“There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved,” Vivekananda once wrote in a letter to Ramakrishnananda. “It is not possible for a bird to fly on one wing.” Quoting this statement in her Budget speech last year, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman referred to women as “Narayani” or goddesses, emphasising the government’s aim of encouraging women’s participation in the effort to ensure greater progress.

According to a report by the Association of Democratic Reforms and the New Election Watch, women’s representation in the country’s decision-making process remains dismal, with women forming only 9% of the total number of MPs and MLAs across India in 2019. Even as women-centric issues such as triple talaq have become a regular part of political discourse, power to take key policy decisions largely remains in the hands of men.

In 2020, India continued to slip on the Global Gender Gap Index, falling to the 112th position among 153 countries from 108 in 2019. According to the report released by World Economic Forum, India is the only country where the economic gender gap is larger than the political gender gap. It ranks 149th in terms of economic participation and opportunity of the 153 countries studied.

This is also evident in the dwindling labour force participation of women despite the increase in educational attainment. According to the estimates by the International Labour Organisation and the World Bank, there is one woman for three men in the Indian labour force. Only nine other countries in the world do worse. The inequality, along with restrictive gender roles, is much deeper rooted in the country than is reflected in these statistics.

The Gender Budget

Last year, the finance minister also proposed the formation of a broad-based committee, with both government and private stakeholders, to evaluate the Budget through a gender lens. Though the committee remains on paper, a closer look at the Gender Budget statement, which was introduced since 2005-’06 as a part of the Union Budget, paints a rather gloomy picture. The statement is divided in two parts – Part A provides the budgetary allocation to schemes that are entirely for women, while Part B gives details for schemes with at least 30% benefits to women.

The overall Gender Budget has remained below 1% of the gross domestic product and less than 5% of the total expenditure between FY16 and FY20. Another layer to the problem of insufficient funds is the credibility of these allocations. Between 2015-’16 and 2019-’20, the actual or revised expenditure on schemes specifically for women were lower than the budgeted estimates on three occasions.

Source: Union budget

The key ministry responsible for the implementation of the majority of women-centric schemes, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, also has similar credibility problems with respect to its budgetary allocations. For most years, between FY 2011-’12 to FY 2020-’21, the actual spending was lower than the budgeted allocation.

Source: CMIE

Even in the case of the government’s flagship women-centric programmes – such as the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana or maternity benefit scheme; Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao; and Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana to distribute gas connections, which are all under the Ministry of Women and Child Development – the actual expenditures are much lower than the allocations.

The following table shows actual spending on major schemes as a percentage of budgeted allocations.

Spending on major schemes

Major Schemes 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 RE
Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana  18.87 75.86 43.96 67.65
Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana 58.06 49.10 12.86 66.67
Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao 28.66 84.55 87.40 71.43
Actual spending on major schemes as a percentage of budgeted allocations. Source: Union Budget

This year as well, the so-called jan-jan ka budget did not bring much hope. The allocations to the Matru Vandana Yojana and Ujjawala Yojana witnessed zero-percent growth relative to the 2019-’20 Budget estimate. Allocations under Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao in the 2020-’21 Budget estimate are lower than those in the 2019-’20 Budget estimate. The total allocation under the Mission for Protection and Empowerment of Women fell by 12.6% in the 2020-’21 Budget estimate over the 2019-’20 Budget estimate.

Economic Survey

The lack of focus on women is not just limited to this year’s Budget alone. The Economic Survey for 2019-’20 also failed to give due importance to women around its theme of wealth creation. Volume one of the survey does not recognise the need for any special scheme to encourage wealth creation or entrepreneurial activities by women. In fact, the word “women” appears only three times and “gender” only once in the entire document.

However, volume two of the survey raises issues like women empowerment and also acknowledges the declining participation of women in the workforce particularly in rural areas. Though there is no consensus in the literature in explaining this fall, the survey acknowledges the role of women-centric policies like Mahila Shakti Kendra Scheme, Rashtriya Mahila Kosh, and Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme in not just achieving gender equality, but also pushing the economy forward in realising the goal of becoming $5-trillion economy.

There is also a disconnect between the policy suggestions made in the survey and the Gender Budget 2020-’21. Policies like Mahila e-Haat and Prime Ministers Employment Generation Programme mentioned in the Economic Survey seem to be only on paper with no mention in the Budget document. The allocation for Mahila Shakti Kendra declined by around 67%, to a mere Rs 100 crore in 2020-’21, over the 2019-’20 Budget estimate.

It is peculiar to note that two out of the three schemes mentioned in the Survey received little or no budgetary allocation, while the other women-centric schemes witnessed a decrease in their budgetary allocation. In the backdrop of the downward trend in women labour force participation, reduction in allocation in many women-centric policies is contrary to what Economic Survey is advocating.

In line with the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission, which required them to incentivise states for progress made in moving towards replacement rate of population, the Commission used total fertility rate as a measure of demographic performance. This came as a silver lining as evidence suggests that a lower total fertility rate is correlated with better maternal health and greater performance in women-related indicators. The 15th Finance Commission assigned 12.5% weightage to this criterion. This may provide the required nudge to the public finance policy space at various levels of the government to focus more on women-centric schemes.

As Mao Zedong noted, “Women hold up half the sky.” No country can truly grow by leaving behind half of its population. It is time that we equip Indian women to participate and contribute in the growth story of the country, shatter the glass ceiling and become the “Narayanis” for real and not just in Budget speeches.

Smriti Mehra and Sampreet Kaur are Research Fellows at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in New Delhi.