On February 1, 2023, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman began the Union Budget session by calling it the first Budget of the Amrit Kaal, the blueprint for India@100 in 2047. With India’s economic growth estimated to be 7% in 2022-23, the Finance Minister’s Budget speech emphasised that the government has made inclusive development one of its topmost priorities.
While inclusiveness has a broad context, entailing access to resources and equal opportunities for all marginalised groups, in India gender equality has been an abiding agenda of the policy push for better inclusiveness. This is historically evident in all our budgetary documents. In fact, the Gender Budget has been a consistent part of the Union Budget since 2005-06, and has been recognised as one of the most streamlined and detailed Gender Responsive Budgeting documents in Asia. The Gender Budget Statement (GBS)presents the portion of budgetary expenditure earmarked by central ministries for benefitting women across different cross-sections of society with commensurate schemes. Consolidating the work initiated in the year 2005-06, a charter on Gender Budget Cells (GBCs) to be set up across Government of India ministries was issued in 2007, and detailed guidelines to establish GBCs at the state level were issued in 2012-13.
With nearly two decades gone by, the time is ripe for taking stock of things and evaluating how the legacy has been sustained and strengthened. We believe such an assessment warrants a deep contemplation of how women have fared in the first Budget of Amrit Kaal. India’s gender Budget allocation for 2023-24 stood at INR 2.23 lakh crores, which is about 4.9% of the overall budget expenditure. This is unsurprising, as the Gender Budget has typically ranged between 4%-6% of the overall Budget, ever since the GBS began to be published in 2005-06. While some might contend that the status quo has been maintained and no exciting spurt has been given to the provisions, yet, on a more optimistic note, the allocations for the Gender Budget increased by 30% over the budgeted estimates of 2022-23 (INR 1.7 lakh crores). This increase was primarily driven by the Saksham Anganwadi, and Poshan 2.0 Yojana, a scheme to improve nutritional outcomes in children, adolescent girls, and pregnant women (whose allocation increased from INR 11,752 crores in 2022-23 to INR 15,005 crores in 2023-24). In addition, the Krishonnati Yojana, an umbrella scheme for agricultural development, was a new addition to the gender budget with an allocation of INR 2,120 crores.
New initiatives to encourage women’s financial empowerment were also announced, such as the launch of a new one-time Small-saving scheme for women, the Mahila Samman Saving Certificate, which will be available till March 2025 and will allow a deposit of up to INR 2 lakh to be made in the name of a woman/girl child for a maximum of a two-year period, at a fixed interest rate of 7.5%.
Similarly, the Union Budget has also made provisions to assist Self-help groups (SHGs) across the country under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihood Mission (DAY-NRLM), by providing them with raw materials, marketing support, branding, etc. This can be particularly helpful considering the crucial role SHGs played in mobilising and supporting women during the Covid-19 pandemic, and encouraging the participation of women labour force in various activities.
The enthusiasm around these positive initiatives has been somewhat dampened by the fact that the budget allocations increased only marginally for the entire Ministry of Women and Child Development, from INR 25,172 crores in 2022-23 to INR 25,448 crores in 2023-24, and the allocations for Mission Shakti, which includes the ministry’s key schemes for social protection of women such as the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Shakti Sadan, Shakti Niwas, as well as Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana fell 1.2%, from INR 3,184 crores in 2022-23 to INR 3,144 crores in 2023-24.
Moreover, there is a concern that the reduction in the MGNREGA allocations from INR 89,400 crores in 2022-23 to INR 60,000 crores in 2023-24 is likely to impact women disproportionately, given that women accounted for nearly 55% of person-days of employment in 2019-20 and 53% in 2020-21.
A lot has been achieved but to fulfill India’s aspiration of moving from women’s development to women-led development, where women take the lead in building India’s $5-trillion economy, it is important that the overall Budget, and concurrently, the Gender Budget is truly redistributive in its nature. Some of the key areas that may be considered for greater support include:
Greater focus on women’s livelihoods: Governments can take the lead in supporting women’s livelihoods through employment schemes and increased human capital development support for women. This includes improving education access, technical and vocational training, entrepreneurship support, and preferential access to public sector jobs for women.
Utilising gender-disaggregated data: To chart a development path that is truly inclusive of women, the central and state governments can integrate gender audits and gender-disaggregated data collection frameworks in the Gender Budgeting process. Gender audits of flagship programs can help accurately assess the impact of increase and decrease in allocations on women, aiding the decision-making process. Gender-disaggregated data can be mainstreamed as an essential requirement across ministries to enable implementing agencies to take informed, data-backed decisions when it comes to gendered fiscal policy formulation.
Allocations for post-Covid priority areas: Due to the disproportionated impact of Covid-19 on women, the United Nations highlighted several short-term priority areas requiring active public support such as social protection, prevention of domestic violence, skill training, public transport, digital literacy, and support for unpaid care work. Schemes relating to these priorities comprised just 1.21% of the GBS in 2023-24, a decrease from 1.66% in 2022-23. These areas should be prioritized in future Gender Budgets at both central and state levels to ensure the adverse impacts of Covid-19 do not halt the progress made on gender equality.
India stands as a leader in Gender Budgeting practices across the world. Its Gender Budgets are transparent, accurate, and detailed. To make them truly transformational, it is time to go beyond accounting and apply a gender lens to Policy formulation.