With its focus on the common people, the so-called aam aadmi, the 2017-18 union budget has helped foster government’s populist image. It has also strengthened the view that rescheduling of the annual budget was done with an eye on the polls in three Indian states of UP, Punjab and Goa.
How well do the budget provisions translate into electoral gains is yet to be seen. It can be conjectured, however, that many, particularly, the women are not too impressed with what Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had to offer. There may not be many women swing voters favouring BJP after all.
In the current budget, the funds directed to women and child development schemes in various ministries of the government have been upped from Rs 1,56,528 crores in 2016-17 to Rs 1,84,632 crores in 2017-18. The hike looks good numerically but the catch is in the breakdown.
Where is a disaggregated ministry-wise indication for the multiple schemes this money is to be spent on?
Even a week after the budget announcement, there is no clarity on the fine print. How much money is to be spent on women and how much on children? Does this figure include money to be spent on women belonging to the marginalised social and geographic groups? If so, is that over and above what the other ministries have allocated for the marginalised men and women?
Unless there is clarity on classification of the expenditure, it is difficult to say that the increase in the cumulative amount for women and child welfare is a radical step
Jaitley announced the establishment of Mahila Shakti Kendra at the village level in 14 lakh (1.4 million) Anganwadi Centres that are run by Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) to “provide one-stop convergent support services for empowering rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition”. For this, Rs 500 crores have been allocated. Is this amount part of the total allocation mentioned earlier? Since it is to be linked with ICDS, what happens to the funding for maternal and child health?
Additionally, financial assistance of Rs 6,000 each to pregnant women announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 31st December, 2016 has to be scrutinised well. This money is to be transferred directly to the bank accounts of pregnant women who undergo institutional delivery and vaccinate their children. There are existing schemes like Janani Suraksha Yojana under National Rural Health Mission for pregnant women. Will the graded financial assistance under this scheme be replaced by the new dispensation?
Unless there is clarity on classification of the expenditure, it is difficult to say that the increase in the cumulative amount for women and child welfare is a radical step. In December 2016, Ministry of Health turned in a mixed report card on the Millennium Development Goals. The targets missed in the area of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health (RMNCH+A) are a matter of grave concern meriting radical overhaul in the government’s approach. Since we still do not know where and how the money allocated in the budget is to be spent, are various government schemes on RMNCH+A going to bring better results in future?
However, apart from schemes exclusively directed towards the welfare of women, some gender neutral announcements may benefit them. In his budget speech, Jaitley noted that participation of women under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, (MGNREGA) scheme has increased to 55 per cent from less than 48 per cent in the past. Since the budget provision under MGNREGA has been increased from Rs 38,500 crores in 2016-17 to Rs 48,000 crores in 2017-18, it may translate into increased employment opportunities for women in rural India.
A sum of Rs 4,000 crores is allocated for providing market relevant training to 3.5 crore youth. Along with this, the next phase of Skill Strengthening for Industrial Value Enhancement (STRIVE) at a cost of Rs 2,200 crores will focus on “improving the quality and market relevance of vocational training.” Directed at the youth of the country, these may also come to benefit women.
All that can be hoped for right now is a judicious and corruption free use of the allocated funds.
Other than these, there are other projects too that are likely to bring employment and employability to women’s doorstep. These include setting up of five Special Tourism Zones as part of the Incredible India 2.0 Campaign, increased allocations for Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana and National Rural Livelihood Mission for the promotion of skill development and livelihood opportunities for people in rural areas as well as the extension of Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Kendras from 60 to 600 districts.
Another interesting announcement with an indirect, yet, formidable bearing on women’s empowerment is the setting up of a Dairy Processing and Infrastructure Development Fund in National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, NABARD, with a corpus of Rs 8,000 crores over three years. Since many women in rural areas still tend to the cattle singlehandedly, organising this sector further will likely recompense their labour. In conjunction with mandated priority to women in Mudra Yojana, rural women can achieve self-reliance working from their homes.
The Stand Up India loan scheme launched in 2016 to encourage women entrepreneurs along with Dalits and tribals has reportedly spawned 16,000 new enterprises. If this is any indication, an easy access to finance and tax reforms are the key to bolster women’s participation in the workforce. Finance Minister’s silence on tax reforms for women in this budget, therefore, is an oddity. Another conspicuous silence is around women’s safety. Whatever has happened to the Nirbhaya Fund, nobody seems to know.
It can be surmised that ‘Budget 2017-18’ has not paid adequate attention to the specific needs and aspirations of half a billion citizens of India. Merely announcing a hike in the cumulative allocation is insufficient unless matched with a clear sighted approach towards much needed improvements in terms of women’s safety, health, and financial mainstreaming. All that can be hoped for right now is a judicious and corruption free use of the allocated funds. The intended beneficiary needs to know that the government cares.