Decoding the Budget Through a Feminist Lens
“The work women do, the care economy, is the backbone on which the mainstream economy rests.”
The Union Government unveiled its budget for the financial year 2023-2024 — and emphasized women empowerment as a key highlight. To read between the lines of the budget through a feminist lens, The Swaddle’s Rohitha Naraharisetty spoke to Professor Vibhuti Patel, who was a former professor at the Advanced Center for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
TS: What are facts about women’s economic lives that the budget routinely overlooks? Is this year any different?
VP: First of all, the budget overlooks the gender gap in five important areas. One, we still have an adverse sex ratio. Second is education — right from school to college education, there is a big gender gap. Third is employment — the work participation of women has been continuously declining since 2013, when it was 37% — now it is 19%. Economic independence is the minimum necessary condition for a woman to lead a dignified life. Fourth is decision making — you’ll see one finance minister, but in her whole team, you don’t see any gender economists. There is no dearth of gender economists or women who have dedicated their whole life to bringing gender into the mainstream, but they are still not consulted. Fifth is gender-based violence which has escalated so much. Whether it was last year’s budget or this year’s, it only focuses on supply-side economics and growth, but growth per se doesn’t translate to welfare or empowerment.
We need affirmative action for responsiveness to all intersectional vulnerabilities, especially for Dalit and Adivasi women. Women from these minorities, and also working-class women, have hardships, especially in the post-Covid19 scenario and amid inflation, and extremely high youth unemployment. So I think it is not only the allocation, but also how you design the program that is equally important.
TS: This year, the budget for women and children’s development increased by 267 crores as compared to last year. At the outset, should women and child development be clubbed together in budget planning? What are the implications of this?
VP: When we look at the total percentage of the total budget, it’s very little. This was true even last year. Looking at inflation and the magnanimity of the problem, we need far more.
Women and children should be separated because right now, the majority of the budget goes to Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which also addresses women and children. And the second part of this allocation goes to reproductive and Child Health (RCH). So you are addressing women in the age group of, say, 15 to 49, who are menstruating — who are seen as producers of babies. What about girls in the zero to five age group? What about senior citizens? How many women do you have in the pension scheme? Does it solve the problem of widows who are facing tremendous, multi-faceted, existential crises? No. And currently, you have Covid19 widows and orphans, but what kind of support systems have you created for them? The focus is only on production, the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and heavy automation.
All the schemes, on the other hand, are addressed to only those who are landholders. But women are basically marginal farmers, poor peasants — and that too only 8% of them. Only they will be eligible to have the Kisan card and state subsidies.
Even if you’re talking about, say, support to self-help groups (SHGs), there’s big applause about the budget allocating massive resources to SHGs. Yes, they did play a heroic role during the pandemic, but who will mediate them? If you are just parking money in private microfinance, they will exploit these women. We have had cases of women borrowers dying by suicide because of the bouncers who would humiliate and degrade them. These are some of the very serious concerns that we have.
Also, look at the budget on gender-based violence: with the Nirbhaya fund that has been allocated since 2013 — 1,000 — crores per year, you hardly see any utilization. There are states and union territories where there is 100% non-utilization of the fund. Though there is a clause that money cannot be diverted, most of the time, what is allocated for gender gets diverted. In Maharashtra, they recently bought SUVs and vehicles for MLAs using the Nirbhaya fund. On paper, we say that money cannot be diverted, but that’s what is happening at an operational level. So when you don’t have women in leadership positions, and I don’t mean one or two token women, but also in a critical minimum, nearly 1/3 or 1/5 of them in a decision-making body, then these kinds of proclamations don’t result in practical intervention.
TS: 7 lakh income tax rebate is lauded as a relief. With respect to women, what are the implications of the budget not recognizing that there is so much economic value generated by uncompensated labor?
VP: In the pyramid of poverty, informal sector women are at the bottom — and now they even stopped talking about the informal sector; they’re calling them people with “regular employment.” What do you mean by “regular”? They have just changed the nomenclature.
Economists interested in women’s work, started by Professor Devaki Jain, showed how work is defined. When you ask about women’s work, that question is asked to “heads of the house” — a husband or a father-in-law. They will say we don’t allow women of our family to work. But if you just reframe the question as what are all the activities women are doing from the time they get up to the time they go to bed — then you get all these different activities. You divide those into personal work and caregiver work, like cooking, cleaning, collection of fuel for the water, animal care, elderly and sick. This care work augments family resources. If they’re paid for their work, that would be wage. So time-use analysis, which was introduced by gender economists way back in the 80s, shows this.
If women did not do that work, they would have to purchase water, fuel, cooked vegetables, and fruits. So that is also unaccounted for when budgetary allocations are made. So when women enter the labor market, they are already exhausted.
Don’t think that investing in women is a waste of resources or boring. The work women do — the care economy — is the backbone on which the mainstream economy rests. You have to acknowledge that. There are only one or two countries in the world that are counting this work — Iceland is one. They give the value of care work that the women in the country have produced.
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TS: There was another key point in the budget that said that KYC processes will be simplified, and the PAN card will be used as a common identifier for digital systems. On the one hand, we’re creating document-based dependencies, and on the other hand, they announced a new savings scheme for women and mobilized 81 lakh self-help groups. These savings schemes and self-help groups — also would require the same kind of documentation, right?
VP: It’s going to cause major calamity to women in the informal sector and poverty. We have heard of so many cases of deaths due to starvation because the ration office would not give them ration without a bank card. So I think that is going to be very distressing.
Across all anti-poverty programs, the people who got excluded were those who did not have Aadhar. And who were they? They were women-headed households, they were tribal communities, Dalit women, migrant workers, and those who are displaced due to mega development projects, and that is happening at a big level. Now also, this budget is talking about massive investment in infrastructure, but every infrastructure project displaces lakhs of people. Everything is just left to the market. Even if the funds are getting wasted, the beneficiaries will not be able to access them without documents.
TS: This year there was 1.12 lakh crore allocated to education, which is supposed to be the highest ever allocation in recent years. Does it ensure that these benefits accrue to girls and women in higher education?
VP: India’s budgetary allocation is less than 3%. The National Education Policy has recommended 6% of the GDP for education this year; what you’ve got is 2.9% which is less than half. Today when you’re going for a hybrid model — online as well as offline — no matter what, children from marginalized sections are not going to have accessibility.
Three crores of India’s children are forced out of school — I wouldn’t call them dropped out — and girls are still struggling to get back. They have already lost 20 months of studies. The ASER report says that they are taking admission, but how are they going to cope with the lag? So many children refuse to go because those who have had resources, have moved ahead by two standards, and they will be left behind, and they will be called stupid. In the hybrid model, there’s a requirement to buy smartphones. And if there is one smartphone, it goes to the boy — the girl doesn’t get it. And that is the moment that girls stop going to school. This leads to their being considered a burden, leading to trafficking as well as child marriages.
In higher education, new private universities are charging very high fees. So, you now reach a stage where children from the marginalized sections are able to clear the central exams, and they go above the cutoff, but they don’t have money to pay the full fees.
TS: Minority scheme funds were slashed by 38% compared to last year – and minority women will be impacted more. But when the government highlights women’s empowerment in this budget, which woman does it have in mind?
VP: When it comes to Dalits, Muslims, and so on, there’s a lot of invisibilization. They will suffer the most — the reduction of budget in the Ministry of Minority Affairs, SC Funds, funds for Specially Vulnerable Tribal Groups, never reach the groups. So many student scholarships have been slashed. Schemes for self-employment, entrepreneurship, supply of clean water, affordable housing — they’re not there. It gives a message that minorities are secondary citizens; they are not part of the development endeavor. This is the first time it’s happened where this is categorically implied. Mainstream economists applaud slashing the MGNERGA budget because they see it as a leakage. This is the difference in logic and terminology that’s affecting everyone.
Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare allocated 16.5% more than last year. This is loaded because a lot of concerns regarding sexual and reproductive health fall in this category. But we also have high rates of maternal mortality. What can we take away from this?
VP: Women are also vulnerable to cancer — sanitation plays a role in this. How are you going to strengthen the public health system? Will you provide more services or subsidize the private sector? The private sector doesn’t care — it will flourish at the cost of taxpayers’ money.
If we look at the overall pie, women are only a small slice of it. How can budgets be more gender-sensitive?
VP: Gender commitments need to transform into financial commitments. We need to create systems and functionaries working at the ground level to reduce the five vital areas. The inclusion of women at every level is extremely important. Not token one or two women — we need more gender-sensitive economists and decision-makers.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.