The Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, on Wednesday 1st February 2017 presented the Annual Financial Statement, the budget for the year 2017-2018 in Parliament. Marking a shift in paradigm, the presentation of the 2017 Budget was advanced to February, before the close of the financial year, and the Railway Budget, which was earlier presented separately, was introduced as part of the annual budget.
The 2017 Budget, which comes in the wake of the demonetisation of high value currency notes on November 8th 2016 by the Central Government, a move which has drawn criticism from all spheres of society, and the aftermath of which is still apparent in the functioning of the Indian Economy, was one from which much was expected as hopes were riding high.
“Spring is the season of Optimism”
– Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister
The preparation of the Annual Budget for 2017 and 2018 saw increased participation of women officers at the formulation stage of the Annual Financial Bill, a close to 41% of the senior level personnel involved in the budget process being women. In contrast to the Budget for the previous financial, the 2017 Budget sees an ample amount of focus on schemes and women-oriented policies. However, the post-demonetisation budget delivering on these promises and expectations is a fragile hope, particularly for the women in India.
With a strong emphasis on digitization of the economy, the underlying themes of the 2017 Budget focus on the rural population and the poor and underprivileged sections of society, incorporating the agenda of TEC India; to Transform the quality of governance and quality of life of the people, to Energise various sections of society, particularly the youth and the vulnerable, enabling them to release their true potential, and to Clean India of the evils of corruption, black money and lack of transparency in political funding.
“Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas begins with the girl child and women.”
– Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister
Women and The Budget: Promises Made
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on 31st December 2016 had announced the implementation of a scheme for assistance to pregnant women and the same has been reinforced under the 2017 Budget. Under the said scheme, Rs. 6000 is to be given to pregnant women who undergo institutional delivery and also vaccinate their children. The financial assistance is to encourage more women to opt for institutional healthcare measures during pregnancy as well as after the delivery of the child and help target the problems faced with regard to the mortality rate of women and infants in India owing to lack of access to proper care.
- The employment guarantee scheme, MNREGA has been allocated Rs. 48,000 crore, the highest to have ever been sanctioned for the scheme. The scheme has seen an increased participation of women – estimated at 55%. The increased funding is sure to generate employment opportunities for more women in the rural sector.
- Under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, the funding for the government’s housing scheme has been increased by Rs. 8,000 crores with a target of completing 1 crore houses. The scheme has been termed as a pro-women scheme targeting women, irrespective of their caste and religion in order to provide them affordable housing and making allotments primarily in their name.
- The National Rural Livelihood Mission is to see an increase in the allocated funds with an aim to promote skill development and create livelihood opportunities for persons in rural India, the focus primarily being on engaging more women from the rural sector in skill enhancement in order to increase economic output.
- Ensuring safe sanitation and making villages open-defecation-free has the been a key policy goal of the Swacch Bharat Mission and the 2017 Budget prioritizes the scheme, ensuring piped water supply as an incentive for villages to be open defecation free. Lack of proper sanitation facilities not only compromises on health but has also been a cause for concern for the safety of women in rural India having led to increased instances of sexual violence against women.
- The 2017 Budget has also focused on energizing the youth of the country by means of quality education and innovation in learning. An Innovation Fund for Secondary Education has been proposed, which, among other things will work towards ensuring gender parity in education. Reforms having been proposed to higher education, the budget also introduced the Swayam Platform which will provide access to online courses and enable virtual learning.The gap in the literacy rates is often widened owing to lack of access to schools and colleges for the women in India and the introduction of a digital platform will aid in eliminating physical barriers that women often face in seeking quality education. SANKALP and STRIVE are two other initiatives for skill strengthening for the development of the youth. The reforms suggested in the education sector, however, have focused more on numbers and figures than chart out a coherent policy for revolutionising education.
The reforms suggested in the education sector, however, have focused more on numbers and figures than chart out a coherent policy for revolutionising education. Further, initiatives in the primary education sector have found no mention in the budget.
- Women have been the focal point of the proposals aimed at the economic advancement of the poor and the underprivileged. The budget proposes setting up of Mahila Shakti Kendras at the village level to promote self-reliance, allocating Rs. 500 Crores across 14 Lakh Anganwadis which is to be utilised towards skill development, digital literacy and the health and nutrition of rural women, as well as generate employment opportunities for them.
- The allocation of funds for Woman and Child Welfare has been increased from Rs. 1,56,528 Crores to Rs. 1,84,632 Crores.
- Proposals have also been made in the healthcare sector for increasing access to medical facilities across the population and ensuring availability of drugs at reasonable prices.
- The welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Minorities has also found a place in the budget with increased allocation of funds and the introduction of outcome-based monitoring of expenditure in the respective sectors by the Niti Ayog.
- Passenger Safety and Hygiene conditions are significant target areas for the Railway Budget for 2017. The Central Government aims at implementing a time bound scheme for ensuring safety and security of passengers allocating Rs. 1 Lakh Crore for the railway safety under the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh set up for the purpose. The government also aims to set up bio-toilets in all Indian train coaches to better hygiene and sanitation conditions.
- A significant measure comes by way of the Stand Up India Scheme originally launched in April 2016. The scheme targets Dalits, tribals, and women, offering support for small-scale entrepreneurs and assisting in the setting up of greenfield enterprises in order to create employment avenues.
Where The 2017 Budget Failed To Deliver
Though women have featured in various schemes and policies proposed by the budget, they have done so as part of a larger group of disadvantaged sections of society and the emphasis on a more gender sensitive budget has been lost to the cause of appeasing the masses. Further, the budget also fails to take into consideration that women as a group cannot be clubbed together for economic policy benefits, in ignorance of the diverse repercussions owing to caste and class.
The 2017 Budget fails to deliver as an economic policy that keeps in mind the importance of gender budgeting, one that would ensure that women across various strata of society may reap the benefits of economic advancement to the same extent as are available to men.
- The claim for parity in pay across genders has been a rising demand in India, However, the newly introduced tax slabs make no exemptions in favour of women. In effect, thereto, despite the widening gap in wages, working and taxpaying women have not been given any concession or benefits to mitigate the economic divide between genders.
- The 2017 budget has the allocation of funds towards encouraging skill development and education of women as well generating employment opportunities for them, particularly in small-scale industries and at the rural level. However, the Budget has no mention allocation towards the Nirbhaya Fund set up for victims of sexual assault.
- Most of the measures sought to be introduced and implemented with regard to employment opportunities and skill development lay focus on increasing women’s participation in the organised sector, whereas it is the unorganised sector that involves women in large numbers and requires regulatory schemes and policies to streamline their economic activity.
- Though Women have been amongst the priority groups targeted by the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, the introduction of the scheme for providing financial aid to pregnant women is not as novel an initiative as it may seem. Women have had access to the said benefits already available to them under schemes like the Janani Suraksha Yojana introduced as long back as 2005 and the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana. The emphasis ideally should have been on drafting measures to help improve health conditions for home deliveries and making the public health system better equipped to provide medical care and services to women.
The Annual 2017 Budget, on paper, may have been a giant leap from its predecessor in terms of formulating schemes and policies aimed specifically at women, and at identifying their role in the Indian Economy. But that alone does not take away from the fact that it fails to deliver as an economic policy that keeps in mind the importance of gender budgeting, one that would ensure that women across various strata of society may reap the benefits of economic advancement to the same extent as are available to men.