Chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian’s Economic Survey had a pink cover this year. It was clear that this was done to convey solidarity with the women’s movement, and also raised hopes for a women-centric Budget. The first indication that women’s interests would not get primacy in the budgetary exercise as cosmetically suggested in the economic survey was when finance minister Arun Jaitley trooped into the Parliament with an all-men team. As he presented the document this morning, it was clear that women, once again, had been left behind.
In his last budgetary speech before the 2019 general elections, the FM mentioned women 12 times and girls twice. The bulk of these references were made when he was lauding the government’s free LPG cylinder scheme — Prime Minister’s Ujjwala Scheme (PMUY). The scheme was launched in 2016 to make women from economically weak sections free from indoor air pollution and provide them with clean cooking fuel.
PMUY’s original target was five crore new connections, but the Budget now promises to extend it to eight crore poor women. The scheme is designed to provide a free LPG cylinder and connect it to every household that does not have one yet, and pays for the installation charge. The cost of the stove and every subsequent refill is borne by the household. Here is where the problem lies: the cost of refill is high and households are unable to replenish after the first free cylinder runs out.
The Budget ignores the needs of the backbone of India’s healthcare system: the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs). Photo: PTI
The extension of PMUY, as announced in the Budget, is noble, but the continuous usage of LPG cylinders is surely what is going to help empower women overcome the hazards of indoor air pollution. What happens when the first LPG cylinder is utilised and the household does not have financial resources to replenish it?
Another women-centric move in the Budget to encourage female participation in the formal workforce is reduction of Employment Provident Fund to eight per cent for the first three years of their employment. This move is insignificant in a country where the labour force participation of women is low and falling at nearly 27 per cent, among the lowest in South Asia, just ahead of Pakistan. Only a fraction of these women work in the formal sector.
No real measure has been taken to reverse the trend of the falling rate of women's participation in the workforce, to train them to improve their education outcomes and to make them a productive part of India’s growth story. The importance of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), where 56 per cent of the jobs are done by women, has also been diminished in this Budget.
The big-ticket item on the Budget is the move towards Swasth Bharat, which builds on the National Health Policy, 2017 intended at making healthcare accessible. However, the Budget ignores the needs of the backbone of India’s healthcare system: the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), who have been staging protests across the country for the last couple of years demanding regularisation of jobs and increase in wages.
Following a countrywide strike on January 17, Haryana saw a four-day protest by ASHA workers who are paid a paltry Rs 1,000. The government refuses to recognise through the 2018 budget their importance in the last mile delivery of health to the rural masses. It’s apparent that their protest has not been heeded by the FM.
Beyond jobs and skills for women, and passing mention of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, another big miss — as rightly pointed out by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) chief Swati Maliwal — is the issue of women’s security. After more than three years since it was created, a major chunk of the Nirbhaya Fund to promote women's safety remains unspent.
The 2018 Budget has been a big disappointment for women. One can’t help but wonder, had the FM included a woman in his team, would the annual Budget have made better provisions for India’s other half?
Wouldn’t that be good politics too?