Time to walk the talk on gender equity

Budget 2021 must look to unleash the full potential of India’s women to galvanise the economy.

Time to walk the talk on gender equity

Union Budget 2021 comes at a critical juncture, amid expectations of it infusing lifeblood into an economy left frail and battered by a global pandemic. While the Budget is likely to define the template for a resilient recovery, for this to be truly inclusive, it cannot ignore the concerns of women, who constitute 48% of our population.

Women matter to the economy too

Despite all the talk, India continues to be a laggard when it comes to gender equity, as indicated by a rank of 112 out of 153 countries in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index. Women constitute only 23% of the formal workforce in India and their contribution to the GDP is a mere 17%. The pandemic has only exacerbated this divide, by hitting women disproportionately harder in every sense, from health risks to loss of income.

For India to revive its growth momentum, it is critical to ensure the economic empowering and mainstreaming of its women. The forthcoming Budget provides a great opportunity for taking some concrete action to bridge the gender gap.

However, we must first critically review the course gender budgeting has taken in India and imbibe some key lessons.

Towards Gender Budgeting

Gender Budgeting is an important tool for integrating women’s socio-economic development within the fiscal discourse. It allows policy makers to dissect the budget through a gender lens to establish gender differential impacts.

This concept became a mandatory component of the Budget since 2006 and has helped mainstream gender issues into budgetary planning with schemes like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana & Ujjwala Yojana bringing about marked improvements in areas like women’s education and health. While a start has been made, the present system has some serious drawbacks that need to be addressed.

To begin with, the quantum of funds allocated for gender budget is quite paltry.

Last year, the allocation was Rs 1,317 billion, a mere 4.7% of the total budget and it has been below 5% in 5 of the last six years. For the period 2008-09 to 2019-20, the gender budget on an average has been 0.7% of our GDP. The fact that we spend less than 1% of our GDP for woman focused programmes is totally unacceptable and a major stumbling block for women’s upliftment.

The funds have also been mostly concentrated in a few sectors rather than a more widespread allocation. It is important to realise that barriers to women’s development are spread beyond the scope of a few Ministries working in silos; there needs to be a more holistic approach to gender equity. The process of allocation is often arbitrary rather than a result of grassroot level planning which involves fixing a target outcome and then determining the inputs required to attain the same.

Implementation is key

On ground implementation has been less than satisfactory with funds lying unutilised in many cases and no impact assessment of key programmes. The government needs to ensure better targeting by identifying sectors where women focused programmes can have maximum impact and also fix accountability through better monitoring and regular audits for flagship schemes.

Gender budgeting will yield best results only when we switch our focus from mere spending to actual outcome.

Budget for women empowerment

All eyes are now on the Union Budget and I look forward to some high-impact measures to ensure that women are very much integral to the post pandemic rebuilding of our economy.

I would urge a significant increase in allocation of overall funds for programmes targeted at women to catalyse our journey towards gender equity.

The funds should primarily be spent on three core areas – health, education and livelihood.

Following are some key initiatives that I would like to see in the forthcoming Budget from the perspective of woman empowerment:

Increase funding to ensure affordable and universal healthcare for women and girls – set up telemedicine/ e-medicine facilities. Scale up Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana and National Nutrition Mission for wider impact.

Allocate funds to enable girls to pursue digital education in the ‘new normal”, Expand Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme

Increase allocation for MNREGA so it can employ migrant woman labourers returning to native villages.

Enhance financial aid for women via the self-help group model through schemes like National Rural Livelihood Mission.

Reskilling/Upskilling programme for women who lost their jobs due to pandemic to enable reabsorption. Policies and benefits for flexible and contract women workers.

Special fund and dedicated incubators for women entrepreneurs – ensure access to mentorship, skill development support & collateral free finance.

Tax breaks and easier compliance for woman led businesses, preferential treatment in Government procurements.

Create a database of informal sector workers and migrant labour (a bulk of whom are women) and bring them under various social security schemes.

Raise income tax exemption limit u/s 80 C for women from Rs 1.5 lakh to 2.5 lakh to increase their cash in hand.

Improve infrastructure for women’s safety in public spaces.

Swami Vivekananda had famously said: “It is impossible for a bird to fly on one wing”. Economic empowerment of India’s women can catalyze our journey towards a $5 tn economy as well as Atmanirbhar Bharat.

Budget 2021 must look to unleash the full potential of India’s women to galvanise the economy. Gender responsive budgeting is not just a matter of equity, but also efficiency. India would do well to refine its gender budgeting exercise by learning from countries like Australia, Korea and Uganda and make it a more potent tool for achieving gender parity – quicker and better.

(The writer is Chief Sustainability, CSR and Communications Officer at ReNew Power. Views expressed are personal)