The woman-related announcement that made any news in the Union budget for 2008-09 was the increase in the exemption limit in income taxes. The exemption limit for women was raised to Rs 180,000 (US$1=Rs 39.3) a year, and to Rs.150,000 for men.
Other than this, the budget also increased the total allocation for the Ministry of Women and Child Development by 24 per cent over the last year to Rs 7,200 crore (Rs 72,000 million). Within this, the largest amounts of funding have been allotted to empowering and building capacity of self-help groups (Rs 200 crore or Rs 2,000 million); helping victims of rape and destitution (Rs 40 crore or Rs 400 million); strengthening women's traditional skills (Rs 37 crore or Rs 370 million); promoting micro-credit among poor women (Rs 31 crore or Rs 310 million); and setting up hostels for working women (Rs 20 crore). Additionally, a sum of Rs 23 crore (Rs 230 million) has been allotted for initiatives to increase women's empowerment and livelihoods programmes in conjunction with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), to be introduced in four districts in Uttar Pradesh and two in Bihar.
There is also funding for programmes related to women run by other departments and ministries. Reminding us that "policy makers often tend to forget that one-half of the population is constituted by women and they are entitled to an equal share - and an equal say - in all programmes and schemes", the Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, allocated a total of Rs 11,460 crore (Rs 114,600 million) for schemes that are fully women-centric; and Rs 16,202 crore (RS 162,020 million) for those which are at least 30 per cent women-specific.
So, on the face of it, the budget has a lot in it for women. But even a quick glance at some of the indicators relating to women in India show how very inadequate this kind of gradualist approach is. Despite high and sustained growth in the economy for several years, outcomes relating to poor women continue to be abysmal, and have even declined in recent years, showing that we have miles to go before we even catch up with some of our economically deprived neighbors. More than half of the women in India give birth without the help of a skilled birth attendant compared to three per cent of the women in Sri Lanka or China (Approach to the Eleventh Plan). Not surprisingly our maternal mortality rate (deaths per 100,000 deliveries) is as high as 540, against 92 in Sri Lanka and 41 in Malaysia (WHO). Anemia among women has increased over the past seven years, even among pregnant women, so today that 55 per cent of the women in the country are suffering from this grave nutritional deficiency (NFHS-3). India also continues to rank embarrassingly low in the Gender Development Index - it is at 113, out of 157 countries, something that is unacceptable in a country aspiring to be one of the global economic giants.
To this extent, the gradual inching up of budgetary provisions aimed at women is not enough. Even within the Ministry of Woman and Child, the bulk of the funds allotted actually go to child-related initiatives - of this year's Rs 7,200 crore, women's programmes get a measly Rs 427 crore (Rs 4,270 million). While the welfare of both sections of the population is interrelated, this just goes to show how far we still are from the 30 per cent budgetary allotment for women promised in the Women's Component Plan as far back as 1997.
Also, if we are to really help women, funds allotted for them should target poor and deprived women. Publicly funded initiatives need to focus on women from the lower social and economic strata, as they face multiple discrimination on the basis of caste and class, whether they live in the rural or urban areas. Literacy rates among 'adivasi' (tribal) and 'dalit' (outcaste) women is far lower than the overall female literacy rate, and there is significant deprivation among Muslim women.
Unfortunately, this is a limitation of the gender budgeting exercise as it is currently formulated - it reports on women as a homogenous group, and does not sift out how much of the funds reach really needy women and how much goes to those who are 'more equal than others'. But there is evidence to show that less than 10 per cent of the total gender budgeting pool goes to women who are most marginalized and discriminated against, and even this share is declining.
What is needed is a very large budgetary thrust aimed at poor and marginalized women. This push can best be given by specifying a minimum share of resources from the relevant ministries to be dedicated for the development of poor women, and then transferring any shortfall in the use of this share to a non- lapsable pool of resources.
Such a process was introduced a few years ago for the Northeast, for just such a reason - to tackle its enormous social and physical infrastructure backlog and enable its residents to catch up with the rest of the country. And it is beginning to show steady results. When we talk of the poor and marginalized women, we refer to a far larger share of the population suffering gross inequities, with no hope of catching up without a quantum boost. Unfortunately, raising income tax exemption limits and tinkering with budgetary allocations is just not enough.
(The writer is a consultant to the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi.)