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Nudging more women into workforce: The shift in approach from women-centric to women-led initiatives

Important ongoing initiatives have benefited women in recent years. But no prominent new steps have emerged

analysis Updated: Jul 05, 2019 22:15 IST
Nalini Gulati
Nalini Gulati
Given the expressed intention of enhancing the low, stagnant female labour force participation, the lack of focus in the budget on issues of safety and mobility – a key constraint on women working outside the home – is a glaring omission(Bharat Bhushan Hindustan Times)

The Union Budget 2019-20 is the 15th budget to incorporate Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) since its adoption by India in 2005-06. GRB assumes particular significance this year as the maiden budget of Modi government 2.0 has been presented by Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s first full-time female finance minister, who spearheaded GRB in 2003-04 as a member of the National Commission for Women.

In several countries across the world, GRB is considered a powerful fiscal tool to back efforts towards gender equality with financial commitments. GRB is not just about resource allocation for women’s programmes but the application of a gender lens to the entire budgetary exercise, keeping in view the different needs of women and men. It is especially crucial for India which, despite notable economic growth over the years, has failed to demonstrate adequate improvement in women’s development outcomes. As per the 2018 World Economic Forum report, India’s ranking slipped in terms of gender gaps in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The promise of GRB has been indicated in a 2016 study by the International Monetary Fund showing that Indian states with GRB efforts have made more progress on gender equality in primary school enrolment than those without.

Overall, the gender budget allocation for 2019-20 is Rs 131,699.52 crore — an increase from Rs 121,961.32 crore in 2018-19, remaining close to 5% as a proportion of total expenditure. To say anything meaningful regarding the adequacy of the allocation would require an in-depth analysis of the utilisation of the current allocation. A positive development in the interim budget 2019-20 was that information on actual spend was introduced in the Gender Budget Statement. This is in line with the practice already followed for the rest of the budget — a good beginning for monitoring of the gender component. Sitharaman has proposed to form a broad-based committee with government and private stakeholders to evaluate GRB and suggest actions for moving forward.

Highlighting gains in women’s political participation in terms of voter turnout in the recent general election and number of women in Parliament, the finance minister emphasised the shift in the government’s approach from women-centric to women-led initiatives (“Naari tu Narayani”). Quoting Swami Vivekananda on the importance of women’s welfare for the world, Sitharaman put forth the government’s belief that we can progress with greater women’s participation. She further said that the role of women in India’s growth story, particularly in the rural economy, is a very sweet story and that the government wishes to facilitate and encourage this role. The Economic Survey 2018-19, too, presents an interesting approach to women’s economic empowerment: drawing inspiration from Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler’s nudge theory and the successful behavioural change effected by the Swachh Bharat Mission and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaigns, the Survey coins the slogan of BADLAV (Beti Aapki Dhan Lakshmi Aur Vijaylakshmi) to inter alia enhance the contribution of women in the workforce and economy.

However, in terms of concrete announcements, the budget speech did not go much beyond Mudra loans and Stand-up India for female entrepreneurship; Ujjwala for smokeless kitchens; and the Swachh Bharat Mission for protecting the dignity of women. A few new measures to support women Self-Help Groups (SHG) were presented, such as expanding the interest subvention programme to all districts. While these are important ongoing initiatives that have benefited women in recent years, no prominent new steps emerge.

Given the expressed intention of enhancing the low, stagnant female labour force participation, the lack of focus on issues of safety and mobility — a key constraint on women working outside the home — is a glaring omission. The budget speaks of expanding and improving public transportation but does not acknowledge the specific challenges that women face in accessing these facilities and public spaces more broadly.

Like last year, the budget misses taking cognisance of feminisation of Indian agriculture — also highlighted by the Survey — in any major way in its proposals for the sector.

If India is to decidedly transform the gender equation, women’s issues will need to form a core part of the national policy agenda and an explicit, bold campaign should be formulated and launched at the scale of recent successful initiatives such as Swachh Bharat.

Nalini Gulati is economist, the International Growth Centre, and managing editor, Ideas for India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 05, 2019 22:15 IST