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Is India’s Economy Doing Justice to It’s Women?

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From Palaniappan Chidambaram to Nirmala Sitharaman, for 15 years India’s finance ministers have promised to improve women’s welfare through higher and more focused government spending. India continues to struggle to provide its women with equal opportunity. On international measures of gender equality, India scores low on women’s overall health and survival and ability to access economic opportunities.

According to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate for 2016, at least 80 countries practiced gender budgeting. This list includes India, where gender budgets were launched in FY06 with the hope of tackling stark gender inequality. In FY06, when gender budgets were introduced as a separate section of the Union budget, 4.8% of total spending was allocated for women-related schemes. This rose to around 5.5% of total spending in FY09 but has stagnated since then.

The Economic Survey acknowledged this and highlighted that the state should design policies that better involve women in the economy. It quoted the World Bank, noting that “no country can develop and achieve its full potential if half of its population is locked in non-remunerative, less productive and non-economic activities.”

Unfortunately, when it came to allocating funds, the budget relegated women’s economic participation to secondary importance. This comprises spending on schemes that only target women (Part A), such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, and Part B schemes, which partially target women (where at least 30% of the scheme’s benefits go to women). Between the two, Part B schemes, such as the Mid-Day Meal program, dominates (around 80% of the gender budget in FY20).

Ignoring India’s declining female labor force participation at a time of economic distress is a mistake. Disregarding the fact that half of the population isn’t participating equally in the economy means we are missing out on innovation, entrepreneurship, and productivity gains.

One reason for the lack of concerted action on gender spending could be political will. India’s decision-maker both members of Parliament and the minister are overwhelmingly male, even after improvements in recent years. Currently, only 10% of all ministers are women. Only 14% of the current Lok Sabha members are women.

It would be nice if the government matches its words with deeds and increases funding to programs targeting women. Until then, the policy can build on the fact that pulling women into the economy isn’t just a function of budget allocations or social sector programs. It’s also a matter of thoughtful policy design and political will. a nation can only see a bright future when its complete working population contributes to it.

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