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Gender Budgeting and Union Budget 2021: Few Hits, Many Misses for Women’s Policy

The Covid 19 pandemic has exacerbated the already existing gender inequalities in India, with women facing the major brunt of the pandemic. The prolonged closure of offices, educational institutions and the emerging norm of ‘work from home’ and online education has led to an increased share of domestic chores, increased state of anxiety, depression and violence against women. The year 2021 comes with the hope of decline of the pandemic and acceleration of the economy. While the whole population eagerly awaited the coming of Union budget 2021 for addressing the issues of crippled economy as well as other socio-economic issues through fiscal response, the women waited more anxiously. This then is the scope of my article; to analyse the Union Budget 2021-22 through a gender lens.

The Gendered Budgeting

Gender Budgeting means preparing budgets or analyzing them from a gender perspective. At its core, gendered budgeting is a feminist policy with primary goal of reorienting the allocation of public resources, advocating for advanced decision making role of women in important issues and securing equity in the distribution of resources between men and women. It allows governments to promote equality through fiscal policies by taking analyses of the budget's differing impact on the sexes as well as setting goals or targets for equality and allocating funds to support these goals.

The idea of gendered budget statement was first implemented in the Union Budget of 2005-06, which allowed for a clear demarcation of funds across centre sponsored schemes and central ministries as an initiative to mitigate gender based inequalities and aimed at creating a more inclusive world. Despite the stark differing impacts of Covid-19 on women, the Union Budget 2021-22 has failed to adequately address the rising inequalities and accommodate new priorities post Covid-19 era.

The Gender Budget has risen by 6.8 percent in the 2021 Union Budget, with Rs 1,53,326 crore being allocated from the previous Rs 1,43,461.72 crores allocated during 2020 budget estimates. The Gendered budget is divided into two parts: Part A which deals with schemes with 100 percent allocation for women and Part B, which deals with schemes in which at least 30 percent of allocation is for women. In the budget estimate of 2020-21, $8.7 billion was added to the original estimate of gender budget as Covid-19 emergency measures. Consequently the revised estimate of 2020-21 was increased to 6% of total allocation and 1% of GDP. However, in the union budget 2021-22, the total allocation has been cut to Rs 1,53,326 crores, which is a staggering 26% lower than 2020-21. It is 4.4% of total budgetary expenditure and 0.7% of GDP. This allocation has proved to be disproportionate in dealing with the after effects of Covid on women. The graph below shows that since 2005-06 the gender budget has become stagnant at around 0-1% of GDP.

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This year too, the Gender Budget has remained concentrated within a few ministries and in the traditional spending areas. Only 34 of the 70+ central ministries and departments reported allocations in the Gender Budget Statement in 2021-22. Between 2005-06 and 2020-21, 90.3% of the Gender Budget was allocated to just five ministries and departments: Rural Development, Agriculture, Women and Child Development, Health and Family Welfare, and Human Resource Development. And in 2021-22 the same five ministries received 87% of the total allocations. This limits the scope of gender budgeting even in the post pandemic era, which has given us the opportunity to rethink our priorities and take concrete steps towards a more resilient future. However, to have any affirmative action addressing the gender concerns, it is preliminary that all ministries should get adequate allocations.

The graph below shows that barring the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the gender budget remains only 30-40% of these ministries’ allocation.

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Recognising the gendered impact of Covid-19, the United Nation has highlighted several key areas such as prevention of domestic violence, skill training, public transport, digital literacy and support for unpaid care work and social protection. Now let's analyse each of these spheres and priorities accorded to them in the Union Budget 2021-22

Digital Literacy and Gender Disparities

Since the announcement of lockdown, technology has played a crucial role in making our year productive. Recognising its importance, the Union Budget 2021-22 which is the first digital budget, has given a strong push to digitisation. The strong push is credible with acknowledgment of ground realities of digital infrastructure, cybersecurity systems and access to technology. However, seeing through the lens of gender, we observe a glaring gender gap in digital access and skills, thus leading to digital exclusion of women. Women as usual have lagged behind due to existing socio-cultural mindsets and patriarchal norms of the society. According to the 75th National Sample Survey(2017-18), only 12.8% of women can operate computers versus 20% of men. Around 71% of men operate mobile phones while only 38% of women own smartphones. Even if any family owns a smartphone it is the only male member who will have priority over female members. Despite the necessity and varying impact of digitisation, only a small allocation has been made for rural digital literacy under the PM Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan in 2021-22. The budget for the centrally sponsored National Scheme of Incentives to Girls for Secondary Education has also come down from ₹ 110 crore in budget estimates for 2020-21 to just ₹ 1 crore in this year's budget estimates.

However, to mitigate this gender divide the government must focus on increasing women's access to devices, boosting their skills and fostering women participation in education, entrepreneurship and innovation as a leverage to bridge the digital gender gap.

India can take a lesson from Argentina and South Africa, who use financial resources from universal service funds to support ICT access to women and girls. Canada, in its 2017 Budget included a new Affordable Access programme assisting service providers to offer low-cost internet packages to low income families. Australia has incentive schemes targeting female customers aimed at fostering adoption of ICTs(e.g. On mobile devices). Alternatively, some countries pursue broadband for all and international development programmes as a way to provide internet access, especially to women. Interventions like these as well as expanding the base of budgetary allocation in this regard will make a profound impact towards a resilient future.

Shadow Pandemic and Safety Concerns of Women

The prolonged disclosure of educational institutions and offices, loss of jobs and livelihoods has created a state of anxiety and depression among women. Along with peaking coronavirus cases globally, we also witnessed the peak of domestic violence in times of pandemic. As is so often happens in patriarchal societies, social conditions of distress result in channeling of rage against women as an outlet mechanism. Recognising this peak, the UN has termed this domestic abuse as a ‘shadow pandemic’. The introduction of the SAMBAL scheme (a grouping of existing schemes, including One Stop Centre, Mahila Police Volunteer, Women's Helpline, Swadhar Greh, Ujjawala, Widow Homes and Working Women Hostel Schemes) has resulted in nearly doubling the budget for tackling cases of domestic violence. But, allocation under Nirbhaya fund has declined to Rs 10 crore against Rs 855 crore in budget estimates of 2020-21.

While some of these are indeed good steps in a good direction, they are insufficient to vaccinate the societal virus; more interventions in addressing this issue are a need of the hour. For instance, during lockdown, the French Government subsequently announced an additional EUR 1 million to fund relief organisations working against domestic abuse, to help cater to an increased number of requests for help. It has also promised to open up pop-up counselling centres and pay for hotel rooms for domestic violence victims. Moreover, victims have also been encouraged to take help from pharmacies discreetly. According to a NBC report, Italy has launched an app that enables domestic violence victims to seek help without making a phone call. A proposal to allocate EUR 4 million for shelter for victims is also being considered.

Gender Sensitive Public Transport and Safe Public Spaces

The massive boost to urban transport is well received in addressing the challenges of women in accessing public transport which restrict women’s economic mobility and limit their opportunities. Smart Cities Mission (an urban renewal programme to develop smart cities across India), and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission (a local economic development program aiming to bridge rural-urban divides through creation of rurban clusters) are progressive in nature. But the 2021-22 Budget estimates for the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (rural housing) remain largely flat. Creating gender sensitive infrastructure and safe places will lead to enhanced participation of women in areas dominated by men as well as it will also foster an inclusive atmosphere. It will also infuse confidence, boost productivity and enhance the socio-economic mobility of women. The segments of industry like gig and platform economy (e.g. delivery boys, Ola Uber cab drivers) are dominated by men and women are left behind due to security and safety concerns. With safe public spaces and gender sensitive public transport, more opportunities for women will open up, thus empowering them.

Health and Food Security

While the country continues to grapple with health and economic crisis, food security and widespread hunger has emerged as a ‘silent emergency’. Direct nutrition programmes such as the Anganwadi programme and Mid-day Meal schemes make a crucial contribution to the diets of children, pregnant and lactating women. In current budget of 2021-22, different schemes have been clubbed together and anganwadi services are now part of ‘Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0’ with allocated budget of Rs 20,105 crore which is less than previous year allocation of Rs 24,557.4 crore for all these schemes.