The Pulse

Gender Responsive Budgeting Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic in India

Recent Features

The Pulse | Economy | South Asia

Gender Responsive Budgeting Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic in India

The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing economic inequalities within India’s patriarchal society.

Gender Responsive Budgeting Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic in India

Women stand in a queue to receive the vaccine for COVID-19 in Khola Bhuyan village on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Tuesday, September 7, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

The concept of Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) gained widespread popularity in the early 20th century when budgets began to be regarded as a significant fiscal innovation tool to achieve gender equality. Since then, more than 80 countries have adopted some variant of gender budgeting. This list includes India, where in the past 16 years, finance ministers — ranging from Palaniappan Chidambaran to Nirmala Sitharam — have all promised to improve women’s welfare through higher and more gender-focused government expenditures. 

But today, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has exacerbated pre-existing economic inequalities within India’s patriarchal society — rigorous and concentrated GRB efforts are needed more than ever. The GRB process could, in fact, help governments identify gender needs, allocate resources to programs by applying a gender lens, and prioritize gender-specific outcomes. Given this context, it becomes important to understand how useful past Indian gender budgets have proven to be and analyze whether India’s first pandemic gender budget (2021-2022) will be able to facilitate a gender sensitive economic recovery in the face of the current crisis.

The GRB Process

In order to ensure that public resources are spent in a way that bridges systemic inequalities between men and women, the government of India institutionalized GRB as a part of the 2005-2006 Union Budget. From then onward, many subnational governments have also adopted the practice of gender budgeting. 

In fact, according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 16 states and two union territories were exercising GRB as of October 2015. This state-level budgeting is, however, not included in the union gender budget statement and hence, an analysis of the allocation and their proportions to the total budget continues to remain limited.

Nevertheless, over the last 16 years, India’s gender budget has witnessed a six-fold increase in absolute terms, growing from 242.4 billion Indian rupees ($3.3 billion) in 2005-2006 to 1.4 trillion rupees in 2020-2021. Despite this achievement, the amount allocated toward women’s welfare has stagnated somewhat between 4.3 percent and 5.9 percent in the last 13 years, with the proportion of funds dipping to less than 5 percent of the total budget in the last five years.

An in-depth analysis, however, not only reveals a lack of deviation in the government’s spending pattern but also inherent shortcomings in India’s approach to GRB. To begin with, the gender budget statement has been divided into two parts: Part A reflects schemes with 100 percent allocation for women, such as the maternity benefit scheme or widow pension scheme; and Part B entails schemes with nearly 30 percent of funds allocated for women, such as the rural livelihood mission and mid-day meals program. 

Since its inception, schemes that partly benefit women have continued to dominate the gender budget, with allocations under Part B accounting for at least two-thirds of the total gender budget. This essentially means that women in India have remained deprived of schemes that are entirely targeted toward their development and have therefore only partially benefited from the introduction of the gender budget statement.

Meanwhile, the gender budget is a summation of funds allocated by different ministries toward the goal of women’s empowerment but in doing so, it has also ended up omitting several schemes that are actually beneficial for women. For instance, despite the guidelines of Jal Jeevan Mission — a scheme aimed at providing rural households with tap connections — stating that it will particularly improve the quality of life for women, the Department of Water and Sanitation has not reported any part of the allocation under the gender budget. 

In fact, despite growing gender awareness in India over the past several years, just five government ministries and departments have cornered nearly half of the total gender budget allocations in the last three years. These include the Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and Ministry of Human Resource Development. 

Such routine omission of schemes and women-led-programs, along with several government departments standing clear from the gender budget, continue to pose severe disadvantages for women in India, limiting the facilitation of an equitable access of resources and services for all. This is particularly concerning as India has lots of ground to cover with regards to its gender equality goals. India, in fact, slipped from 108th position among 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2018 to 112th in 2020.

In light of these limitations and weaknesses, it would be fair to state that India’s GRB process has resulted in a lack of outcome-oriented budgeting. Some experts believe that government ministries and departments in India have merely reduced GRB to an aggregation exercise, with the central goal of achieving gender parity often taking a back seat. 

Pandemic Gender Budget: Beneficial or Not? 

Despite emerging evidence about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women and young girls, India’s first pandemic gender budget has continued to follow the worrying historical trends. 

In fact, the gender budget outlay in the Union Budget 2021-22 was cut by 26 percent, plummeting from 2.1 trillion rupees in 2020-21 (revised estimate) to 1.5 trillion rupees in 2021-22 (budget estimate). It therefore, accounts for merely 4.4 percent of the total budgetary expenditure and 0.7 percent of GDP.

This essentially means that like the previous gender budgets, the overall quantum of the 2021-22 gender budget continues to remain below 5 percent of the total expenditure that has been laid out in the union budget and comprises less than 1 percent of GDP. These allocations are particularly disappointing for a time when economic activities have reduced to a bare minimum, with women standing at the forefront of layoffs, job losses, and wage cuts.

Besides, the GRB 2021-22 has remained concentrated within a few ministries and traditional schemes or programs, where only 34 of more than 70 central ministries and departments have reported some kind of allocations. Yet, the same five ministries that dominated the former gender budgets have received 87 percent of the allocations even in the current financial year. For an effective and adequate mainstreaming of gender concerns, all ministries and departments should receive some amount of funding.

Additionally, barring the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the gender budget remains only 30-40 percent of these ministries’ overall allocations. Therefore, even for government ministries that do entail a preponderant share of the gender budget, expenditure on women’s needs remains a small proportion. 

What is more concerning is the fact that new priority areas that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic — including digital literacy, domestic violence, skill training, and more — have only received 2 percent of the budget allocation in 2021-22. And, as per the United Nations, these are some of the key short-terms priorities that need government action not only to reduce the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on women’s shoulders but also to bring about the gender-sensitive social and economic recovery of a country.

Consequently, owing to the above-mentioned inadequacies, the current budgetary provisions as specified in the Union Budget 2021-22 may turn out to be incompetent to tackle the mounting problems of job losses faced by women, the high drop out rates of young girls, increasing gender-based violence, and so on.

The GRB process in India has clearly been marred by various limitations that often result in suboptimal outcomes, with gender inequality remaining rife in every aspect of Indian life. These inequalities are nonetheless being reinforced and, to some extent, deepened in the current COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, a greater focus needs to be laid on the gender budgets in India.