Budget 2021: No Lessons Learnt From the Disproportionate Impact of the Pandemic on Women?

With seemingly no attempt to address the disparities related to women's livelihood, education and nutrition, the Centre's endeavour towards economic recovery might not be inclusive.

With “inclusive development for aspirational India” being a pillar of the 2021-22 budget, there was no better opportunity to take on the gender disparities that resulted in making women more vulnerable to the ripple effects of COVID-19. With seemingly no attempt to address these disparities, India’s supposedly bold endeavour towards economic recovery, might not be inclusive and for this reason not resilient either.

The 2021-22 gender budget estimates (BE) saw a modest rise of 6.8% from last year’s BE. However, there is a steep 26% decrease in allocation from the 2020-21 revised estimates (RE). One can say that 2020-21 was unprecedented and hence the RE was much higher due to increased spend on welfare and direct benefit programmes. But are we out of the crisis yet?

Vulnerable women’s livelihoods not a priority

Bridging the gender inequality in employment and domestic time use is key to women’s economic empowerment. Female labour force participation rate in India is only 23.6% and about 94% of women workers in India are employed in the informal sector.

COVID has hit informal work and women-dominated sectors hard. The impact on the livelihood of Indian women has not been acknowledged in the budget. While we did not see many sector-specific revival measures, even MGNREGS, which was a lifeline for women affected by the lockdown, has seen its allocation reduced by 34.5% from the RE of 2020-21. Since a majority of beneficiaries of MGNREGS have been women over many years, this step will hit women hard at a vulnerable time. Allocation towards NRLM (National Rural Livelihood Mission) and NULM (National Urban Livelihoods Mission) would not provide immediate livelihood security.

Since the textiles industry is a women-dominated sector, the proposed launch of seven ‘Mega Investment Textiles Parks’ over the next three years is the only proposal that seems to help the cause of women’s employment. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) would also strengthen women’s economic empowerment by continuing to enable asset ownership. The women specific component for PMAY-urban has been increased from 32.4% of total outlay in BE 2020-21 to 90.7% in BE 2021-22. Additionally, Rs 1,000 crore has been allocated to the welfare of tea workers, especially women and children, in Bengal and Assam. Although the political motivation behind this allocation is clear, this funding will be beneficial for the female tea workers that comprise more than 50% of the tea estate workforce.

The MSME sector has been provided Rs 15,700 crore in the budget, more than double 2020-21’s BE. Given that about 20% of MSMEs, more specifically micro enterprises, are owned by women and women face significant constraints in access to finance and skills, a gender-targeted component would have prevented women from being crowded out of such credit schemes. 

Also read: Activists Slam Reducing Budget Allocation for Critical Women and Child Nutrition Schemes Amid COVID

Lack of infrastructure support and safety to seek paid work

One of the major reasons keeping Indian women from paid work is their unrecognised domestic and care work which is considerably more than men. COVID-19 has induced a 30% rise in this. An additional one crore Ujjwala beneficiaries and launching of the Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban) are welcome measures and will help women both in terms of health and also by reducing their burden of domestic work. 

However, this year’s budget has reduced the provision for schemes now grouped under Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 by 18% as compared to BE 2020-21. Removing essential child care and child development infrastructure funding that help women in making the choice towards paid work is a step back. This has been done when calls for a woman-led recovery are gaining momentum globally.

Net allocation for ‘schemes for safety of women’ under the Ministry of Home Affairs is only Rs 100 crore as compared to Rs 855.23 crore in 2020-21 BE. This 88.3% decline seems to run contrary to the budget announcement that “women will be allowed to work in all categories and also in the night shifts with adequate protection”.

Female education heading towards generational losses

School closures due to COVID-19 will lead to a decline in educational attainment, particularly for girls. And as warned by UNESCO, many girls might drop out. In this scenario, the overall outlay for education has been slashed by 8.3%. There are no substantial provisions for incentivising girls’ return to schools or covering up for the loss in educational attainment, which could lead to generational losses to the cause of women’s education. This funding is even insufficient for the roll-out of the National Education Policy that was to begin in 2021.

Also read: A Gender-Discriminatory Crisis Requires a Gender-Responsive Union Budget

Not only that, the flagship Samagra Shiksha programme’s overall and gender allocation has been reduced by 19.8% as compared to BE 2020-21. In fact, the budget for the National Scheme for Incentive to Girl Child for Secondary Education has been cut by 99%. While the allocation to mid-day meals has increased from BE 2020, it is a decline of 10.8% from RE 2020-21. A slight nod to the importance of digital literacy in the post-pandemic era has been given in the form of a small allocation towards PMGDISHA.

Nutrition ignored and frontline women workers unrewarded

A 137% rise in health and well-being budget was a big announcement. Upon closer look, a key component – nutrition – has seen a reduction from Rs 3,700 crore to Rs 2,700 crore i.e. by 27% from 2020-21 BE (table 1). It is also unclear how much funding the nutrition components of anganwadi, creche and scheme for adolescent girls will receive. Healthcare budget 2021-22 is a lost opportunity to go beyond mere symbolism of banging thalis and clapping, by meaningfully recognising the frontline ASHA, anganwadi and auxiliary nurse midwife workers, by formalising their work and providing them with better terms of employment and wages. 

Adding to the pandemic-related woes of women is the shadow pandemic of violence and abuse that the COVID-19 induced lockdown and distancing has exacerbated. Given this realisation, it was hoped that the government would do more to address these issues. On the contrary, budget on protection, safety and empowerment schemes, now grouped under Mission SHAKTI as SAMBAL and SAMARTHYA, has gone down.

Gender-neutral initiatives have a gender skewed impact. We can no longer work on the assumption that women will automatically benefit. The time for affirmative action is now and the implementation of the budget should happen with this aspect in mind.

Shagufta Gupta is a senior fellow at CUTS International, Poulomi Ghosh is research associate at IIM Calcutta and Shalu Bindal is an independent researcher.