‘Nari Tu Narayani’: How women have fared under FM Sitharaman
Exactly one year into the leadership of India’s first female Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, we look at global indicators to measure how women have fared in India, and how well Sitharaman has stuck to her promises for women’s empowerment.
In 2019, India -- naive and fresh faced -- as yet unaware of the dire straits our economy was in, cheered as its first-ever female Finance Minister paid homage to women in her Budget debut speech.
She said India’s tradition was steeped in respect for the importance of women, invoking Swami Vivekananda’s famous line “Nari, tu Narayani”, meaning “Oh woman, you are a goddess”. She went on to quote Swami Vivekananda once more, saying: "There is no chance of welfare in the world unless the condition of women in India is improved."
One year later, as she has largely fallen from grace, in the midst of widespread unrest with the steeply slowing GDP growth rate; and her bizarre comments on everything from the auto-sector to onions, we have to ask ourselves this: Has it helped the women of India, to finally have a female Finance Minister?
The 2020 Global Gender Gap report says, quite simply - no.
The report, released by the World Economic Forum, measures how countries fare in gender equality across the fields of politics, economic empowerment, health and education.
Over the past year, India slipped four ranks on the last, down to the 112th position among 153 countries. The cause for worry was in the section on economic disparity between men and women. India, at 149, ranks among the bottom four countries of the world when it comes to economic participation and opportunities for women.
How do we fix this? Is Nirmala Sitharaman simply not trying, or is this a matter of poor implementation of policies?
Indicators say ground reality remains bleak. According to the World Bank, in the Indian labour force, there is only one woman for every three men. This puts us in the bottom 10 ranks.
One clear, albeit theoretical solution to this is the idea of Gender Responsive Budgeting. The Economic Times defines this as “a practice that acknowledges the fiscal expenditure with a gender perspective and prorates funds for the gender-specific outcome to address the persistent gender inequality that hinders the overall growth and development of a nation”.
Apart from being numbers on paper though, gender-responsive budgeting has not received much attention in India.
Did you know that India’s annual budget statements have had gender components since 2004? And yet, according to Forbes, the gender budget occupies less than 1 per cent of the total GDP.
Since 2005, every year, the Union government releases a Gender Budgeting Statement with the budget. This consists of two parts -- the first part relates to government schemes specific to women, with all budgets in the schemes allocated only to women. The second part relates to schemes on women empowerment, in which 30 per cent of the scheme budgets are reserved for women.
Confused? Think of it this way -- there are two types of schemes the government introduces. Imagine these schemes are vehicles for women’s development -- let’s take the example of a bus.
The first kind of scheme is meant for women’s development alone -- so only women are allowed on this bus.
The second kind recognises the need to empower women, but still drives the economy forward as a whole. So this second bus has 30 per cent of its seats reserved for women, but both men and women may get on, and the women can choose whether to occupy reserved seats, or rough it with the mixed crowd.
One major factor to consider is that gender budgeting is not only important for the development of women in India. It also significantly drives forward the overall growth and development.
In 2018, the McKinsey Global Institute reported that India could add up to $770 billion -- an 18 per cent increase -- to its budget by levelling the playing field and giving equal opportunities to women.
In recent years, government schemes like MNREGA, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samridhi Yojna, and Ujjawala Yojna have been these vehicles to drive development.
So coming back to the hopeful Finance Minister we saw one year ago - how has she done? Is she still sticking to her guns, saying the women of India are “goddesses”?
In September 2019, Sitharaman made a statement saying “laws for more participation of women should not get reduced to ‘tokenism’, and while laws that make increased women’s representation mandatory are needed, it is equally important for women to come out of their ‘comfort zones’ and take up challenges.”
She made this statement at a gathering after Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat unveiled the findings of a survey on Status of Women in India by a Sangh Parivar-backed women’s organisation. One of the findings of the survey is that none of the 24 Parliamentary standing committees has had a woman head.
Responding to this, Sitharaman said there is a dearth of visibility of capable women, only because they “do not bother” to come out and stake their claim.
Nirmala Sitharaman, being the first female Finance Minister India has had, has shown a lacklustre leadership in paving the way for the betterment of women. Under her, India’s global rankings, across different surveys and different indicators have fallen, and one thing has remained constant -- the need for a better, more gender responsive budget that reflects ground realities.