In the last budget before the next general elections, finance minister P Chidambaram could not rock any boat. Nor could he undertake the kind of massive spending cuts that were required to bring down the deficit. What he did do was to announce a plethora of schemes, aimed at women, the youth and the poor, which — it is hoped — will have an impetus on the economy and propel it into growth.
Some of these were good: Such as including as CSR a company’s incubation of a project in an academic environment; some were ‘about time’ — such as index linking investment in government bonds (so that the value of your investment does not get eroded with inflation)— or a focus on skills development; some were business as usual — welfare spending that needs to be undertaken to stave off revolution. There weren’t too many shocks insofar as taxation was concerned — a 10% surcharge for a year on tax for the richest 42,800 people who have declared earnings of over Rs 1 crore a year, a 5% increase in surcharge for companies, and that was pretty much it. It was a budget designed with an eye on the polls. It wasn’t the Pranab Mukherjee kind of spend-today-figure-tomorrow budget. At the same time, it was also not the kind of budget that took steps at either increasing the tax base or radical steps in terms of cutting spending. It was a budget that hoped that investments in key areas would pay off and the multiplier would kick in.
What’s interesting about this budget is its focus on women as a separate segment of the population, not just as part of the household, but as an individual with her own needs and requirements. There were two specific initiatives that looked at women as people who step out of the house and go out — to study, to work. The intentions behind both these have been to help make the situation of women in India better. But would they?
The first initiative, which Chidambaram has tentatively named the Nirbhaya fund, and has a Rs1,000 crore allocation is aimed at keeping woman safe and secure. What could be possibly be wrong with this? The primary role of the state is to provide security to all its citizens, including women. While one appreciates that something needs to be seen to be done, one cannot but help wonder, if a separate fund mandated by the budget is the solution. And questions arise — what happens when the fund runs out? Is this a ready-made excuse for politicians, bureaucrats and police — ‘we could not do anything because we did not get funds allocated from the Nirbhaya fund’. Security has to be an integral part of the services provided by the state. You can increase the budget for security at large, with an emphasis on keeping women safe. But, is it prudent to have a fund exclusive aimed at “safety and security” of women?
The second initiative is India’s first women’s bank, with a Rs1,000 crore capital, staffed predominantly by women for a mainly female clientele. The existing system, despite having a number of women in command positions, has not been very women-friendly, even in urban areas. Go into villages, and you will see this compounded, many times over. Women don’t get loans because their husbands have defaulted. There is harassment, financial jargon, and general lack of service. Lack of literacy, and financial literacy, keeps women from accessing credit. These issues exist and are very real. But, is the solution to get the existing banking system to treat women as a priority sector, incentivise the opening of women-only branches, women-only officers in existing branches to serve women entering the banking system for the first time — or is it dealing with women as ‘separate but equal’? A sort of gender apartheid. Also, there are other issues such as access to credit from the rest of the financial sector. Would women curtail their dreams based on the women’s bank financial capacity? There are those who believe that this sort of a bank will help women from traditional households to access credit. But so will a women-only branch of an existing bank. Many PSU banks (SBI, Syndicate Bank, Indian Bank) already run women-only branches.
Good intentions are a great idea. And, it is reassuring to know that the government is thinking of women and their welfare. But what is needed is real equity, real equality, and real inclusion. And these may not be possible if we instead of fixing what is wrong with the system, we create new spaces exclusively for women. Inclusion cannot happen through exclusion.
Harini Calamur is a media entrepreneur, writer, blogger, teacher, and the main slave to an imperious hound. She blogs at calamur.org/gargi and @calamur on Twitter