be increased sanitation coverage in rural areas, which will “improve women’s health and security.”
So can the budget be viewed as a dheela improvement if compared to last year’s only exclusive scheme for women (cooking gas)? The WCD Ministry has also put out a whole bunch of tweets about the “provisions for women” — schemes with other focuses that might in the process benefit women, with no guarantee that they’ll actually benefit them. Take the Aadhaar smart cards for instance. According to Jaitley, the smart cards are going to contain health details that will help senior citizens, particularly women, in accessing health services. How is it going to particularly help women? We don’t really know.
There’s also the argument that since women’s participation in MNREGA has increased to 55 percent, the allocation was increased to Rs 48,000 crore (from last year’s Rs 38,500 crore) in this budget. If this seems like a substantial jump, Fact Check India has helpfully informed us that Rs 9,000 crore had been added on to the Rs 38,500 crore last year, which meant that MNREGA actually got Rs 47,500 crore last year: So the increase has only been by Rs 500 crore. Again, we don’t know how this will specifically benefit women while there are so many people looking for employment.
A bunch of other schemes include a shops and establishment bill that intends to open up additional opportunities for the employment of women, and a SWAYAM platform “for free of cost digital learning launched to bridge the digital divide for students, especially girls”. Ninety crore has been allocated to the setting up of One Stop Centres — the same ones that should have come up back in 2015. There’s also an allocation of Rs 50 crore for Working Women’s Hostels, and a Stand Up India scheme to support women entrepreneurs to start “green field enterprises” — which has been announced as also for Dalits and Adivasis. And just increasing available loan limit doesn’t mean anything when there’s no data about how many women actually ask for loans.
The more you begin to read about this already short list of schemes, the more you begin to wonder — what would have happened if the government had thought of including tax cuts for women, because women who belong to the salaried class are already so low? Or that when they were talking about improving the skills of “youth”, did they attempt to look at the skills of young women? Where is there any recognition of the unorganised sector (which is where a lot of women work) or anything about ways in which the Nirbhaya fund could be used or about family courts and more women in the police force? While what’s in Budget 2017 might seem like a lot more than last year, there is also the sense that this is only a list buried somewhere in a mostly average budget whose audience is male, and that hasn’t really begun to look at women as more than a token gesture.
Co-published with Firstpost.