For India’s daughters, Narendra Modi must put his money where his mouth is

Are Indian women really happy with Modi’s budget?
Are Indian women really happy with Modi’s budget?
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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There is much to celebrate in prime minister Narendra Modi’s first full budget.

There’s a significant push for infrastructure, rationalizing taxes, improving bankruptcy laws, attracting foreign investments, skilling of workforce and more.

But seen through the lens of compensatory justice—or, measures which aim to correct the gender inequity in the country—there is very little to cheer. On gender, this is a status quo budget.

Status quo, however, is unacceptable by standards of a liberal plural democracy. And over the last few days, the euphoria over finance minister Arun Jaitley’s budget speech seems to have been dwarfed by the remorseless pronouncements of a jailed rapist.

There is, of course, a growing recognition within the Modi administration that gender inequity is a threat to India’s development and modernization. The prime minister’s Independence Day speech last year was evidence of that.

But the will to confront it remains feeble.

In his budget, the finance minister announced an allocation of Rs1,000 crore ($160 million) to the Nirbhaya Fund. Under normal circumstances, this would be a highly appreciated gesture but given the spending record of the previous funds, it is unclear what this additional funding would achieve without a clear strategy.

The previous government created the Nirbhaya Fund with a corpus of Rs1,000 crore in response to the nationwide public outcry that followed the brutal rape and murder case in Delhi in 2012. Jaitley’s predecessor, P. Chidambaram, had announced that this fund would be expected to support initiatives by the government and NGOs that are working towards safety of women in India. The ministry of women and child development was to work out a strategy for utilization of this fund. How and where was this money spent?

“Missing” women

India’s alarmingly adverse sex ratio—940 female per 1000 malesisn’t simply a result of “boy preference” at birth. Instead, excess female mortality is a more universal phenomenon in India, which holds for all age groups. There is significant loss of female life at all age groups in the life cycle of Indians.

A particularly sinister finding (pdf) is that the number of excess female deaths from “intentional injuries” or reported violence is disturbingly high in the country.

Maternal mortality is also major cause of “missing women” in the child bearing age, therefore access to healthcare is fundamental to correcting the gender imbalance in India. A recent study by Princeton University has revealed that pregnant Indian women are gravely underweight. By analyzing census data, the study found that 42% of Indian mothers are underweight, while the figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 16.5%.

India also remains one of worst performers in the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of the UN. The GII captures the loss in achievement within a country due to gender inequality and is based on measures of health, labour force participation and empowerment. In the Human Development Report, 2012, India performs worse than neighboring Pakistan in the GII despite having a higher per capita income and a democratic government. More strikingly, it is ranked 133rd out of 146 countries and even lags behind war-torn countries such as Iraq and Sudan.

That is why the increased allocation to the Nirbhaya fund signifies very little, especially when juxtaposed with the lack of administrative capacity. In fact, it reeks of lethargy and exposes a ministry which seems to have missed doing its homework. Given the magnitude and severity of the problem, the ministry of women and child development should have prepared a long-term vision document with detailed action plans.

All encompassing

There must be recognition that gender inequity in India is much like healthcare. It cannot remain confined within one ministry because the nature of the problem is all encompassing. Although any serious attempt to address this problem has to be spearheaded by the ministry of women and child development, it will require close coordination across ministries such as home, urban development, education and health.

Consider, for instance, the declining labor force participation of women. This is particularly perplexing against the fact that girls are outperforming boys in all senior secondary examinations and more number of women are going for higher education than ever before. What is keeping these women from joining the job market? The average household income in India is still too low to expect that women prefer leisure to labor at a given wage. There are several theories that attempt to explain this, of which many are based on safety concerns for women. The workplace has to be made safe for women and their access to safe and affordable transport has to be prioritized by the ministry of urban planning.

In the last few years, there have been erratic and fragmented short-term measures to solve India’s gender inequity problem. Modi’s budget has merely added to that list.

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