Well, the Union Budget 2020-21 was out yesterday. And like many, I heard Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman present a 3 hour-long speech that ended with a sweet in the mouth, literally.
It was flooded with mixed reactions. Right from a thumping ovation to disappointed shout-outs. I just would say, you have to sit down and patiently read the fine print of the Annual Financial Statement to truly understand the impact of Ms. Nirmala’s words.
Let’s look at certain women-centric areas to watch out for because after all, we heard the vehement cry in the introductory few minutes “…for every woman wishing to stand up and get counted…this Budget aims to have your aspirations and hopes addressed.” Alright then.
So the budget was presented under 3 themes- ‘Aspirational India,’ ‘Economic Development,’ and ‘Caring India.’ They were graphically described as a bouquet of flowers (ahem…) And what held the bouquet together – two hands – being governance (clean, well-intentioned, corruption fee, trusting every citizen, etc.) and Financial Sector (again clean, reliable, robust etc.)
Now that we’re armed with an adjective-rich floral portrait of the economy, let’s see what that colorful bouquet actually contains about women.
Rider: I had to get awfully creative, read between the lines, imply, and cull out points. Because, honestly, I couldn’t find anything remarkable or even a cacti blossom in the face!
So here goes.
Aspirational India and what that means
First, under the ‘Aspirational India’ theme, women in villages will regain their place as “Dhaanya Lakshmis.” How? Self Help Groups will run a proposed Village Storage scheme that will provide farmers with agri-warehousing capacity and cut their logistics cost.
Then allocations were announced for the Jal Jeevan mission, the education sector, skill development. Now while we can debate over the quantum of these allocations, I believe the larger issue is not about how much.
The real issue is the lack of quarterly tracking and publicly reporting what is done with these allocations. Dream schemes and copious amounts of rupees can keep expanding and fluctuating. Until there is clear and frequent reporting on what was done with the ‘announced’ allocations. As well as what results came of them, there’s little value in just knowing the figures themselves.
Did you know these things happened?
For example, Ms Nirmala brought to our notice certain positive things that came out of allocations in earlier budget. And we didn’t even know those positive things were happening to us!
Let me share few examples she announced. The average household now saves 4% of its expenditure due to GST. We are receiving clean energy through Ujjwala Scheme. Also, we are enjoying affordable housing through the Awaas Yojana. And more than 6 Lakh Anganwadi workers have smart phones to upload the nutritional status of mothers in more than 10 crore households, thanks to the Poshan Abhiyaan.
See? Wouldn’t we appreciate this fabulous progress if we could understand how and when we were benefiting every quarter?
What the ‘Economic Development’ theme means
Second, under the ‘Economic Development’ theme, Ms Nirmala recognized the importance of job creators in the country, and not just job seekers. So if you’re an entrepreneurial woman, please note. She proposed to set up an Investment Clearance Cell as a portal to offer pre-investment advisory, information related to land banks, and ease clearances at Centre and State level.
Then, the living costs. We will have the freedom to choose the supplier and the rate of electricity. This will happen after states and union territories will replace conventional energy meters in our homes with prepaid smart meters in the next three years. ‘Sounds’ great right? Would love to see that happen because my Adani-supplied electricity bill is close to a cruel Rs.13,000/month, in Mumbai.
For women manning local governance in rural India, Ms. Nirmala proposed that all public institutions at gram panchayat level will have digital connectivity. That includes Anganwadis, health and wellness centers, government schools, PDS outlets, post offices and police stations.
Caring India would mean
Third, under the ‘Caring India’ theme, Ms Nirmala’s assertion that “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme has yielded tremendous results” was met with loud protests. Obviously, we’ve seen enough instances of numbing lack of fundamental safety and security of women and the girl child.
The state of affairs for women is hardly celebratory. So I’m not going to go chest-thumping on hearing that the gross enrolment ratio of girls is higher than boys under the programme. But okay, good to know.
I felt a flurry of excitement when Ms Nirmala said “Women’s age of marriage was increased from fifteen years to eighteen years in 1978.” I squealed, “Oh my god! Are they going to increase the marriageable age?!” That would certainly have been swell, considering how opportunities to pursue education and build careers gets automatically expanded.
Anyhow, what she announced was another ‘proposal’ to set up a task force that will present its recommendations. Alright, I’m the eternal optimist. I can wait for 6 months…How could I expect a “Mitron” kind of shock announcement cum implementation of measures imperative for women, right?
Don’t we need a transparent method to track actions?
So 28600 crore has been allocated for women related schemes, 85000 crores for SCs and OBCs, and 53700 crores for STs. For reasons I’ve highlighted before, I’m not going to reinforce why it’s fruitless to talk about these numbers sans a transparent and scientific method to track ‘actions.’
Women are obviously under the Caring India theme!
Now before we move ahead, may I make an observation? It annoys me to no end that women have been bracketed under the ‘Caring India’ theme. Why couldn’t women-related initiatives, schemes, plans and allocations (whatever little there was) figure under the ‘Aspirational India’ or ‘Economic Development’ themes?
Aren’t women aspirational enough in what they wish to achieve for themselves and the country? They are active contributors to the economy, aren’t they? Am I wrong in imagining that statements “By 2030, India will have the largest working population in the world” or “India is now world’s 5th largest economy” apply to both the sexes and includes the women workforce?
By putting women under the ‘Caring India’ segment, the government has effectively cut out half of the population from being considered ‘contributors’ to the country’s GDP, and treats them like cost centers or liabilities.
It’s unfortunate that the ‘abla naari’ narrative has raised its silent but ugly head in an asset of such high stature. The whole ‘care’ narrative weakens, and does massive disservice to women’s ambitions to become independent earning members and their efforts to rise as strong leaders across sectors.
Read between the lines is all I can say
Moving on to Part B of the budget speech.
This is for all women taxpayers, just as for men. If your income is between 5 Lakhs and 15 Lakhs, you can exercise the choice to continue paying taxes at the erstwhile rates while availing exemptions and deductions (such as 80C, loan exemptions etc.)
OR you can pay taxes at the new reduced rates but say goodbye to enjoying any exemptions or deductions. So, read the fine print and take a call on what works for you. Understand going which way will actually increase your overall savings.
Further, Ms Nirmala once again recognized that entrepreneurship is creating more employment on its own than manufacturing itself. So if you’re an employee of a start-up, you can now enjoy up to 5 years tax holiday. Read the fine print for T&Cs.
And that’s it but…
And that’s about it. I really hope I’ve missed out a spectacular provision for women in my humble understanding of the budget speech. Such as allocation for infrastructure to improve women’s security and mobility on roads and streets. Or measures to track usage/non-usage of existing funds such as Nirbahaya.
Or even acknowledging the moment in our lives when, for instance, my cook refused to cut salad for dinner as she hyperventilated “Didi! Pyaaz mat khao!”
This opinion piece was published at Women’s Web.