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Penny for their thoughts?

We were so overcome by Chidambaram’s lyrical concessions that we forgot to see whether his inclusive budget will really make much of a difference to gender budgeting. Lalita Panicker writes.
Hindustan Times | By Lalita Panicker
UPDATED ON MAR 12, 2008 10:35 PM IST

The click of the electronic voting machine is faintly audible now. Which means that many a hoary old chestnut will be pulled out and aired and our political worthies, eyes moist with emotion, will vow to deliver on the issue. Now these topics are either big ticket items like the nuclear deal about which most people, barring the comrades at AKG Bhavan, couldn’t care less or that tried-and-tested formula, women’s issues. So are we surprised that the Women’s Reservation bill has been resuscitated once again? Lost in the atmospherics was any real attempt to see what exactly our suave Tiruvalluvar-quoting finance minister has handed out to women, or rather in the gender budgeting statement that is thrown in with each budget.

We were so overcome by Palaniappan Chidambaram’s lyrical concessions — all delivered in that plummy accent — that we forgot to see whether his inclusive budget will really make much of a difference to gender budgeting. In case you need to be reminded, the National Common Minimum Programme had promised to ensure equality for women in every sphere. Which would make us think that the last full budget presented by this government might have been a little more solid on substance in this regard.

The FM’s magnanimous addition of four more ministries to be given gender budgeting cells takes the total number up to 54. But what we didn’t quite grasp is that the budget itself for this has gone up by a measly 0.3 per cent over the previous year. In a comprehensive look at the Union Budget from a gender perspective, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, New Delhi, has pointed out some of glaring omissions in the whole exercise. One of these is in agriculture that has been in the news for farmers’ suicides and the massive loan waiver. But few realise that 75 per cent of all agricultural workers are female and the figure is as high as 85 per cent in rural areas. Yet, of the total allocation for agriculture, a mere 3.6 per cent went to address the specific vulnerabilities faced by women. As for food security, literally a life or death issue for women, the percentage of allocation has gone down.

Education, we never tire of saying, is the main catalyst for women’s empowerment. It holds the key to family planning, health, family welfare and gender equity. But does the budget reflect any of this? Not at all. Women-specific allocation in a Rs 27,850-crore budgetary allocation is a mere Rs 2,089 crore. A drastic reduction from Rs 8,106 crore in the Rs 19,101 crore allocation in 2006-07. And nowhere are women as marginalised and excluded as those in religious minorities. The Sachar committee report, which did not find favour all round, specifically highlighted the abysmal conditions among Muslim women. They were found to be severely deprived of health and education and almost totally excluded from any decision-making that involved them or their families. This is one area where allocations should not be found wanting. Not that the Ministry of Minority Affairs did too badly for itself. It got Rs 1,013 crore this year over Rs 143 crore in 2006-07. But the bad news is that not a single scheme was formulated with the aim of improving the lot of minority women.

Back to the Women’s Reservation bill, many argue that the panchayati raj with its 33 per cent reservation for women is the best stepping stone for women to increase their participation in politics. But are women at the grassroots getting a helping hand from the government? No, women will get a piffling Rs 34 crore, about Rs 10 crore less than last year. One can go on about these lapses. One of the real problems is that while women’s empowerment has always been about health, education and nutrition, the government has never really considered the possibility that its trade, monetary and other economic policies could have a crucial impact on women.

The other impediment lies in the plethora of departments that have different schemes and programmes for women. A great deal of effort gets duplicated and the subsequent escalation in costs often works against any real benefit going to women. Even where allocations for women-specific programmes have gone up, the enhanced amount is usually eaten up by the increase in cost of delivery mechanisms. As we have seen from successive gender-budgeting exercises, many schemes for women are viewed in isolation. If a woman in a particular area is the beneficiary of better education facilities, she will often be in a position where she does not have access to health delivery systems or a sustainable income. Can we then assume that Mr Chidambaram’s gender-budgeting exercise has actually empowered women?

Then there is the drawback of an omnibus approach to gender issues. Allocations are made based on general indicators, say maternal mortality. This omits the crucial factor of the different types of situations faced by women in different socio-cultural and geographic environments. So we ask, is the same amount of money or resources adequate to empower a woman in rural Rajasthan as it is in rural Tamil Nadu? The answer is no, their situations will be substantially different in that both the quality and quantity of services and money required will vary.

And now on to the glaring omission which governments seem simply to forget, Mr Chidambaram being no exception. Where on earth are women in the gender-budgeting process? And we don’t mean the well-travelled NGOs who haunt the more genteel environs of the Capital. We refer to the women who are supposed to be ‘beneficiaries’ of this exercise. To an extent, the women’s movement and its groups which were meant to wage the battle to improve the lot women must share the blame for this. They have been content to focus on viewing women as people who need the benevolent largesse of the government than as meaningful participants in India shining. Yes, before the budget was rolled out, women’s groups did approach the busy FM and explained to him the need for women’s participation in special economic zones. They also told him that women should be given loans at lesser interest rates for entrepreneurial ventures. The logic is inarguable. What economic growth model is sustainable if it leaves half the population out of the loop? True. But by the time all this was conveyed to the FM, the budget was signed, sealed and about to be delivered.

A clinical look at the budget shows that beneath the flourishes and quotable quotes, very little has actually been thrown the way of women. And no sooner had the FM slammed shut that famous briefcase and we’re off debating the women’s reservation bill. Even if tomorrow, Cinderella-like, women were handed this Holy Grail of reservation on a platter, would that really improve the lot of millions of women in the country who live on the margins of existence? Gender budgeting, that politically correct exercise, is something most of them have not heard of and probably never will. Which explains why not even the well-meaning Mr Chidambaram thinks it fit to waste too much time over it, leave alone try to correct the many anomalies which render it ineffective.

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