Popularised in the late 20th century, gender budgets have widely been identified as a fiscal tool to rectify gender inequities and ensure that socio-economic benefits are being enjoyed by women as much as their male counterparts. With this aim in mind and to bridge the prevailing gender divide –which often posed as a risk to the country’s equitable development – India began issuing gender budgets as early as 2005.

From then, India’s gender budgets have succeeded in drawing attention to pressing gender issues. But now, given the Covid-19’s adverse impact on women and girls, gender-responsive budgeting has become more important than ever.

On February 1, India presented its 17th gender budget where Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman laid a greater emphasis on shifting the focus from women’s development to women-led development. However, in the context of the ongoing health crisis and the exacerbating gender inequalities, it is essential to understand whether the current gender budget truly serves as an instrument for ushering women-led development in the post-pandemic era.

Quick snapshot

The direction provided by India’s 2022-’23 Budget predominantly focuses on the stimulation of growth with several new initiatives being launched solely for the purpose of placing the country on a well-defined path of economic recovery. Taking this vision forward, India’s gender Budget 2022-’23 also aims to address challenges faced by women and create opportunities for inclusive development, which is a top priority of Amrit Kaal, the 25-year-long lead up to India at 100.

But unfortunately, despite the country’s big vision, the quantum of this year’s gender budget – like previous years – has continued to remain below 5% of the total expenditure and less than 1% of the gross domestic product.

Meanwhile, in terms of absolute numbers, a total of Rs 1,71,006.47 crore has been allocated for women-centric schemes under the gender budget 2022-’23, which is an increase of 11.5% from Rs 1,53,326 crore allotted in the 2021-’22 Budget estimates.

However, as a proportion of total expenditure, the gender Budget has declined from 4.4% to 4.3% for the financial year 2023. This is despite the 4.72% of the total expenditure that was allocated to women’s programmes in the pre-pandemic era of 2020.

In fact, according to an analysis conducted by the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the overall gender budget has decreased from 0.71% of the GDP of the revised estimated for 2021-’22 to 0.66% of the budgetary estimates for 2022-’23.

Under the current gender budget, the Part A component – which comprises 100% women-specific schemes – has been allocated Rs 26,772.89 crore, increasing by 6% from the last gender budget where Rs 25,260.95 was allocated. And Part B – which includes programmes where at least 30% of the allocation is for women – has witnessed a hike of 12% in comparison to last year, increasing from Rs 1,28,749.83 crore to Rs 1,44,233.58 crore.

Shattered expectations

And though, the gender budget in India has evolved with learning and recommendations year after year – witnessing an eleven-fold increase in the last 17 years – women have in reality, continued to form the country’s untapped potential. But the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has further heightened their vulnerabilities where women are experiencing disproportionate job losses, layoffs and slower employment recovery.

In January, the size of the female labour force in India was still 9.4% smaller than what was seen in January 2020. Photo credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

In January, the size of the female labour force in India was still 9.4% smaller than what was seen in January 2020. Meanwhile, the rate of the male labour force has already recovered to the pre-pandemic levels. The Covid-19 health crisis has, in fact, pushed more and more women towards casual labour where, between January 2021 to March 2021, women accounted for 9.3% of employees as against 7.7% female workers during January 2020 to March 2020.

The current gender budget was thus, expected to provide assistance to women to recover and grow through generations of economic opportunities, tax benefits, formal sector jobs and better financial inclusion. However, approximately 91% of the increase in this year’s gender budget is from schemes in Part B – which are only 30% reserved for women – whereas the increase in Part A that is entirely reserved for women only received a meagre increase. And while one might think that these percentages are divided across ministries, the truth is that a total of 10 schemes constitute nearly 80% of the gender budget 2022-’23.

This clustering of the gender budget into a few schemes is nonetheless, indicative of the lack of gender mainstreaming, particularly in job-creating sectors, including infrastructure or industrial development. In fact, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – of which women form a large number of the beneficiaries and often depend on it for employment – has been reduced by 20%. Evidently, women-centred employment opportunities, especially in rural areas have not been prioritised in the current gender budget.

Women entrepreneurs

But apart from women employees, the situation of women entrepreneurs also appears calamitous. According to the National Sample Survey, there are less than 21% of women in the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sector in India, concentrated across industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic such as hospitality, tourism and salons. And in order to help these women entrepreneurs to recover efficiently, the government should have provided tax relaxations or incubation centres so that small brands could sustain themselves.

Representational image. Photo credit: Noah Seelam / AFP

However, fiscal response measures in the current gender budget have not only failed to do much to protect the affected women-led MSMEs but have also failed to provide them with any sort of tax relief.

Meanwhile, the finance minister, in her Budget speech announced that nearly two lakh Anganwadis would be upgraded in this financial year that will have better infrastructure and audio-visual aids, thereby, providing improved environments for early childhood developments. But the schemes that will cover these expansions – such as the Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 scheme of the Ministry of Women and Child Development – have received an allocation of Rs 20,263.07 crore, which a negligible hike of 0.75% from last year’s Budget.

Apart from rising unemployment and income losses, growing vulnerabilities due to the pandemic have also confronted women in India with intensifying unpaid care work burdens, heightening cases of domestic violence, and the widening gender digital divide. Yet, schemes that focus on providing safety to women such as One Stop Centres, Mahila Police Volunteer, Women’s Helpline, Narti Adalat and Window Homes have seen a decline from Rs 587 crore in 2021 to Rs 562 crore this year.

In addition, the Digital Saksharta Abhiyan targeted towards the promotion of digital literacy saw a reduction of 17% in this year’s gender budget and allocations for the Digital India Programme were reduced to zero.

Women-led development

The education sector has nonetheless, been a significant gainer for this financial year with allocations for the Samagra Shiksha scheme for school education increased by 25% and the Department of Higher education receiving a 10% hike.

But despite this laudable move, allocations for the National Scheme for Incentive to Girl Child for Secondary Education – which is an important programme for bridging learning losses for teenage girls as schools reopen – has been provided with no allocation at all. And least we forget, women’s access to education at all levels is an essential prerequisite for development and building a better society.

Overall, the focus of the 2022-2023 gender budget might have been on alleviation of gender inequality but in reality, it has largely failed to present a sensitive front to prioritise key challenges that are being faced by women in light of the ongoing pandemic.

However, given that India’s economic growth had already been witnessing a decline even before the onset of Covid-19, its revival in the post-pandemic era will be impossible if women continue to be left out. It is perhaps time that the Indian government begins to walk its talk on bringing about women-led development.

Akanksha Khullar is the Country Coordinator for India at the Women’s Regional Network.