Anahita Mukherji, TNN | Jul 13, 2015,


Devendra Fadnavis with his daughter.
MUMBAI: While Prime MinisterNarendra Modi‘s #SelfieWithDaughter grabbed headlines across the globe, many in India point to the irony of a campaign for the girl child in the wake of drastic budget cuts for the Ministry of Woman and Child Development, cuts that even led woman and child minister Maneka Gandhi to shoot off angry letters to the finance minister.We’re living in a market economy; if you make gender commitments, they need to translate into financial commitments, says economist Vibhuti Patel, who was involved in consultations with the government over its gender budget.

“In the Union Budget 2015-16, there has been a nearly 50% percent decrease in the allocation of the Ministry of Women and Child Development over the revised budget of 2014-15. Even if we add the Rs 1000 crore for the Nirbhaya fund and Rs 100 crore for the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao fund to the ministry’s allocation, there is still a decrease of more than one-third the allocation in the total amount allocated for women and child development,” writes Patel in a paper for eSocialSciences.

Is India actually in a position to slash woman and child development budgets, asks Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. India ranks an appalling 114 of 142 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, falling behind Bangladesh by nearly 50 ranks.

“Before slashing budgets, we need hard data documenting a dramatic improvement on these fronts. Is this being discussed by the Niti Ayog?” asks Nayak.

Manjula Pradeep, director of Gujarat-based Navsarjan Trust,calls #SelfieWithDaughter as a political gimmick, particularly since the Prime Minister comes from a state with an abysmal child sex ratio – 886 girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age group.

Manisha Gupte, cofounder of MASUM, an organisation that works with women in rural Maharashtra, dismisses the Prime Minister’s campaign as virtual reality – a virtual pie in the sky.

Not everyone feels the hype around the campaign has no value. Though Subrat Das, Executive Director, Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, is concerned the new budget may adversely affect deprived women, he sees nothing wrong in the government’s high decibel campaign focusing attention to the cause. However, Das untangles the intricacies of the dramatically restructured new budget to show that in it may affect women in some of the country’s poorest states.

For starters, Das points to the new government’s fiscal federalism, or a belief in the financial autonomy of states. “The union government is giving more ‘untied’ funds to states, money that states can use in whichever manner they want to. At the same time, the government is reducing expenditure on several central programmes with the expectation that state governments will compensate for budget cuts,” says Das.

While some union ministries have been protected, others had their budgets slashed. “This is not a random process,” says Das. The fourteenth finance commission clearly states areas that the centre must continue spending on, such as ministries of national importance like defence and fields like poverty alleviation. The list includes spending on disadvantaged sections of society.

However, the definition of disadvantaged sections, which includes SC/ST, religious minorities, persons with disability and those in the unorganised sector, omits women and children. “This means that while budgets of ministries such as minority affairs, social justice and tribal affairs are protected, there were severe budget cuts for women and child development,” he adds.

Technically, though, the budget cuts can be offset by the larger proportion of untied funds given to states by the centre. “Better off states like those in the South, can afford to spend more money on women and children. However, poorer states such as UP, Bihar, MP,  Chhattisgarh and Assam, with severe budget shortfalls in sectors such as general administration, law and order and infrastructure, may not be able to reprioritise their budgets in favour of women and girls. This may actually result in an overall reduction in expenditure on women in regions that require the funds the most,” says Das.

Nayak points out that the money given to states is not recorded on the Finance Ministry website after April 2015, even though it is mandatory for the government to publish such data. “So we don’t even know, in real time, how much money the states are currently receiving,” he adds.

Another major concern over the amount of money states will spend on the girl child, says Nayak, is the fact that the process of drawing up state budgets is not as participatory as it is at the centre. “The central government at least goes through the motions of meeting captains of industry, the private sector and then finally civil society. This is not the norm across states,” he adds.