New Delhi: Over the last 16 years, the Union budget allocations earmarked for schemes that benefit women, called the 'Gender Budget', have remained below 5% of the total expenditure budget, and below 1% of gross domestic product (GDP). Gender Budget 2021-22 has followed this trend, and in fact, has shrunk by 26%, from Rs 2,07,261 crore ($28.4 billion) in 2020-21 (revised estimate) to Rs 1,53,326 crore ($21 billion) in 2021-22 (budget estimate).

Traditional schemes such as the rural jobs guarantor Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the subsidised housing programme called the PM Awas Yojana (PMAY) (urban and rural), the childcare centres upgradation scheme Saksham Anganwadi, the integrated school education scheme Samagra Shiksha and the National Rural Livelihood Mission for poverty alleviation and self-employment among the rural poor, received half of all allocations, in a nod to their centrality to a gender-sensitive post-COVID-19 recovery. However, new priority areas such as social protection, digital literacy, skill training and domestic violence, emerging in the wake of COVID-19, have only received 2% of allocations.

COVID-19's disproportionate impact on women

Mounting evidence indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionately negative impact on India's women. In 2017-18, women's labour force participation reached its nadir over the last five decades, falling to 23.3%, among the lowest globally as per the National Sample Survey Office's Periodic Labour Force Survey 2018-19. The pandemic has only aggravated this, as women faced disproportionate job losses--the labour force shrank by 14% for women versus 1% for men between December 2019 and December 2020, as per Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data.

Moreover, the gendered digital divide restricted women's access to online education, health and work opportunities, given that only 21% of Indian women use mobile internet compared to 42% of men, according to the GSM Association's (GSMA) The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020 report.

The prolonged closure of anganwadi centres disrupted access to reproductive and maternal health services. Women are heavily reliant on public transport services. In urban areas, even though they comprise 19% of "other workers", 84% of their trips are made using public transport, according to a report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Disruption of public transport services, and tightened mobility restrictions, resulted in women becoming increasingly confined to their homes.

Women across income classes bore a greater burden of unpaid care work, be it childcare due to school closures or elderly care owing to pressure on healthcare services during lockdowns, found a UN Women report. Women spend nearly five hours in unpaid domestic work at home compared to just over an hour-and-a-half for men, according to Time Use in India-2019, a survey by the National Statistical Office. Nearly 43% of urban female 'solopreneurs' reported a loss of productivity due to increased domestic work during COVID-19, found a study by the consultancy firm Bain & Company. In a country where large numbers of women face some form of domestic violence, and 52% of women and 42% of men believe it is justified for a husband to physically assault his wife, the shadow pandemic of domestic violence exacerbated women's challenges during COVID-19.

The first pandemic Gender Budget

The Gender Budget Statement, which the Government of India has released since 2005-06 as part of the Union Budget, allows a clear demarcation of funds across Central ministries and centrally-sponsored schemes towards mitigating gender-based discrimination. It is thus a unique fiscal tool for the central government to finance gender-sensitive social and economic recovery measures in the face of the current crisis. Yet, comparing the Gender Budget Statement 2021-22 with those released over the last 16 years, our analysis found that India's first pandemic Gender Budget has largely followed historical trends rather than accommodating new priorities posed by the pandemic.

First, the overall quantum of the Gender Budget continues to remain below 5% of the total expenditure laid out in the Union Budget 2021-22 and less than 1% of GDP. Over the 2005-06 to 2020-21 period the Gender Budget, on average, was allocated 5% of total expenditure.

Rs 63,800 crore ($8.7 billion) was added to the current financial year's original Gender Budget estimate of Rs 143,462 crore ($19.6 billion). This increase was primarily driven by COVID-19 emergency measures, such as direct benefit transfers under the PM Jan Dhan Yojana, LPG connections to poor households and MGNREGS. Consequently, the current financial year's Gender Budget (revised estimate, or the amount estimated to have been spent) was increased to 6% of the total allocation and crossed 1% of the GDP. However, in Union Budget 2021-22, the total allocation has been cut to Rs 1,53,326 crore ($21 billion), 26% lower than 2020-21. It is 4.4% of total budgetary expenditure and 0.7% of GDP.

Second, the Gender Budget has remained concentrated within a few ministries and in traditional spending areas. Only 34 of the over 70 central ministries and departments reported allocations in the Gender Budget Statement in 2021-22. Between 2005-06 and 2020-21, 90.3% of the Gender Budget was allocated to just five ministries and departments: Rural Development, Women and Child Development, Agriculture, Health and Family Welfare and Human Resource Development. This trend has continued in 2021-22, with the same five ministries receiving 87% of the allocations. For gender concerns to be mainstreamed, all ministries should get allocations for gender concerns, experts say.

Barring the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Gender Budget remains only 30-40% of these ministries' overall allocation. Thus, even for ministries with a preponderant share of the Gender Budget Statement, expenditure on women's needs is a small proportion.

Five schemes--PMAY (urban and rural), MGNREGS, Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0 (a new mission subsuming existing schemes within the Ministry of Women and Child Development budget, such as Integrated Child Development Services, anganwadi services, Poshan Abhiyan, Scheme for Adolescent Girls and National Creche Scheme), Samagra Shiksha and National Rural Livelihood Mission--have comprised about half the Gender Budget between 2018-19 and 2020-21. For 2021-22, allocations for these traditional schemes again comprised 53% of the Gender Budget Statement. The total allocations for the top 10 schemes increased from 64.6% of the Gender Budget in 2020-21 to 73.4% for 2021-22, indicating greater consolidation.

Third, allocations for new priority areas requiring immediate focus as a result of the pandemic comprised just 2% of Gender Budget 2021-22. Recognising the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women globally, the United Nations has highlighted several key areas as short-term priorities for government action, including social protection, prevention of domestic violence, skill training, public transport, digital literacy and support for unpaid care work.

Spending for social protection schemes was increased to 21% of the Gender Budget in 2020-21, largely owing to the financial inclusion programme PM Jan Dhan Yojana and the free cooking gas programme for poor families, PM Ujjwala Yojana, but these find no mention in the 2021-22 Gender Budget. Notably, a small allocation has been made for rural digital literacy under the PM Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan in 2021-22. The introduction of the SAMBAL scheme (a grouping of existing schemes, including One Stop Centre, Mahila Police Volunteer, Women's Helpline, Swadhar Greh, Ujjawala, Widow Homes and Working Women Hostel Schemes) has resulted in nearly doubling the budget for tackling domestic violence in the 2021-22 Gender Budget.

On the other hand, support for skills training and public transport has remained flat. Childcare and elderly care services, supported by the National Creche Scheme, were merged into the Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan Scheme 2.0 in 2021-22, and hence a separate allocation was not provided. Moreover, flagship centrally-sponsored schemes which form the core tools of post-COVID-19 recovery, including the Jal Jeevan Mission (a scheme that aims to instal a functional tap in every rural household by 2024), Smart Cities Mission (an urban renewal programme to develop smart cities across India), and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission (a local economic development program aiming to bridge rural-urban divides through creation of rurban clusters) were missing from the Gender Budget Statement for 2021-22. (Gender Budgets routinely omit some schemes, as we reported in our explainer ahead of this year's budget.)

Gender-responsive recovery through innovation

Globally, 26 countries including India took gender-sensitive emergency measures in response to the COVID-19 economic and health crisis. A total of 992 such measures were tracked, of which 71% were for the prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls, 11% for strengthening unpaid care services and 9.5% for social protection. The remaining 8.5% were for strengthening women's economic security through labour market and fiscal support. Several countries launched innovative initiatives to respond to emerging post COVID-19 priorities over the medium term.

Over the years, many experts have called for a broader, more innovative Gender Budget. To improve monitoring of outlays Gender Budgets ought to be integrated into outcome budgets, wrote Lekha Chakraborty in her paper, "Gender Responsive Budgeting, as Fiscal Innovation: Evidence from India on 'Processes'". Gender audits of major centrally-sponsored schemes would help place a gender lens on major schemes, suggested economist and 15th Finance Commission member Ashok K. Lahiri.

Gender Budget ought to be prepared based on a roadmap by each ministry/department clearly showing how they plan to meet gender needs, said Aasha Kapur Mehta, head of the Centre for Gender Studies at the Institute for Human Development. Most importantly, women should be at the heart of India's post-COVID-19 recovery plans, with sustained financing for women-focussed programmes provided through gender budgeting.

Mitali Nikore is a New Delhi-based economist and the founder of Nikore Associates, a youth-led policy design and economics research think tank. She is a consultant with UN Women, Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, focusing on infrastructure, industrial corridors, MSMEs and gender in South Asia and Africa.

(Geetika Malhotra and Tanvi Mahant contributed to the reporting. Anushka Bansal and Chandni Ganesh contributed to the research for this report.)

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