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A budget with new challenges for women

Jul 28, 2014

For starters, this budget ushers in the end of the entitlement regime, previously marked by prominence of government sops and doles, writes Rajiv Saxena.

Girls studying.jpg

New Delhi: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the Union Budget on July 10, 2014. Like most budgets this one too was an amalgamation of mind-boggling figures, largely incomprehensible jargon, alluring promises and a few words of caution couched in smart ambiguity.

Reading out the budget speech took the FM record time, so much so that he had to seek a break to rest his aching muscles. This, incidentally, was happening for the second time in the history of budget presentation in the Lok Sabha. What cheer and anguish did the budget bring to Indian women, who make up 48 per cent of the country’s total population? While hard numbers by themselves signify little and are gender neutral, they need to be put in the right perspective to make sense.

For starters, this budget ushers in the end of the entitlement regime, previously marked by prominence of government sops and doles. Although this paradigm shift is bound to impact everyone, coping with radical changes becomes especially difficult for the disadvantaged sections of a society. Unfortunately, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, women lie at the bottom of the social heap and are, therefore, the most vulnerable to the vagaries of this new economic dispensation.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) budget makes it amply clear that the regime’s mind and heart are aligned more with a market driven economy. The Modi government believes that a market-based system can fetch better dividends for everyone compared to the hitherto practised socialist model. The private sector is thus set to occupy the “commanding heights”, once the unchallenged province of the public sector. This budget reinforces the government’s conviction that the private sector will be the engine of growth in the future and that it should be enabled to help the economy grow, create more jobs and foster entrepreneurship.

But the market is often ruthless. And considering that Indian women have, for aeons, found the playfield tilted unevenly against them in all spheres of life, this certainly doesn’t augur well for them. However, with little possibility of this bullet train called ‘change’ altering its newly-charted course, it looks like they will have to be ready to snatch their rightful piece of the pie, sooner than later, through self help and entrepreneurship.

Whether the NDA’s visible turn to the right is actually right constitutes a separate debate. But the fact that even the Opposition has not created much brouhaha over this altered course of action does indicate that perhaps India is ready for the shift. This has been possible largely because of the failure of the socialist model wherein hardly 17 paise out of every rupee spent by successive governments trickled down to the real beneficiary. Negative economic growth during the second term of the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, multiple scams and policy paralysis has helped NDA’s current pragmatism triumph over the past’s platitudes.

The middle class seems to have embraced this new approach and even looks impressed with the attempts being made to clean up business processes through systems like a single window clearance for big infrastructure projects or the elimination of intermediaries to curb the menace of corruption in governance. Moreover, some cash back to the salaried class by way of favourable tax slabs has further strengthened this sense of hope and trust.

Of course, though the FM did not spell it out he will have to resort to subsidy cuts and disinvestment to honour UPA’s interim budget fiscal deficit target of 4.1 per cent. Consequently, cuts in the social sector are sure to adversely affect women and children. But the economy inherited from the previous regime is brittle and there is little room for manoeuvring.

Even so some new social and livelihood schemes and measures (See Box) have been announced keeping in mind the particular interests of women. Additionally, all existing empowerment schemes have also been retained - with a little reorientation. For instance, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has now been linked to productive and asset-creating agricultural and allied activities. Women, who form a substantial section of rural labour force, stand to gain from this move.

Giving further boost to their economic agency is the Aajeevika scheme, under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), which offers concessional loans to women Self Help Groups at four per cent in some districts and seven per cent in others. Apart from this, there is no reason why women should not be able to derive their share of benefits from gender neutral schemes such as the Rs 100 crore entrepreneurship development programme for rural youth, the Young Leaders programme (Rs 100 crore), the Rs 200 crore credit enhancement facility for young Scheduled Caste entrepreneurs and the Rs 100 crore plan for promoting ancestral arts for minorities. Enterprising women can even tap into the Rs 1,000 crore fund that has been set up to promote start-ups that focus on delivering products and services to small- and medium-sized enterprises.

In this season of austerity, here’s how the provisions for the social sector, including health, sanitation, education and safety, look. A sum of Rs 18,691 crores has been allocated for the all-important Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Rs 715 crores goes to the National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW) and Rs 400 crores has been set aside for Integrated Child Protection Scheme.

The critical concern of women’s safety gets much-needed attention. An outlay of Rs 50 crores will fund a pilot testing scheme on ‘Safety for Women on Public Road Transport’, a sum of Rs 150 crore will be spent on a scheme to increase the safety of women in the big cities, while provision has been made to set up Crisis Management Centres in government and private hospitals in all the districts of Delhi from the Rs 1,000 crore Nirbhaya Fund.

The move to make substantial allocation to meet the sanitation needs of young girls in schools in order to arrest their high dropout rates comes at the right time. Be it in the urban areas or rural hamlets, the construction of toilets can truly improve the quality of life for girls and women and significantly reduce their vulnerability to sexual violence.

Will all this be enough to address women’s concerns? That only time will tell. Till then there is reason to hope for change.

WHAT DOES THE BUDGET GIVE INDIAN WOMEN

The total budgetary allocation for women is Rs 98,030 crores while children (both male and female) get Rs 81,075 crore.

Here’s a dekho at some schemes that look out for women’s interests:

* A sum of Rs 100 crores has been provided for ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana’, a focused new scheme to generate awareness and improve the efficiency of welfare services for women.

* A special small savings instrument to cater to the requirements of education and marriage of the girl child is to be introduced.

* Drinking water and toilet facilities in all government girls’ schools to arrest the high dropout rate.

* Inclusion of chapter on gender sensitisation in the school curriculum.

* Proposed induction of 4,000 plus women constables in the Railway Protection Force to ensure security of women train travellers.

* Rs 50 crore pilot scheme on safety for women on public road transport.

* The Home Ministry gets Rs 150 crore for a scheme to increase the safety of women in big cities.

* Setting up of Crisis Management Centres for women in all government and private hospitals in Delhi from the Rs 1000 crore Nirbhaya Fund created in the last financial year.

(The author is a former editor and corporate communications practitioner based in Delhi. His views are personal.)

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