By Taruni Kumar
As the camera panned across the Lok Sabha while Finance Minister Arun Jaitley delivered his last Budget before the 2019 elections, in one quick glance only three women could be spotted amid a sea of men. There are only 64 women Members of Parliament in a 543-member strong Lok Sabha. So, on occasion, Mr Jaitley’s repeated “Madam” as he addressed Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan seemed a little jarring. Similar to the act of looking for the women in a crowded Parliament, is the task of looking for the women in the 2018-19 Budget.
There is no separate section or segment addressed at women like in the 2017 Budget when a separate allocation of Rs 1.86 lakh crore was made for various schemes for women and children across ministries and Rs 1.56 lakh crore in 2016.This, in itself isn’t a problem as long as the Budget itself takes into account women’s needs. But as development economist Dr Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told The Ladies Finger, “The government sees regressive roles of women in the society.” The Budget itself seems to remain status-quoist in that it assumes that it needs to ease the needs of women as per their current social roles.
“It uses a certain lens,” says Dr Ratna Sudarshan, Trustee and former Director of the Institute of Social Studies Trust. “It’s not a gender-blind budget statement but it’s recognised women in their present role. Women in the household: what can you do to make them better? ‘We want women to work’ is definitely an underlying idea but it doesn’t look at what prevents them from working and what are the challenges. It’s not looking at changing the pattern of development. It’s assuming that everyone’s [all genders and demographics] needs are the same but it’s definitely trying to bring women into the processes of economic growth that are already going on.”
Despite this baseline criticism, some feminist economists think overall this year’s Budget is a positive move for women. The National Health Protection Scheme, which is the new healthcare insurance scheme announced by Mr Jaitley aimed at covering 10 crore vulnerable families (which adds up to about 50 crore beneficiaries) stands out as a key step. This was announced as the “world’s largest healthcare programme.” It will provide a health insurance cover of Rs 5 lakh per family per annum. The scale of the initiative makes it stand out. This is the new version of the Rashtriya Swasthya Suraksha Yojana (RSSY) which was the renamed version of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY).
“I think the idea of the insurance cover for the poverty households is a brilliant and meaningful proposal,” says Padma Bhushan-awardee, economist and writer Dr Devaki Jain.
“When women are ill, very often they are not treated as carefully as men in rural India but now with insurance they can go to any hospital like Fortis or Apollo and get the best services because they’re covered. That will improve the access to health and push for treatment for women even among the rural poor or the urban poor.”
Dr Sudarshan says, “The health insurance going up to Rs 5 lakh per household is a huge amount. If implemented properly, they won’t be only particularly for women, but they’ll make a huge difference. But I think equally important is the statement that there will be wellness and health centres. Now, the question of implementation is there because we don’t know what it’ll actually look like in practice but to the extent that we’re recognising the need for distributing health facilities much more widely and close to the place of residence is a very important point.”
But not everyone feels so positively about the healthcare scheme.
Dr Reetika Khera, who teaches economics at IIT Delhi, “If the new healthcare scheme is anything like the RSBY, then it’s hardly anything to cheer about because studies show that RSBY did not reduce out of pocket expenditures for patients. Further, insurance companies and private providers can inflate the costs of tests or procedures. In any case what is required is not just tertiary care. We need a much larger budget for preventive healthcare.”
However, the most condemning criticism comes from Dr Ghosh. “Most of the promises made, there isn’t a budgetary allocation for it. The sheer audacity of this is alarming. That you can claim that so much will be spent and not put in a budgetary allocation. So, when you’re talking about the health insurance for 50 crore people or this massive increase in SC/ST allocation or the huge increase in money spent on rural areas. Most of it is not there in the numbers. Instead, they’re putting most of this in extra-budgetary or non-budgetary sources.”
According a report carried by the fact-checking website factchecker.in, there has only been a 2.7% increase in allocations to the health sector, from Rs 53,198 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 54,667 crore this year. In fact, spending on the health ministry has declined to 2.1% of the total Budget from 2.4% in 2017-18. According to the National Health Policy, health expenditure should be 2.5% of the total GDP by 2025. Given these numbers, it’s difficult to fathom how an expansion of the government health insurance scheme will take place with a reduction in overall spending.
Aside from the scheme, she adds, “They’ve cut money on the National Health Mission which is what employs the ASHAs [Accredited Social Health Activists, who are community health workers working for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare]. There is also very little increase on the Integrated Child Development Services which is for the anganwadis and so on.” There has been a 2.1% decline in the allocation for the National Health Mission.
Digging deeper to find the women in the Budget narrative, one wonders how the allocations announced for micro, small and medium industries (MSMEs) are likely to affect women. The Finance Minister allocated Rs 3,794 crore for credit support, capital and interest subsidy to MSMEs. Last year, the Budget had included tax sops to MSMEs to make them more viable. It reduced tax to 25% for companies with an annual revenue of up to Rs 50 crore. This year, the Budget proposed the cutting of corporate tax to 25% for companies with an annual revenue of up to Rs 250 crore. Dr Jain says, “Now small and medium scale industries as you go further down the line are the ones that employ women. It’s the self-employed women, self-help groups. All these people are under great stress as they don’t get enough credit. 90% of India’s GDP comes from the small industries and 95% of employees in India come from the small industries and normally they’ve [the government] only been pampering the rich. So, this is an interesting variation from the normal.”
Sanitation is a huge issue for women as well especially in the rural sectors and as Dr Sudarshan points out, “We don’t know how much the investment into Swachh Bharat is leading to behaviour change. There is different feedback that one gets from the field but nonetheless toilets do make a very huge difference to women’s health.”
But even as the digging around finds certain potential for positive movement in women’s lives, other not-so-positive developments make themselves known. “The budget for maternity entitlements has actually been reduced. I’m guessing that’s because last year’s budget was more or less unutilised. The required commitment from the centre is Rs 8,000 crores whereas the budget this year is 2400 crores. So even if all of last year’s is added on, it’s still only 5000 crores which is too little,” says Dr Khera.
Dr Ghosh points out that some of the schemes have not actually been well thought out. Such as the Ujjwala scheme that provides free LPG connections to below the poverty line families. The scheme was started in May 2016 and since then 3 crore households have received access to cooking gas connections. This year’s Budget proposes the expansion of the scheme to include 8 crore poor families.
“It turns out so many of the women who are taking it are subsequently not using it because they can’t afford to buy cylinders. And this was not taken into account. And they know this. A large number of the women have not gone back and taken the cylinder because you take the original one and when it runs out, then you don’t have the money to go get another one. And yet they’re expanding the scheme without this basic thing being thought through.”
The hunt to locate the women in this year’s Budget yielded mixed results. While some saw our needs catered to, others feel the needs of women play no role in the Budget planning at all. And just as the Budget sees a continuation in the existing roles of women, which are, needless to say, societally suppressed, there seems to be a continuation in the Budget’s own proposals as well.
“A lot of this Budget has to do with continuation. If we look at agriculture, women’s access to programs does appear to be through self-help groups which has been the case for a long time so it’s not like any new conduit is being created. Apart from health, the other programs are already there. I didn’t see anything dramatically new in women’s role in the economy. It is as perceived,” says Dr Sudarshan.
Co-published with Firstpost