Union Budget 2020–21: Contrasting States and the Centre’s Approach to Gender Budgeting

India had been at the forefront of gender budgeting more than a decade ago. However, over the years, it has slowly lost the gains made. The reasons for this turnaround are manifold. But states, compared to the centre, have been demonstrating a better gender sensitivity in their annual budgets. This is second in a two-part article series that deals with what constitutes gender budgeting in India, the gender sensitivity of budgets presented by the centre and the states. The first article is titled “Union Budget 2020–21: A Critical Analysis from the Gender Perspective.”    


Many state governments have been presenting gender budgets, along with their state budgets. However, Kerala, Odisha, Bihar, and Karnataka have been performing better compared to other states on this front [1]. For instance, the Odisha government, on an average, earmarks 36% or more of its total annual budgetary allocations to meet the requirements of gender budget. Kerala, for its part, reports 18.4% of its budgetary allocations towards the needs of the gender budget.  However, the share of gender budget in the total annual budget presented by the Government of India has remained a fraction of state figures, at less than 5% (see Table 1). 

Table 1: Gender Budget as a Percentage of Total Budgetary Expenditure: Odisha and India

Budget Year  For Women-specific Programmes (100% allocations) General Programmes with Women's Share (30% to less than 100% allocations  Total
2018–19  2.32 35.36 37.68
2019–20 revised estimates 1.96 37.19 39.15
2020–21 budget estimates 1.79 34.01 35.8
2018–19 1.06 3.92 4.98
2019–20 revised estimates 1.09 4.2 5.29
2020–21 budget estimates  0.94 3.78 4.72

                              Source: Data collated from Odisha state government and the Ministry of Finance, Government of India  

The Odisha government has been providing universal health care. Through its flagship scheme Biju Swastya Kalyan Yojana (BSKY), assured free health services are provided to people from local sub-centre level all the way up to medical college hospitals. In addition, over 70 lakh economically vulnerable families in the state are provided with annual health coverage of Rs 5 lakh per family and Rs 10 lakh for women members of the family. Since ill health results in loss of financial resources for those depending on a regular income and immiseration for those already struggling with poverty, such efforts are genuinely aimed at building a caring society.  

Another important initiative which has been taken by the Odisha government is to stop distress migration in rural areas by providing an additional 100 days of wage employment to rural folk under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and an enhancement of MGNREGS wages on par with minimum wages in their respective blocks. This enhancement is possible through a top-up initiative announced by the state government to additionally ₹Rs 100 per day from its exchequer, in addition to the wages provided by the union government. Such steps will certainly help build a “caring society,” which the union finance minister has referred to in her budget speech 2020–21 as part of Government of India’s “three-pillar framework” for economic development in the country (Ministry of Finance 2020). 

India had been at the forefront of gender budgeting more than a decade ago. However, over the years, it has slowly lost the gains made. The Statement 20 (now, Statement 13) or the gender budget requires substantial and continuous investment of time and thought by gender budget cells of ministries and departments for proper implementation of the Gender Budget Charter 2007 issued by the finance ministry.   

Budget 2020–21 from a Gender Lens 

The budget speech 2020–21 by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has laid emphasis on a “three-pillar framework” that promises economic development, fulfilment of aspirations of different sections of the society, and to bring about a caring society. 

However, it is unfortunate that women and girls are relegated to the pillar called “caring society,” when one reviews the budget from a gender lens. There is no mention of meeting the aspirations of girls to achieve a “better standard of living, with access to health, education, and better jobs.” Nor does the budget recognise women’s massive (but, invisible) contribution to economic activities and economic development, and it does not come up with measures to raise women’s productivity and efficiency. The only reference to women in the context of agriculture is in item 23(6) of the union budget regarding a village storage scheme that would enable women self-help groups (SHGs) to regain their position as “Dhaanya Lakshmi.”

But, what needs recognition is the fact that women play a pivotal role as economic agents, who contribute to the gross domestic product (GDP). For instance, in agriculture, women work as agricultural labourers and farmers, and they perform a range of tasks in the production of major grains and millets, in preparing land for sowing, seed selection, sowing, weeding, transplanting, threshing, winnowing, and harvesting. Additionally, they participate in fish processing, collection of non-timber forest produce, among others (Planning Commission 2007). Yet, the only reference to women as workers in the budget has been in the context of SHGs and in the section on economic development in item 40, which states that “young men and women have given up greener pastures elsewhere to contribute to India’s growth. They are risk-taking and come up with disruptive solutions to festering challenges” (Ministry of Finance 2020). 

Most of the references to women are in the section titled “caring society,” under a subheading called women and child, and social welfare (Scheduled Castes and Divyang). Hence, by limiting women and girls to the section on caring society, Budget 2020–21 loses ground that had been gained through the decades of struggle and led to the recognition of women’s agency in the Eleventh Five Year Plan [2]. The section in the finance minister’s budget speech that refers to women and girls is concerned with Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP), education, age at marriage, motherhood and nutrition, and Anganwadi workers. While budget speech item 65 states that BBBP has yielded “tremendous results” with the enrolment of girls at secondary school level is 81.32% compared to 78% of boys, however, it misses the fact that as many as 44.5% of females in rural and 25% females in urban areas are not literate. Only 12% of females in rural and 34% in urban areas have completed secondary education (NSSO 2014). While this data predates BBBP, the kind of effort required at many levels to help us achieve tremendous results on education is not visible. Meanwhile, the allocation to BBBP has decreased by Rs 60 crore in the budget estimates 2020–21 from the previous year. 

Referring to the need to increase women’s age at the time of marriage to enable them to pursue higher education and careers (budget speech item 67), the finance minister drew attention to the critical issues of lowering maternal mortality rate (MMR) as well as improvement of nutrition levels and the close correlation between health of mother and child. She mentioned that the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nourishment (POSHAN) Abhiyan was launched in 2017–18, and “more than six lakh anganwadi workers [have been] equipped with smart phones to upload the nutritional status of more than 10 crore households. The scale of these developments is unprecedented” (Ministry of Finance 2020). Two points need attention in this regard. 

First, while age at the time of marriage is an important determinant of survival and health of mother and child, there are difficulties in implementing the existing Prohibition of Early Child Marriage Act, 2006. A 2018 National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) study has found that in 12 states, more than 40% of teenage married girls have at least one child, if not more. Second, providing smartphones to Anganwadi workers is helpful for reporting nutritional status, however, improvement in nutritional outcomes requires a slew of other measures. 

Most important among those are access to work and incomes to enable households to purchase food and to raise awareness of mothers, adolescent girls, caregivers, Anganwadi workers, accredited social health activists (ASHAs), among others. Equally important is the strengthening of the healthcare system regarding optimal nutritional practices, and raising awareness on effective breastfeeding techniques during the first six months after childbirth, and making provisions for providing optimum complementary feeding practices after the infant is six months old, among others. The information regarding optimum feeding practices, through spoken tutorials, is available at no cost as these are funded by the government, and are freely downloadable from the internet. What is needed is that the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) use Anganwadi and health centre network as well as work through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to spread awareness regarding these methods cross the country to address malnutrition and morbidity. 

Towards a Caring and Compassionate Society 

The Union Budget 2020–21 has laid a lot of emphasis on budgetary allocations for the development of world-class educational institutes, modern railway stations, airports, bus terminals, among other large-scale futuristic projects. While all of these are important, it is even more pressing to ensure that the poorest and the most vulnerable women (and men) benefit from the government spending on infrastructure. What is needed is the development of functional, usable, gender-sensitive infrastructure that meets the practical and strategic needs of women and girls. 

India is ranked 112 out of 153 countries on the Global Hunger Index 2020, based on undernourishment, child stunting, wasting, and mortality. Its record on health is abysmal with high levels of communicable and non-communicable diseases. The out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare is far too high. A family member suffering from a chronic disease exacerbates the situation of poor women due to financial and other costs and the burden of care work. Not only the poor, but health shocks also push the non-poor into poverty. India’s allocation to healthcare as a percent of GDP is among the lowest in the world (Mehta and Pratap 2018).  Therefore, it is important that the union government learns from states, such as Odisha, as pointed out earlier, and prioritise universal and equitable access to quality healthcare that is publicly provisioned and free across the lifecycle. This has been a longstanding and unmet demand. While “Health for All” and Ayushman Bharat have been mentioned in the budget, the latter only provides partial coverage to a fraction of the population. Ayushman Bharat needs to be universalised based on public provisioning, and not on a public private partnership (PPP) mode.  

Despite India’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the ground reality has been that of high levels of poverty and women's daily struggle for survival, necessitated due to livelihoods earned from exploitative wages. Most women work, but they are not counted as workers. Unpaid economic contribution of millions of Indian women on family farms, looking after livestock, and contributing to products that are sold by men in the household remains unrecognised and invisible. Our data systems must be rectified to capture the economic contribution of women to the GDP. 

Traditionally, it has been observed that women lay a lot of emphasis on providing nutritious food to their family. But, purchasing power is needed to buy food, for which there is a need for decent work and sustainable livelihoods at living wages for women. Hence, budgetary allocations to ensure access to food for all and that enable access to decent work have to be the first priority combined with social security at the level of a living wage for those who cannot work. However, at present, social protection is tokenistic. For instance, the amount allocated by the centre to old-age pension is ₹Rs 200 per month, which can barely sustain an individual for a month. The oft-repeated promise of “caring social protection” by the government in such a case would require a pension amount equal to that of a living wage.  

On the other hand, in the recent past, the refrain across the country has been Kaam Dilao (give us work), due to high levels of unemployment. The MGNREGS has been the lifeline of Indian villages to provide employment. The effective implementation of such employment generation schemes can ensure women have access to decent work with living wages.  Despite the demand for increasing allocations for MGNREGS in recent times from across the political spectrum, Budget 2020–21 has allocated less than the amount that was provided in the Budget 2019–20 revised estimates. Additionally, there is a fundamental flaw in MGNREGS subsuming the right of women to demand work in the right of the household. The mandatory provision to allocate one-third of total work days to women has been set in motion after the Department of Women and Child Development pointed out the flaw. To correct this error, all adult women must be given separate job cards with their names, not with that of their husbands or other men in the household, entitling them to 100 days of work. 

In summary, if every ministry steps up efforts to identify the specific needs of women in their domain of work, it helps them to provide appropriate budgetary estimates in the gender budget statement. The culmination of such efforts will result in a transformative planning and implementation process to usher in gender sensitivity to our economic planning. 



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