New Delhi: The year 2023 saw crucial developments for gender equality such as the enactment of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam ensuring one-third of the seats in parliament and state legislatures for women, and a declaration of commitment to women-led development during India’s G20 Presidency.

On the other hand, India ranked 127th of 146 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023. Despite recent upward trends, India’s female labour force participation rates remain among the lowest in the world. The precarious nature of women’s employment, their predominance in the informal economy, poor working conditions and absence of social insurance, gender wage gaps, and disproportionate burden of unpaid and unaccounted work remain persistent challenges.

Ahead of the interim Union Budget 2024-25, to be presented on February 1, we highlight the key elements to look for in terms of gender equality and women’s empowerment goals in the upcoming vote-on-account, in the run-up to the general elections. Allocations to these schemes and initiatives will be vital to progress on these goals.

Key promises

The G20 declaration emphasised women-led development, listing commitments such as socio-economic empowerment, gender inclusion in digital technologies and climate action; health, food security, nutrition and wellbeing for advancing United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal - 5: ‘Gender equality and empowering all women and girls.’

In his Independence Day speech last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the government is working with women’s self-help groups (SHGs) to create 20 million ‘Lakhpati Didis’, in line with India’s proposal to emphasise women-led development at the G20 forum. The scheme is meant to provide employment-oriented skill development training to the women. As part of the initiative, the Union cabinet approved Rs 1,261 crore--for financial years 2024-25 to 2025-26--to provide drones to 15,000 SHGs across states. Women from the SHGs will receive training to pilot the drones, enabling them to provide rental services for agricultural use.

Economic empowerment

India’s female labour force participation rate rose from 23.3% in 2017-18 to 37% in 2022-23, data from the annual Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS) show. This increase was largely led by rural women. During the same period, women’s unemployment rate fell from 5.6% to 2.9%.

Research and data show how Covid-19 had disproportionately impacted women in terms of job loss (see, for instance, here, here, and here). IndiaSpend's second Women at Work series also looked at the particular challenges women faced during the pandemic. In this context, an increase in the number of women in the labour force, and a decline in the unemployment indicates that women took up low-paying, low-quality jobs, primarily due to distress, as IndiaSpend reported in July 2022. These trends are consistent with earlier economic crises, Himanshu, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, had told us. For instance, he pointed out, during the agrarian crisis between 1999 and 2004-05, there was an increase of 60 million workers. "Households have an idea of what they see as a minimum income to survive," he said. "When this income drops, they push potential earners, including women and the elderly, into the labour force."

Data also show that rural women turned to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). In a decade to 2023-24, women’s participation in MGNREGS increased every year, except in 2017-18 and 2020-21, government data show. Even in these years, women accounted for more person-days of work under MGNREGS than men.

MGNREGS mandates providing at least 100 days of employment each year per rural household. However, this has never been the case since the scheme was launched, government data show. So far, the highest average number of days of work provided per household was 54 back in 2009-10, the Hindu BusinessLine reported in March 2023. Further, fewer than 2.2 million of the 56 million households that got any work completed 100 days of work in 2023-24, the lowest in a decade.

While employment demand under MGNREGS remains above pre-pandemic levels, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of government data, the funds available for wages remain lower. As a result, funds had dried up by September 2023, and the finance ministry subsequently allocated an additional Rs 10,000 crore for MGNREGS. By November 29, 2023, the Union government had pending wage liabilities of Rs 2,020.6 crore and material liabilities of Rs 4,939.6 crore, the government told Lok Sabha in December 2023.

Allocations have not kept pace, according to an analysis of Union budget data by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), a think-tank focusing on public policies and government finances in India. Since the pandemic year, allocations to the scheme have nearly halved.

This leads to delays in disbursement of wages and less allocation of work, adversely affecting rural women workers depending on the scheme for their livelihood. Issues of late payments have persisted with causes ranging from delayed release of funds by the Union government, and alleged corruption, to faults with the attendance monitoring application as well as Aadhaar-based payment systems.

In a country where 73.2% of rural women workers are engaged in agriculture, women own only 12.8% of land holdings, IndiaSpend reported in September 2019. Therefore, allocations to the farming and allied sectors impact women’s lives and livelihoods.

“Recent patterns of allocation of the agriculture budget predominantly favour individual farmer-centric initiatives, neglecting the significance of community-based schemes such as Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) which is designed to promote organic farming through the formation of clusters and Bio-Resource Centres,” observes Ankita Akodiya, Policy Analyst at CBGA. With 30% of its allocations earmarked for women farmers, PKVY has the potential to support women’s collective farming if provided greater economic stimulus. The scheme has been subsumed under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) in 2022-23. Moreover, despite subsuming several schemes, RKVY as an umbrella scheme also saw a decline in allocations in 2023-24.

Anganwadi and ASHA workers remain overworked and underpaid

Anganwadi workers, helpers and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) form the frontline of India’s healthcare, but they are overworked and underpaid, as IndiaSpend has reported previously. By July 2023, India had 1.3 million anganwadi workers and 1.2 million anganwadi helpers, government data show. Anganwadi workers are paid between Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,500, and helpers earn Rs 2,250 as honorarium. Apart from small performance linked incentives up to Rs 500, their pay includes additional honorarium paid by states. Late 2023 saw strikes by anganwadi workers for higher pay, better working conditions, recognition as government employees, and various forms of social insurance in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Bihar, and Maharashtra.

Anganwadi services are provided under the aegis of the Saksham Anganwadi and POSHAN 2.0 scheme, which is a centrally-sponsored scheme. The scheme is funded by the Union government and states in a 60:40 ratio. As of December 2023, Tamil Nadu and Goa had the highest provision for additional honorarium, based on qualification and experience, while Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland did not offer additional pay, government data show.

Anganwadi helpers earn around Rs 6,810 per month in Delhi, which needs to be revised taking into account the average cost of living in the city, field studies by Action India, a grassroots organisation working for women’s empowerment, found.

Given the stagnant allocations for such schemes over the past three years, raising allocations as well as the honoraria paid to ASHAs and Anganwadi workers constituted key recommendations for the budget from the Feminist Policy Collective.

Nirbhaya fund still under-used

India has a range of laws, policies and programmes that seek to address gender-based violence. Public resources are allocated annually to implement these, but most measures funded only come into play once the violence has already occurred, as we reported last year. Even for these measures, resources are insufficient, our analysis showed.

The Nirbhaya fund is a non-lapsable corpus fund for women’s safety established in 2013. Data submitted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to the Rajya Sabha in December 2023 show that until financial year 2023-24, only 70% of funds--Rs 5,119 crore of Rs 7,212 crore--were utilised under the scheme since inception. The ministry said low utilisation could be due to non-receipt of utilisation certificates from states.

The Nirbhaya fund is marred by patterns of skewed distribution in favour of surveillance projects and severe under-utilisation of funds, IndiaSpend reported previously. For instance, of the total fund appraised so far (Rs 12,008.4 crore), nearly a quarter has been appraised for a single project–’Safe City’ proposals of eight cities.

For 12 of the 42 projects for which budgets were appraised, no money was utilised, the dashboard shows. This includes the ‘scheme for critical care and support for accessing justice to rape/gang-rape survivors and minor girls who get pregnant’, for which a budget had not been approved as of April 2023 by a ‘competent financial authority’, according to the scheme dashboard.

This twin issue of under-utilisation and lack of funds affects the implementation of projects under the Nirbhaya Fund. A case in point is One Stop Centres, where inadequacy of salaries and delayed payments tend to distress staff. Provision of quality services for survivors of violence remains a daunting challenge. “The use of Nirbhaya fund for staff salaries is discouraged but should be pursued to ramp up utilisation as well as improve overall implementation of interventions,” argued a gender-responsive budgeting expert.

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