What women want from the budget

Improving India’s rank on gender inequality index needs the kind of focus that will go into improving the country’s ranking on the ease of doing business

Nisha Agrawal | February 27, 2015


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Arvind Subramanian, the new chief economic adviser, has started a series of North Block Policy Charchas that focus on important policy issues of economic and social development, such as land acquisition, labour laws, and ease of doing business. These forums are tripartite in nature – with government, private sector and civil society all invited to participate. It is one of the few such places in India where this kind of interaction is happening in an institutionalised fashion and is therefore a very welcome initiative.

There is widespread consensus in India that we need to get back to a higher growth path in order to create more jobs and higher incomes.

Therefore, when the latest rankings of the World Bank’s ‘doing business’ report were announced in October 2014, and India had slipped to 142 out of 189 countries, its worst ranking ever, it was a big blow to policymakers. The fall in rankings illustrated the urgent need for action in categories that involve interface with the government, such as paying taxes and construction permits. The new government has taken up the challenge to improve the legal and regulatory environment for the ease of doing business and has announced ambitiously that it aims to get India into the top 50 through the ‘Make in India’ and other such programmes. Major policy announcements have been promised and are expected in the upcoming budget to make this a reality.

The budget is traditionally expected to focus on such issues of great importance for India. Gender equality issues are usually not discussed in this category. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when the CEA asked the other day, “What can the budget do for Indian women?”, and offered to host the sixth North Block Policy Charcha on February 2 on this topic. 

Human development index (HDI) and gender inequality index (GII): Where India stands compared to G20 developing countries

Source: UNDP human development report 2014

India is a paradox on gender equality issues. At one level, we have had prominent women leaders in positions such as the president, prime minister, heads of large political parties, cabinet ministers, captains of industry (particularly in the banking sector), and so on. And yet, according to the UNDP’s latest human development report (2014), India ranks 135 out of 187 countries on the human development index (HDI) and 127 out of 152 countries on the gender inequality index (GII). The GII is a composite measure reflecting inequality in achievement between women and men in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market. This puts India in the bottom 25% of all countries on the HDI and even lower – in the bottom 20% – on the GII.

A comparison with developing countries in the G20 grouping also shows India in a poor light on gender equality issues. For example, Indian women have the lowest share of seats in parliament (10.9%); the lowest percentage of women aged 25 years and older who have reached (but not necessarily completed) a secondary level of education (26.6%); and the lowest rate for labour force participation for women aged 15 and older (28.8%).

The statistics in the box reflect the poor status of women and girls in Indian society and the high levels of gender inequality in India. On January 22, the prime minister launched the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign from Panipat in Haryana. The campaign is aimed at increasing the very low value that Indian society puts on a girl child, by arresting and reversing the low and declining child sex ratio in India. 

According to census data, the child sex ratio (0-6 years) in India was 927 girls per 1,000 boys in 2001, which dropped drastically to 918 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2011. 

Other forms of violence against women are also very high in India. According to a recent report by WHO (2013), one in three women throughout the world will experience physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. In India, this ratio is closer to 40% (NFHS-3, 2005). More recent data is lacking and it would be hard to guess whether this number has increased or decreased during the last decade.

In the same way that India aims to be among the top 50 countries of the Doing Business ranking, we need to aim to be among the top 50 in the HDI and GII ratings. For that, what will be needed are campaigns that aim to change public attitudes about the value of women and girls, combined with some very concrete laws, policies and programmes that aim to improve the status and welfare of women and girls in India.

Some of the policy and budgetary changes that would be required to do so would include:
 

  • Reduce the maternal mortality rate (MMR): In addition to the demand-side financing through the Janani Suraksha Yojana to promote maternal health, improve the supply of services for safe delivery (not necessarily only institutionalised delivery);
  • Reduce adolescent birth rate: Promote safe family planning measures appropriate for young people (instead of relying heavily only on female sterilisation);
  • Increase share of seats for women in parliament: Pass the women’s reservation bill (as promised in the party manifesto);
  • Increase leadership of women in business: Enforce the Companies Act that requires at least one woman on the board of every corporate registered under the Act;
  •  Increase share of women with a secondary education: Extend the Right to Education Act (2010) to provide free and compulsory education for all till Grade 12 and increase budgetary allocations for education;
  • Increase the female labour force participation rate: Take measures through Make in India and other schemes to promote labour intensive manufacturing in India (as in the East Asia model) in sectors such as garments, footwear, food processing, toys, and electronics that are intensive in the employment of  women;
  •  Reduce violence against women: Provide financial resources through the budget to implement the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) and launch a campaign to reduce the acceptance of violence against women in society.


A start has been made in India by opening up discussions on what women want from the budget at the highest levels of policymaking in the North Block. If the budget could now follow up and show similar levels of ambition and urgency to get India into the top 50 countries on the HDI and GII as it is expected to show on getting India into the top 50 countries on the Doing Business rankings, one could finally begin to see demonstrated improvements in the status and welfare of women and girls in India and ‘Nari Shakti’ could move from a slogan and a dream to a reality in India.

Agrawal is CEO of Oxfam India.

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