Since 2005, gender as a component has been part of the Union budget. Successive governments have been incorporating gender-responsive measures in their annual budgets. The latest, 2023 budget, too has accounted for this with schemes dedicating anywhere between 30% and 100% for women-specific programmes.
Union finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, at the start of her budget speech stressed the need for building an “inclusive India” with a special focus on women and children – an idea that has received widespread applause from across the country. Whether such a goal will be a reality on the ground should be seen.
The only new scheme she announced for the women is Mahila Samman Savings Certificate. It will be valid for a two-year period up to March 2025. This savings scheme will enable women to deposit a maximum amount of Rs 2 lakh for a tenure of two years at a 7.5% interest rate.
While the interest rate is high enough for a savings account, there is hardly any ingenuity about this scheme as the data on financial literacy suggest that Indian women do not usually operate their finances on their own. A likely problem that the scheme may encounter is that most men would simply have their wives open a bank account under their names and reap the benefits of this scheme. Further, to take advantage of this scheme in the first place, women should be earning enough and have enough opportunities to work. However, in creating such opportunities, the government has tightened its purse strings.
In this regard, the allocations made for Deendayal Antodya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM) in the 30% women-specific programmes need to be talked about. One of the key components of DAY-NULM, which is structured to help women, is the setting up of self-help groups (SHGs) among urban poor women. These groups provide a platform for the urban poor women to come together and take up collective economic activities. They are also provided with training and financial assistance for setting up micro-enterprises. Although the government had allocated Rs 450 crore in 2022-23, their revised estimates almost halved that amount to Rs 275 crore. Shockingly, the government did not allocate any funds to the scheme in this year’s budget.
The woe of women looking to work and earn a living does not end there. The National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) was introduced in 2011 with the objective of providing rural women financial stability by providing them with employment opportunities. However, the allocation for NRLM was increased by a mere 5%.
But, at the same time, the allocation for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) saw a decrease of 16% from the revised estimates for 2022-2023. This will again affect women’s employment since MGNREGS saw an active participation of 34.60% in 2022-2023 and a decrease in allocation at the time of a predictable recession is worrisome.
The government proudly presented that part A of the gender budget which accounts for a 100% allocation to women-specific programmes went up by almost 70% from Rs 26,772.89 crore in 2022-23 to Rs. 88,044.20 crore in 2023-24. While this is a huge increase, two things need to be kept in mind.
Firstly, the revised estimate for 2022-23 was Rs 90,564.35 crore. So, if the revised estimate is accounted for here, the allocated budget actually reduced by approximately 3%.
Secondly, a huge chunk of the fund, around 38% (Rs 54,487 crore) has been devoted to Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana.
SAMBAL (Scheme for Adolescent Girls) aimed at improving the nutritional and health status of adolescent girls in India was granted Rs 562 crore. On a closer look, it can be noted that this is the same allocation as last year (2022-2023) although the revised budget estimate for last year fell by 41% to Rs 333 crore.
Similarly, SAMARTHYA is a scheme aimed at empowering women and promoting gender equality. The allocation for this has dropped as well by 2% from Rs 2,547 crore to Rs 2,496 crore. But interestingly, the revised estimates take a hit here as well, where it is reduced by 25% to Rs 1,911 crore as shown in Figure 2.
These policies were gender specific and highly promoted by the Union government. However, interestingly, this year’s budget, in conforming with the logic being employed in the post-pandemic years has exposed the unenthusiastic attitude of the Union government towards women empowerment. Misrepresenting numbers or mere platitudes declaring that Indian women are the government’s priority have failed to bring about any noticeable change in their lives. The time for action is now and the budget should have reflected that.
Poulomi Ghosh is a Research Fellow at Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University.