The Mirage of ‘Nari Shakti’ and ‘Lakhpati Didi’

While the interim budget is trying to sell the idea that women have an opportunity to become wealthy, the government has squarely ignored their basic needs.

In her budget speech, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has identified the unleashing of ‘nari shakti’ (women’s power)  as one of the biggest achievements of the Modi government since it came to power in 2014. She claimed that “the empowerment of women through entrepreneurship, ease of living and dignity for them has gained momentum in these ten years”.

One of the examples of this model of nari shakti, which has created a hype in the mainstream media, is the claim that the government has enabled the creation of one crore ‘Lakhpati Didis’ or women whose household income is above one lakh per year, through self help groups (SHGs) under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojna-National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM).

The much hyped scheme, inaugurated by the prime minister on August 15, 2023, aims at training women for the production of led bulbs, repairing and operation of drones for agriculture, plumbing and other non-traditional skills. The ministry in turn makes third party agreements and helps these women with branding and marketing their products. Some of the main partners of NRLM and the Ministry of Rural Development are Patanjali, Flipkart, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, etc.

The scheme ties women with credit lines and MUDRA loans, many of which are being serviced by the non-commercial banks under the aegis of priority sector lending. 

The intention to build links between agribusinesses and women is illustrated through the ‘Namo Drone Didi’ programme that was announced in November 2023 and has been allocated Rs 500 crore in the interim budget. This scheme is set to enrol women in the promotion of digital agriculture by providing 15,000 women’s groups ‘kisan drones’, which they can rent out to farmers. In this sense, women’s SHGs will become agents of corporate giants who aim to dominate the agricultural markets. It appears that programmes like ‘NAMO Drone Didi’ and ‘Lakhpati Didi’ are being used to trap women’s SHGs into corporate networks, especially transnational agribusiness giants who are firm allies of the Modi government.

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While the interim budget is trying to sell the idea that women have an opportunity to become wealthy, the government has squarely ignored their basic needs. By stating that ‘outcomes’ not outlays are important, the finance minister has absolved the government of all responsibility for providing women basic services. Hence, it is not surprising that while lofty claims are made about allocations and achievements, the government’s record on expenditure of these schemes is absolutely abysmal.

For example, the finance minister has linked women’s dignity to the joint ownership of houses under the PM Awas Yojana (Rural). However, the budget of the scheme shows that revised estimate for the scheme in 2023-24 was about 50% of the budget estimate, implying that very little money was spent for the programme. 

Similarly, in the Har Ghar Jal programme, which has been marketed as pro-woman, the actual government expenditure in 2022-23 was 16% lower than the previous year. Furthermore, the budgetary estimate for 2024-25 is even lower. The utilisation of funds in the flagship Swachch Bharat Mission (Gramin) for open defecation free villages remains at 60-70%, even if the outlays remain the same in each year.

Schemes and subsidies that are essential for wellbeing of women are seeing low government spending and allocation cutbacks. Some examples of these are nutrition (food subsidy and PM POSHAN), education (scholarships), widow pension, and employment (MGNREGA). The onus for these is slowly being shifted on the state governments without adequate support from the Union government. In short, the Union government has shrugged off its responsibility for providing conducive living conditions for women in the country. Instead, it is arguing that women are responsible for their own ‘empowerment’ by enhancing their capabilities and should fund their own development through their savings. 

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This individualised notion of women’s empowerment has led to a neglect of the systemic discrimination and violence that has been faced by women, and this is also reflected in the interim budget. The proportion of the gender budget in total budgetary spending has remained at about 5-6% during the two tenures of the Modi government. The money allocated to the Ministry of Women and Child Development has remained at around 0.5%  of the total budgetary expenditure.

Furthermore, in the wake of rising violence against women, the government’s commitment to invest in infrastructure for support to victims is also questionable. The funds for Mission Shakti, combining schemes for protection and empowerment of women, are not even 0.1% of the total budgetary expenditure and 70% of the Nirbhaya fund remains unspent. The lack of political will for augmenting infrastructure for protection of women has resulted in weak and tardy implementation of legislations against domestic violence and sexual harassment. This pattern is compatible with the continuous targeting and moral policing of women by the hindutva brigade.

The pro-corporate and neoliberal policies of the government have created the conditions for the growth of this right-wing ideology. In this situation, the image of the ‘Lakhpati Didi’ is part of the larger hegemonic project of ‘Vikasit Bharat’, which is being used to legitimate an authoritarian government. 

It is an attempt to weaken the resistance of the democratic women’s movement and fracture its social base. The women of India need to intensify their resistance and demystify the mirage of nari shakti and work towards ousting this manuwadi government.

Archana Prasad is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.