Does India’s Gender Budget Need a Rethink?

India was a pioneering country when it first introduced a Gender Budget in 2001 as part of its annual Financial Year Budget. Gender Budgeting (GB) highlights the inherently different experiences in receiving financial and welfare support from the state due to their differing needs, priorities and access and serves to ameliorate the barriers to economic inclusion faced by women through a plethora of state financing. 

India’s Gender Budget Statement (GBS) has been released in two parts since 2005. Each ministry highlights allocations that are – women specific allocations where 100% of the budget for a specific scheme is assigned to women and a ‘pro-women’s’ allocation, where at least 30% of the budget for a specific scheme has been assigned to women to enhance affirmative action.

Figure 1: Proportion of women’s allocation in India’s Gender Budget

While fund allocation for Gender Budgets are limited to 5% of budget expenditure, the findings from India’s Gender Budget reveal that while absolute allocations to the Gender Budget have been increasing over time, the proportion of 100% women’s allocation has largely stagnated over time.The stagnation of women’s allocation is even more apparent when taking into account inflationary effects. Selectively female issues have been left at the backdrop, with general welfare issues becoming predominant in budgeting. While this is not inherently a bad thing (for example,MNREGAs pro-women mandates under the Gender Budget have led to an increase in Female Labour Force Participation), an increase in pro-women’s allocations assumes that women have the same needs, priorities and requirements as their male counterparts. Hence women may opt out of these schemes, erasing the reality of their social reproduction requirements. 

The Invisible Economy

Becker’s  “New Household Economics” is arguably the most dominant conceptualisation of households and still influences policy today. According to him, a ‘unified household’ achieves maximum efficiency of production by allocating labour time according to their comparative advantage so as to maximise marginal returns to labour. Depending on skills and education levels, time is divided between productive (market) and domestic (caring, cleaning and cooking) activities as well as leisure. As a result of efficient production, total household utility is maximised by efficiently allocating time spent across household members.

This interpretation is riddled with issues. Firstly, the model lacks empirical validity; studies on women’s labour market experiences put into question the neo-classical assumption of comparative advantage. It suggests that increases in a female member’s wages relative to the male members would increase her labour-market time and reduce her domestic labour time. However, due to the preconceived assumption of women’s roles within the household as a result of conditioning from birth, they often engage in unpaid domestic work and withdraw from the labour market. If women chose to remain in the labour market, evidence shows that their time spent doing domestic work remains the same but is at the expense of leisure. 

The existence of class and caste struggles within the Indian context further exacerbates this. Historically, lower caste and economically poorer women were engaged in employment while higher caste women, in order to maintain the highest level of “purity”, remained at home and only engaged in domestic activity. Standing and Pearson criticise the notion that women entering the labour market is “empowering” and highlights the type of employment women tend to get ‘crowded into’ are often “insecure, low-paid (and) irregular” while men take up ones that are “regular, unionized, stable, manual or craft-based, etc.” This bias extends to all corners of a woman’s life, to the skills women chose to acquire through education, their bargaining power within the household, the diminished role of women’s income in a household and attitudes towards their own subjugation.  

Women are overrepresented in the ‘invisible’ economy (known as non-SNA activities). This is inclusive of care and domestic work that resides outside the realm of the market, however, without it, the market would cease to exist. This is the crux of “Social Reproduction Theory” – the notion that the household produces a healthy labour force that wields its labour power to drive the productive economy. For example, without proper “care”, the reproduction of able labour will be impossible. Additionally, with the global dominance of neo-liberal, free market economics there has been a rolling back of welfare spending in the name of growth. The responsibility of social reproduction has been subsequently pushed from the state to the home and onto women’s backs. While it is unclear the direction of women’s economic rights in the country with falling Labour Force Participation and increasing feminisation of labour, addressing the double burden is key to resolving economic inclusion. Hence, Gender Budgets should do well to deviate from mainstream understandings of household economics and understand the nuance of ‘Social Reproduction’.

Double Burden in India

Social Schemes’ are outnumbered by ‘Employment/Training Schemes’ but the funding allocations below (Figure 2) show this trend reversed. When separating out the largest beneficiaries of ‘Social Schemes’- LPG and Rural Housing schemes – Social and Employment schemes are held in equal regard allocation-wise. Yet, creche and Anganwadi (government-sponsored child-care and mother-care development programmes in India at the village level) budgets, as an example, have been declining year on year, diminishing the importance of social reproduction in the economy. Also, though the LPG Scheme has benefitted women’s health immensely, it further exacerbates preconceived stereotypes about a woman’s role in the household. It can also be argued that such schemes are leading to perverse incentives in disincentivizing women to increase the purchasing power of the house by engaging in income-generating activities instead. 

Figure 2: Snapshot of Budget allocations within 2020-21 Gender Budget

While the above suggests that Social and Employment schemes are held in equal regard budget allocation-wise, Anganwadi budgets have reduced over the past decade. This increases strain on the efficacy of certain social schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana(PMMVY), which are run by Anganwadis (see a list of processes carried out below). PMMVY is a Conditional Cash Transfer scheme compensating women for wage-loss due to the childbirth of their first live child. Strained anganwadi resources also increase burdens on mothers through geographical strain and additional time pressures (waiting times, registration and so on). This is an example of the challenges faced by the beneficiaries of the schemes itself with regards to a ‘double burden’.

Figure 3: Processes in PMMVY carried out by Anganwadi workers per subscriber

The Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted a time-use study in 2019 which indicates that while the dichotomy of employment and domestic work still exists between men and women, women on average engage in unpaid domestic/caregiving services for longer (280.8 minutes) than men engage in paid employment (260.52 minutes). Furthermore, women engage in non-SNA and SNAwork together more than men do; this effect is augmented in rural areas. This suggests that Indian women are carrying the ‘double burden’ of being economically and domestically productive. This could lead to an underutilisation of these schemes due to the lack of active demand for them; women may face stricter budget (time) constraints and maybe be unable to expend time to engage in such schemes. The high entry barriers (registration and compliance) ensure they will not opt into them at all even if they do require them.

The vibrant supply of welfare and social security schemes is underutilised due to their inability to see burdens within the ‘care economy’. This is especially so in the design of education and training schemes. Schemes are expecting significant time commitments in the form of training and education even though time-use surveys highlight that women are spending just as much time as men in non-SNA/domestic activities. This results in dormant demand for such products due to the lack of time that can be expended in a day. 

The growth of pro-women’s allocations schemes within the Gender Budget may be due to a growth of the male corpus of beneficiaries, leading to increased yearly budget allocations, of which it is mandated to allot 30% to women. It is unclear whether even this 30% threshold is being used optimally or not as data or any long-term executive planning with regards to the Gender Budget is unavailable.

Recommendations

Even with Nirmala Sitharaman, previously a member of the National Commission of Women, presenting the Budget in 2019, it had not addressed any of the issues that impacted women’s care responsibilities significantly. Short-term planning should include creche care for every training and employment scheme. Given that nationally, creche and Anganwadi scheme budgets have been falling, this is a viable way for women to overcome their ‘double burden’ and engage productively and representatively in the economy.

Union ministries will find it challenging to create Gender Budgets that appropriately allocate finances based on state-heterogeneity and hence should mandate Gender Cells in State ministries to ensure last-mile delivery of schemes on a local and municipal level. There needs to be more transparency within consultation, monitoring and evaluation of the Budget hence a status report and long term executive plans along with the annual gender budgets serve as prudential but effective steps.

India has made tremendous strides in combating gender inequity through fiscal tools, however the government’s lack of long-term planning has rendered an underutilisation of women-targeted schemes. We argue that it is most importantly the failing to allocate for the responsibilities placed on women in a liberalising and growing economy has resulted in suboptimal results seen through the falling Labour Force Participation and the increasing precarity of women in the economy.

Amaani Bashir is a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi and recent graduate of the MSc. Development Economics from SOAS. She can be reached at amaanibashir@hotmail.com.

Shreya Nambiar is a Development Consultant and recent graduate of the MSc. Development Economics from SOAS. She tweets at @ShreyaNambiar2.

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