By- Ritu Dewan
The Budget is the single most crucial finance document of the year, which articulates in quantifiable terms the actual commitment of the State to its objectives, both stated and real. The Budget 2017-18 not only demystifies the thinking of the current Government, but also reinforces several fears that have been expressed in recent times relating to what needs to be done, especially and specifically in the aftermath of the destruction brought about by the spectacular failure of the spectacular blunder called Demonitisation. The purpose here is not to romanticise the past or to demonise the present, but to examine what the Budget implies for the people, their economy, and their issues.
The fundamental objectives of the State, in the classic sense of the term are growth and employment – this Budget does not attempt to do either. The single most obvious intent appears to be the movement away from the rights-based approach, accompanied by its dilution wherever it remains. The single most crucial right – the Right to Work – has witnessed a series of reductionist measures in the recent past – its coverage has been consistently reduced; its basic character of being an employment programme is being ‘challenged’ by the argument that enough assets are created. The Rs. 5,001 cr. change in allocations over the last year does not even begin to make up for the rise in inflation, and is much below that demanded by the states. Similarly, various rights gained after several years of consistent struggle have been watered down.
Among the most essential concerns to any nation is the quality of its labour-force as manifested in the most basic level of Literacy Rates. But the Right to Education has been virtually denied by the focus on higher education at the cost of Sarva Shikshan Abhiyaan, which has been totally ignored both in the Budget Speech as well as in allocations – and this, in a nation that has among the lowest levels of literacy, with several excluded tribes reporting single-digit Female Literacy Rates. Additionally, one of the main causes of poverty has been negated, with the proportion of health to the GDP is among the lowest in the world. Issues of Social Inclusion, too, appear to have no place in the Budget. The allocations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are not even equal to half their share in population; 8% instead of 16.7% for the former, and barely 4% for the tribals, who constitute over 8% of India’s population. The same holds true of minorities, their allocation being a pathetic Rs.4195 crores to cover its 1.7 crore members.
The virtual non-recognition of gender issues is rather unforgivable, even though the Ministry of Women & Child Development has one of the best utilisation of funds exceeding nine-tenths. It is internationally recognised that the agricultural and the rural sector are heavily feminised, providing livelihood to four-fifths of all working women in India. Yet, nowhere is this recognised: programmes such as MGNREGS, PMGSY, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana are all ‘gender-less’. As is the fundamentally democratic issue of gendering governance, being given, along with the Panchayati Raj institutions themselves, such short shrift.
No economic agency is ascribed to women, instead, they are stereotyped reproductive agents defined in the syndrome of patriarchal semantics; hence, the allocations to women and their tag-ons in budgetary terms – children, nutrition etc. The issue here is not to deny the importance and urgency of even higher funding for these sub-areas, but to highlight the independent economic, budgetary, fiscal and financial status of women.
Besides, the imperative of gendered financial inclusion has been totally negated. Gendered financial inclusion can be greatly enhanced by equilibrating financial and physical targets; this is especially important as women generally take small loans, and the fact that while physical targets may be filled, financial disbursements constitute an insignificant amount.
Individual taxation is preferred, because the economic benefit of working depends on how much a woman earns and not on her location in the patriarchal marital structure. The additional tax exemption to women was expected to be re-introduced in order to increase her incentive to take up employment and shift her labour supply curve. The Budget appears to have absolved the State of any responsibility whatsoever of incorporating employment in its current strategy by insisting that women undertake their economic empowerment through ‘assisted’ self-employment, while men do so by ‘skill’ enhancement.
A budgetary critique, to be relevant and true, must be located within the context of the paradigm within which the budget is perceived. If the mantra is ‘higher growth leading to inclusive and sustainable development’ and if it is only ‘growth that will lead to inclusive development’ then we need an urgent reminder that in the last few years in India, an 8% growth rate has led to less than 1% reduction in poverty.
Ritu Dewan is
President, Indian Association for Women’s Studies, Director Centre for Development Research and Action
Executive Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism