In the gender Budget, the Modi government has not done much more than pay lip service to policies that impact women.
Soon after the Union Budget was presented, the PMO tweeted Modi as saying: “Special emphasis has been given on women empowerment in the Budget.”
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) February 1, 2017
A high-voltage communication campaign followed highlighting key proposals for women, including an increase in commitments for the Ujjwala scheme to provide free gas connections to eight crore below poverty line (BPL) families, higher coverage under the MUDRA Yojana and a reduction in EPF contributions for women employees.
But are women really going to be better off at the end of this fiscal year?
The government’s cooking gas scheme, Ujjawala, was meant to change lives of BPL women by providing free LPG connections to poor households. While there’s no denying that the number of new connections has grown, a closer look at the performance of the scheme shows it has failed to achieve its long-term objectives. The scheme allows just the first refill of a cylinder for free, and the consumer is expected to buy the next one at market prices, while the subsidy is credited directly to her bank account.
Reports from villages adopted by the PM in his constituency Varanasi are witness to the fact that the programme is failing. Most of the targeted families are too poor to pay the market price of the cylinders, and women who availed the scheme have had to revert to using the wooden chullah. The fact that they now save the gas cylinder for emergencies is visible in the figures that show average consumption of LPG cylinders has plummeted across the country over the past year or so.
The government’s plans to increase the footprint of the MUDRA scheme based on their claim that the scheme has successfully created crores of women entrepreneurs also need a closer look. The government claims that 10.07 crore SME entrepreneurs have benefitted under the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana and 75% of them were women. Given that the average loan size under the scheme has been Rs 43,000, it doesn’t seem likely that the scheme has done much more than creating some self-employment opportunities for a section of women. While this is not something to be decried, in all probability it would be a case of underemployment at best. Most certainly a far cry from being a large job-creating engine that is supposed to have created innumerable women entrepreneurs.
As for the reduction in EPF contribution announced in the Budget, while there can be no complaints about a policy that allows women to retain a larger part of their salary in their hand for the first three years of their working life, it’s hardly going to be a strong enough reason for either more women to join the formal workforce or for employers to hire more of them.
If the objective was to increase women’s participation in the workforce, the policy is definitely not going to move the needle on this crucial metric for the country.
That the government has not done much more than pay lip service to policies that impact women is also visible in the allocations to crucial schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, a maternity benefit programme under the Food Security Act, which saw a decline this year, and the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme, which saw a marginal increase of just Rs 80 crore.
Apart from these gaps, just a cursory look at the overall gender Budget shows that the government’s commitment to women has been underwhelming at best. Spending on women declined as a proportion of the total Budget, falling from 5.2% in 2017-18 (RE) to 4.9% proposed for 2018-19, and allocations for the Ministry of Women and Child Development increased marginally from 0.88% of the total expenditure in the revised estimates of 2017-18 to 1% of the total projected expenditure for 2018-19.
However, it’s not just the numbers behind the headlines and tweets that are worrying, but it’s what this government’s fiscal policies really say to the women of the country that needs to be understood.
Historically, budgets and taxes have been viewed as a fundamental representation of a government’s vision and values. In fact, some ancient societies like the Greeks actually viewed taxation as an ethical issue. The way taxes were administered was a measure of how liberal the society was perceived to be, and societies were respected more for what they did not tax, rather than what they did.
And that’s where this government’s obdurate stand on taxing sanitary napkins speaks volumes. When a government knows that the absence of access to safe, hygienic sanitary products is a key reason behind young girls dropping out of schools, dismal literacy rates and therefore the poor overall growth of women, and it still refuses to withdraw the tax imposed on sanitary napkins, then its claims of supporting women’s emancipation must be called out.
The government’s answer to improving access seems to be limited to relying on low-cost products manufactured by self-help groups and free sanitary napkins distributed by a few state governments.
While these policies must continue to be supported, what the government seems to be forgetting is that an indirect tax on consumption of goods that should be available to all women hurts poorer households the most. Just the sheer numbers required mean that we cannot ensure adequate access by relying on small self-help groups or sporadic government schemes alone.
To ensure that a predictable supply chain is created and that these products are available in every nook and cranny of the country at an affordable price, we need to rely on mass-produced, safe and affordable products.
Besides the obvious implications on their health, the government and the GST Council’s refusal to withdraw taxes on sanitary napkins could well mean the difference between girls making the leap to economic and social freedom or missing school and having a diminished ability to stay gainfully employed later in life.
Forgoing the tax, on the other hand, will mean an essential product would be accessible to more women across various social and economic strata across the country, which, in turn, could help increase future wages and see family incomes and standards rise.
Which is why it is even more ironical that the government’s minister for women and child development seems to support a discriminatory tax that puts an essential product out of reach for a large percentage of girls and women. When half the population of the country could be impacted by the decision, it becomes truly difficult to understand why the fact that these products are largely manufactured by MNCs should be a justification for a regressive tax.
Finally, the overall success of any progressive, future-looking government and its budget and taxation policy must be viewed from the prism of how it helps women surmount economic and social inequalities that come in the way of being healthy, educated individuals with secure, predictable, well-paying jobs, and above all, becoming citizens with agency.
When a government implements poorly-designed policies or offers questionable justifications for others, then it must be challenged on its social vision. Budgets and taxation policies are powerful tools for our representatives to demonstrate how they respond to issues that are important to them.
Clearly, the government is not doing enough to address the needs of half of its citizens – whether due to ignorance or because women are not a priority is the question voters must ask themselves.
Glass ceilings break when governments ensure girls join and stay in the educational system, when women and mothers have access to safe and affordable health, child and eldercare options, workspaces and transport facilities, and when social mores and cultural attitudes change, not when Economic Surveys turn pink.
Diluting investments in crucial long-term programmes, increasing investments in poorly designed ones and continuing with a tax that virtually denies equal opportunity to all girls and women cannot be an option anymore.
Barkha Deva is Associate Director, RGICS. Views expressed are personal.