When Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Bharatiya Janata Party’s interim budget 2024-’25 on February 1, she included a section on “momentum for Nari Shakti”, or women’s power. But looking at the allocations in key areas, it seems that the government actually fails to adequately foster women’s empowerment.

The budgetary allocation of Rs 26,000 crore to the Ministry of Women and Child Development is a meagre 2.52% increase over the previous year. The highest portion within this increase goes to the Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 schemes meant to address health, and malnutrition. However, the allocation for this scheme, when adjusted for inflation, has declined by 1.7% from the previous year.

This is unfortunate. A study using data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 2015-’16 and NFHS 2019-’21) rounds has shown that several districts in India have a high prevalence of undernutrition. As per the Global Food Policy Report 2023, micro-nutrient deficiency, also known as “hidden hunger”, is a huge problem in India. Tackling this requires both policy responses and increased spending.

A missing link

The finance minister praised the 28% increase in women’s enrollment in higher education over the last decade under the Bharatiya Janata Party government. However, the challenge lies in matching educational aspirations with job opportunities, particularly for educated youth under 25. India’s unemployment rates are alarming, at 42.3% for graduates and 21.4% for higher secondary education in this age group.

Despite this, allocations to the labour ministry have been reduced, hampering the Atmanirbhar Bharat Rojgar Yojana, which was launched to incentivise the creation of employment after the Covid-19 pandemic. It saw a significant drop from Rs 2,272 crore in the previous budget to just Rs 150 crore in the current budget.

While Sitharaman highlighted the commendable 43% representation of women and girls in STEM courses, their under-representation at 27% in the STEM workforce indicates systematic barriers. Beyond familial responsibilities, workplace obstacles hinder women’s full participation. Investing in care infrastructure is seen as one of crucial requirements for enhancing women’s economic engagement and would help reduce the domestic caregiving burden placed on women.

The 2017 amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, for instance, mandated on-site creche facilities for companies with over 50 employees. However, there is no public data available on compliance.

Inadequate job creation

Despite the expectation that increased educational achievements among women would lead to a rise in their participation in regular salaried work, data from 2018 to 2022 indicates a predominant increase in self-employment activities rather than in salaried work. This trend points to a broader issue of inadequate job creation in India.

It is tempting to link the increase in women’s self-employment to the availability of credit via the surge in women’s entrepreneurship MUDRA loans offered by the government to small and micro firms. But the reality is far more intricate. Although 71% of MUDRA loan accounts belong to women entrepreneurs, approximately 74% of these accounts fall under SHISHU category, which offers loans only up to Rs 50,000.

With small loan amounts of about Rs 50,000, it would be difficult to set up a business of a reasonable scale with the possibility of employing people. A large proportion of women can be seen as unpaid helpers or run their own-account enterprises (operated without hired help) within the self-employment category.

There have also been problems of non-performing assets in MUDRA loans, which indicate that without proper business plans and skill training, the mere allocation of funds might not serve the purpose.

Access to education

Studies show that even though more women are getting educated than before, female educational attainment correlates with household wealth. Indian women in the highest wealth quintile complete a median of 9.3 years of education compared to 0.4 years in the lowest quintile, highlighting affordability challenges for the poor.

Studies have shown that gendered time use patterns reveal that girls, particularly from poorer backgrounds, spend more time in domestic and care work, limiting educational preparation. The struggle for jobs among educated girls from impoverished communities can discourage other poor girls from pursuing higher education.

Regrettably, the government has reduced expenditure on the Prime Minister’s girls’ hostel scheme from Rs 10 crore in the previous budget to Rs 2 crore in the interim budget this year. This scheme, aimed to retain girls in secondary and higher secondary education, addressing dropouts due to financial constraints, distance from school and societal factors.

At a crucial time that demands stronger measures to enhance educational outcomes for disadvantaged girls, the interim budget reflects an overall decline in financial aid for students.

Divya Pradeep and Julia Thomas teach Economics at CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru.