February 01, 2018 was one of the most crucial and awaited days for the NDA government as it marked Jaitley’s fifth and final full-length budget before the general elections in 2019. Four years ago, this government came to power, proclaiming ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas’.
But the penultimate budget prior to the 2019 parliamentary elections lacked that essence. It was more of a ‘Roti Kapda Kisaan’ budget that is primarily concerned about the welfare of farmers, senior citizens and the poor in general. The government’s fifth budget had elections written all over it. There are several appreciable and noteworthy proposals but they are all aimed at constituencies that bring in the votes. ‘Operation Green’ and ‘Ayushmaan Bharat’ are the two major show- stoppers that stand to benefit agrarian and health sectors respectively.
The masterstroke of Jaitley’s ‘fiscal estimate’ is the allocation of a massive fraction of the budget to the agricultural sector in order to lure the ‘backbone of the nation’. ‘Ayushmaan Bharat’ is yet another ‘larger than life’ scheme which demands huge investment and quick implementation. And it can never be denied that in the Indian political scenario, planning and implementation are two diametrically opposite factors. Thus, only time will tell whether the ruling government will be able to accomplish on these fronts during its remaining tenure.
On one hand, the budget may be successful in pleasing the poor and the underprivileged sections of the society to some extent. But it also shattered several expectations. Almost half of the population, consisting of Dalits, women, etc are not at all satisfied with this financial plan.
For women, February 1 brought nothing but sheer disappointment and dejection.
Keeping in view the considerable increase in the number of crimes against women, a housewife from Nagpur said that it was important for the government to become more sensitive towards protection women. She told ANI, “I expect the government to allocate more funds this time, for the safety of the women, in the upcoming budget.”
Another housewife, Shagufta Kazi, wanted the Goods and Services Tax (GST) imposed on sanitary napkins to be removed, so that every woman could afford it.
However, the budget was devoid of any striking factor, which could appease women. The Finance Minister, in his budget speech, hardly uttered the word ‘woman’ or ‘girl’, which is really surprising as well as disappointing.
The tax on sanitary napkins was not lowered. The Nirbhaya fund, meant for 100% expenditure on women, has seen cut down on allocations, and the funds for this scheme has been reduced from ₹29.15 crore to ₹19.75 crore. Despite the promise of jobs, women-oriented programs, which would help women avail opportunities and seek employment, have seen some of the heaviest cuts. For example, ‘STEP’, a scheme financed through the Ministry of Women and Child development for providing skills for entrepreneurship, and for empowering them through capacity building, has seen a reduction of expenditure from ₹40 crore to ₹5 crore.
The fund for ‘Rashtriya Mahila Kosh’, which provides micro-loans to poor women, has deteriorated from the already modest ₹1 crore to a mere ₹1 lakh. Women from the SC and ST communities have been allocated barely, 1.03% of the total budget, which was criticised by Paul Divakar, general secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR).
Instead of supporting women on economic grounds, and presenting them something which could make them ‘self-dependent’, the Finance Minister presented the statistics, which was intended to depict the huge success of the ‘ Ujjwala Yojana’. According to Jaitley, around five crore poor families have received free LPG connections under the scheme, and the government is aiming to achieve a higher target of eight crore. Though the data presented by the Finance Minister is quite appealing, the reality is quite different. Many families who had received the LPG connection under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) scheme had not returned to refill their cylinders, according to a Scroll report.
If we view PMUY through a feminist lens, then we realise that it’s stereotyping the role of women and is confining them within the boundaries of the household. This needs to be introspected – are women only fit to do household chores? The answer is an absolute no. Women should not be constricted by useless limitations and restrictions – instead, they should be provided with a platform where they can explore themselves and flourish.
Schemes such as ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ and ‘Sukanya Samridhi Yojana’ are meant to compensate the loss. ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ was to improve the sorry state of child sex ratio and promote gender equality. Fortunately, the scheme saw an increment in the allocation and has thus provided a ray of hope to the millions of women and girls residing in India. The scheme has, once again, given them, one other reason to rejoice. But the major need of the hour is to translate this plan and expenditure into action.
In a nutshell, the budget was not so impressive and couldn’t pacify women. This dissatisfaction is alarming for the NDA government and brings for them a need to set their priorities in order. Women, being an integrated member of the society and the nation, should be content with the ruling party. Otherwise, the day is not very far when this discontent would destroy the ruling government and it would come tumbling down like a house of cards.