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Gender, Education and Minority Welfare: A teenager’s views about the 2023 Budget

Written by Srina Bose

Image credits: NIRDPR

On 1st February 2023, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman announced the Union Budget for the year and proudly stated that the Indian economy was heading towards a bright future. Changes in tax slabs, higher funds allocated towards railways and defense, and focus on the clean energy transition were some of the interesting developments.

Besides several other convoluted elements that my high school economics classes have not trained me enough to critically examine, as a student interested in intersectional feminism, politics, and social welfare– I was naturally inclined to view this year’s budget from a gendered lens whilst also delving into its effects on educational facilities and minority groups.

The Gender Budget, which was first introduced in 2005, was allocated ₹2.23 lakh crore this year, which is at least 30 per cent higher compared to last year's Budget Estimates (BE) of 1.71 lakh crore.

Claiming comfort in public places and being at ease with one’s body in the company of strangers remains an everlasting hurdle for Indian women. A study by Save the Children found that three in every five adolescent girls felt unsafe in crowded places, while one in four feared being abducted or physically assaulted if she stepped outside her home.

Perhaps, by noting these grim statistics–the Safe City Project, an initiative under the Nirbhaya Fund scheme for ensuring safety of women and children, saw an eight-fold increase in allocation - from ₹165 crore in the mid-year released Revised Estimate of 2022-23 to ₹1,300 crore in the Budget Estimate of this year.

SAMBAL, a sub-scheme comprising old schemes like One Stop Centre and Women Helpline saw no change in allocation in the 2023 Budget. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao is one programme included within this. Even though this campaign may appear incredibly successful because of how its catchy tagline has seeped into everyday vocabulary–it is unsettling to note how poor the total utilization under the scheme was. A parliamentary committee on empowerment of women reported that from 2015 to 2020, an amount of ₹622.48 crore was released to the States but only 25.13% of the funds, i.e. ₹156.46 crore, were spent.

Lekha Chakraborty, a Professor at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi, explains this perfectly. She notes: ‘Higher budgetary allocations per se do not ensure higher spending.’ From its inception in 2013 till 2021-22, the total allocation under the Nirbhaya fund has been over 6,000 crore, of which a total of 30 per cent remains underutilised. Several experts believe that this is due to the lack of gender disaggregated data and targeted expenditure that is backed by adequate research and analysis.

In his article in the Economic Times, Amit Kapoor, Chair at the Institute for Competitiveness explains how oftentimes– certain aspects within the gender budget such as funds directed towards research projects on home science and assistance for marriage can be counterintuitive, as they reinforce traditional gender roles.

Tara Krishnaswamy, co-convenor, Shakti, a non-partisan collective working to increase women’s participation in legislature, believes that a major chunk of the allocations within the gender budget is dependent upon the very image of a woman as maternal or reproductive entities and not economic drivers.

Are these women viewed as maternal figures only, or productive contributors to the economy too?

Therefore, to be truly effective, the gender budget must be designed to be more inclusive of women in unpaid care and the informal economy.

If we take a look at the effects of the 2023 BE on education–pre-matric scholarships took the biggest hit this year, falling from Rs.1,425 crore to Rs.433 crore. Allocation for skill development and livelihoods, including schemes such as the USTAD and Nai Manzil schemes, and the Scheme for Leadership Development of Minority Women, has nearly disappeared, falling from Rs.332.91 crore to Rs.3.4 crore.

Last year in December, the Nai Udaan Scheme, which is meant to help minority candidates prepare for the preliminary examinations conducted by the Union and State Public Services Commissions, was slashed, as was the Maulana Azad National Fellowship for higher education.

Low budgetary allocations towards the educational opportunities of minorities and the underutilisation of funds that are allocated are both detrimental to the welfare of these minority groups.

As we approach the ‘endemic’ phase and settle into the new normal mode of hybrid classrooms– we can only hope that our government rolls out new policies that can equip schools with the resources they need to make up for the alarming digital divide.

Although we have seen some good developments in this year’s budget, be it the digital library that is to be set up by the National Book Trust, or the progress in education for tribal students via Eklavya Model Residential Schools, we still have a long way to go.

Noting the past trends of underutilisation, we ought to wait until the mid year budget review to make up our mind and decide whether this year’s budget allocation truly is the best till date.

Knowledge of current affairs, including this year’s budget, are incredibly inaccessible for young students. It was for me. Be it reading complicated terms whose meanings you’ll later google, or trying to interpret bits and pieces of conversations you overheard adults having, and constantly wondering why this was not discussed in school.

I wish we had an environment of open debate in our classrooms. We are so lost trying to complete the pending syllabus of a subject, we forget to do what is most required in that subject– that is having conversations surrounding it.

As the policy makers, lawyers and economists of tomorrow, and the citizens of today, it is imperative we talk more about these developments. Today scholarships for certain minority groups were scrapped. Tomorrow, we may be the ones under the scanner. Hence civic engagement, active discourse, and participation within democratic processes– even as students– becomes essential.

(PS- These views and opinions are solely that of the authors and do not reflect Kuviraa's views)

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