Towards a gender and poverty-sensitive Budget
All eyes are on the new Finance Minister, who spearheaded Gender Budgeting a decade-and-a- half ago
Fifteen years ago, Nirmala Sitharaman and other Members of the National Commission for Women unanimously prioritised a list of 11 demands for Budget 2004. Sitharaman had just joined NCW as a Member a few weeks before a National Consultation on Gender Budgeting was held in December 2003.
I presented the background paper titled “The Budget: A Gender and Poverty Sensitive Perspective” at the National Consultation. Based on the National and State level consultations with experts and grassroots organisations, the full Commission unanimously prioritised a list of 11 demands in a document titled “Budget 2004 — NCW Memorandum for the Union Finance Minister”. These were:
(i) Reduction in MMR in 300 districts where it was high;
(ii) Access to basic village infrastructure through sustainable supply of water and individual household latrines;
(iii) Regenerating 100 million hectares of degraded lands and water bodies to provide employment as well as environmental sustainability;
(iv) Earmarking funds for women through SHGs in 100 drought prone
districts for cultivation of medicinal herbs, flowers, vegetables and horticulture;
(v) Support for families of unreached sections such as migrant construction workers through identity cards, medical care, grain ration and children’s education;
(vi) Development of a programme exclusively for traditional fisher-families;
(vii) Employment-linked training for women in traditional and nontraditional trades;
(viii) Provision of all untied Central funds directly to the Panchayats to empower them;
(ix) Development of a Satellite Account to include in detail the invisible work undertaken by women;
(x) Recognition of the invisible work done by women, the “care economy” which is saving the exchequer the burden of doles to the unemployed and relief to the sick and aged;
(xi) Support in the context of the impact of globalisation on women’s unseen and unpaid work.
The issues prioritised for Budget 2004 by the present Finance Minister are precisely the issues that need urgent attention now.
The vexed issue of the invisibility of women’s economic activities as well as their care work and unpaid work are yet to be recognised. There Still invisible is an incorrect perception that the female work participation rate in India is very low. Unpaid SNA work or unpaid economic contribution of millions of Indian women on family farms, looking after livestock, making snacks and contributing to products that are sold by the men in the household remains unrecognised and invisible.
The lack of attribution of women’s SNA Work or Contribution to Economic Activities and GDP must be rectified through accurate data collection and probing questions. Most women in villages and slums work to enable the survival of their families and additionally carry the double and triple burden of domestic duties and care work.
However, despite working so hard the returns are so low that they are unable to meet their household expenses. Adequate budgetary allocations are needed to ensure effective and full implementation of existing legislations such as MGNREGA as well as access to decent work at living wages.
Development of infrastructure such as roads, especially rural roads is important. But it is even more important to ensure that pavements alongside roads are safe. Pavements are used by the majority of those who are poor. Similarly, toilets in homes and community toilet blocks have been built in rural areas but access to sustainable sources of water and functionality need attention.
We still need to address poverty, malnutrition, mortality and ill health. We are ranked 103 out of 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index 2018. Shocks such as ill health exacerbate the situation of the poor and cause descent into poverty of those who are above the poverty line.
Hence, it is important to provide universal and equitable access to quality health care that is publicly provisioned and free not just for pregnant women but across the lifecycle. Far higher budgetary allocations are needed to achieve universal access to healthcare.
Ayushman Bharat provides partial coverage for part of the population, but the scheme needs to be extended and universalised. Allocations are also needed to support all those who are vulnerable and unreached. Migrant construction workers and fisherfolk are only two of the many such groups.
Social protection cannot be reduced to tokenism. For instance, the amount allocated by the Centre for old age pension or widow pension is ₹200 per month and is far too low. Central caps on such allocations must be removed.
India was at the forefront of Gender Budgeting a decade and a half ago. However, over the years we slowly lost the gains we had made. The Gender Budget requires substantial work by Gender Budget Cells of Ministries and Departments as well as mindful implementation of the Gender Budget Charter issued in 2007 for it to be meaningful. We hope that a Finance Minister who spearheaded Gender Budgeting decades ago, will make this a reality.
The writer is Visiting Professor, Institute for Human Development, New Delhi
Women’s work CH VIJAYA