WOMEN'S WELFARE STILL REMAINS LOW PRIORITY
The Union Budget 2016 was expected to be a harbinger of change, and justifiably so. With the change of government at the Centre, the new budget was meant to be a reflection of the aspirations of a new India. Clarion calls like 'Make in India' and 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' set the stage for a massive overhaul of fund allocation, and radical change was envisioned, especially in the social sector by the masses who had been disgruntled with the previous government.
It is especially for this strata that the Union Budget 2015-16 comes as a major disappointment. The social sector largely remains at the bottom of the pecking order, with considerable reductions and slashes in social sector centric policies. Of these, the women of the nation seem to have borne the maximum brunt. This paper aims to look at the Union Budget 2015-16 through a gender lens.
It is important to note that gender disparity manifests not just inside the closed doors of a house, but in the public sphere as well. Institutional mechanisms need to be mobilised targeting both the public and private sphere in order to bring about equality. Till the time inclusivity is made to be a key priority for development of the nation, our progress will be one-sided. Developing on this tangent of inclusive development and gender sensitive budgeting, the fund allocation of various ministries to women- oriented programmes will be analysed.
The Finance minister has planned only an additional Rs. 5000 crore to be allocated to the MGNREGA Scheme (if this is an increase in the government's Revenue receipts), which will prove to be major setback to women headed households of the economically weaker social strata. The merely symbolic allocation, in lieu of the inflation, will retain the survival of these widowed, separated or deserted women, in its already strenuous struggle. Additionally, increased indirect taxes will also add to their woes.
The budget saw the Ministry zealously batting for the Jan Dhan Adhar and Mobile Network scheme (JAM) for cash transfer. Going by the economic survey presented along with the budget, it aims to replace the Public Distribution System with the uniform application of JAM scheme to implement food subsidies. The PDS has had a history of failing to eradicate malnutrition among the women of the country, it is now up to the government to prove the new scheme's efficiency.
In great contrast to its widely publicised Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Abhiyan, the government's stand for girl's education is clearly weak, with its overall gender budget for school education coming down by 8.3% over last year's revised estimate. The budget for Sarva Siksha Abhiyan has also been cut down by 9.5%. Ironically, the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Abhiyan was allocated only the meagre amount of Rs. 100 crore.
Despite the persistent demands for universal social security cover for women workers, this budget does not lay much attention on the needs of working women, especially those of the unorganised sector. Considering the overall insufficiency of the finances allocated here, there is not much to hope from the allocations for pension, old age pension and safety net fund. Days ahead appear tough for single working women with the budget virtually phasing out schemes akin to single women, one stop crisis centres, with only a pitiable allocation of Rs. 30 crore for working women's hostels. Thepressing issue of paid maternity leave for workers of the informal sector finds no place in these plans as well.
On the flip side, budget for the Nirbhaya Fund has been increased by Rs. 100 crore. But how much improvement in situation will this lead to is questionable as the allocations of the last two years remain poorly utilised due inefficient and insufficient planning.
India's path to universal social security continues to be distorted, with the government showing no enthusiasm towards the goal. Universal maternity benefit remains untouched, despite the staggering maternal and infant mortality rates of the country. Notwithstanding talks about the raise of agriculture credit target from Rs.50, 000 crore to Rs. 8.5 trillion for 2015-16 fiscal year and financial support to enhance irrigation and soil health for higher agriculture productivity, women farmers receive no specialised benefits from the budget.
The budget allocates Rs. 70000 crore to the infrastructure sector, again, with no clear statement about the government's plans for infrastructure for improving women's stature in the economy. It also forgets to address the issue of reduction in the daily grind of unpaid care work done by women.
With the total budget for the Ministry of Women and Child Development being slashed by 55% (from Rs. 13,215 crore to Rs. 9,236 crore) the reduction in allocations for the Integrated Child Development Scheme and Mid-Day Meal Scheme comes as no surprise. Ironic as it is, of the one-third of the world's extreme poor concentrated in India, children are the most vulnerable.
The general apathy of the ministry's budget towards women's issues and needs comes as not that big a surprise, considering the male dominated working committee behind it. In testing times, such as this, where India's score on human development and innovation is crucial to its global stature, the budget disappointingly remains ignorant towards the promotion of entrepreneurship, and gender equity falls several steps behind with the overall swing of its schemes, which seem to retain power sectors as male centric, with most women-oriented measures being taken only in the service sector. In the same neighbourhood of decisions, is the limiting of most women's development schemes funds to about Rs.100 crore. The Centre's plan is to make state governments compensate for its low allocation of funds for such schemes (through directing of more tax incomes to states, as per the 14th Finance Commission), only acts as a better representative of its prioritisation of issues.