Mumbai, (WFS) - Between the rhetoric of women's empowerment and the reality of decreasing fund allocation for schemes related to women's health, employment, education, property, rural resource development and others, lies the story of women's development in India.

Says Dr Vibhuti Patel, feminist researcher in economics: "The last budget (2003-2004) is the worst in terms of gender allocation of funds. Health care is being increasingly privatised, the handloom sector is being ignored and most of all, the meagre funds allocated are unutilised, and then they get diverted towards modernisation of the military!" Dr Patel conducted a gender analysis of the Union Budget for the Centre for Women's Studies (CWS) at the Department of Economics, Mumbai University; the report was released recently.

A well-known activist of the autonomous women's movement, Dr Patel is also a Reader at CWS and Member-Secretary of the Women Development Cell, University of Mumbai.

In the course of the study, Dr Patel examined three successive Union Budgets; the declared policies of the Central government during the Women's Empowerment Year (2001); the Planning Commission's Human Development Report; the Human Development Report of the Maharashtra government; successive budgets of the State of Maharashtra; and the budgets for Panchayati Raj (local self-government) institutions.

Budgetary allocations for defence continue to be the biggest bugbear for development: the defence sector gets 20 to 25 per cent more funds than the social sector. Women's organisations have long demanded that they be part of the Finance Ministry's pre-budget discussions; but they have been consistently kept out of the process.

Women's groups, according to Vibhuti Patel, have demanded a separate listing of women-specific items and transparency in the utilisation of the allocated amounts for women's programmes under different heads. This in turn would help impact assessment.
What is clear, says Patel, is the decrease in funds for all general schemes that also affect women. For instance, the hike in prices of light diesel oil and fertilisers, and the coverage of only 5 million families in the Antyodaya scheme although the population below the poverty line is easily 250 to 300 million. Further, cuts in the interest rates on small savings directly hit women involved in micro-credit schemes. Allocation for the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh, the nodal agency for such schemes, has been reduced by two-thirds - from Rs 30 million to Rs 10 million (1US$=Rs 46.5).

Another gender audit of the 2002-03 budget conducted by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy points out that budgetary allocations for women-specific schemes went up only in the area of family planning (an addition of Rs 7 billion). Dr Patel's report adds that, instead of increases, there have been cuts in the per capita allocation of funds for nutritional support to the girl child through mid-day meal schemes - from Rs 1.12 billion to Rs 700 million. And allocation for education of the girl child is only Rs 2.86 billion. Besides, in the absence of specific schemes for women's education, the Rs 1.6 billion allocated for the National Programme for Women's Education remains unutilised.

"The current budget has wiped out all that the previous two budgets have promised Indian women," Dr Patel says. Although there is an increase in budgetary provision for women, from Rs 22 billion in 2002-3 to 26 billion in 2003-4, the approach to gender-specific issues is a key problem.

Generally, programmes and schemes for women are under four categories. A women-specific scheme is one in which 100 per cent of the allocated amount is spent for women. In the pro-women schemes, 30 per cent of the funds flow to women; and gender neutral schemes are meant for the benefit of the community as a whole, by which both men and women benefit. The fourth category includes the residual state-specific programmes that have a huge impact on the condition of women.

In the current budget there is no mention of the handloom sector which employs a large percentage of women, and allocations for women specific schemes - in health, education and employment - and programmes for working women's hostels have been reduced. More and more privatisation of essential services in the social sector goes against the interest of the majority of poor women. And reductions in the costs of high-end luxury items like foreign alcohol would hardly benefit women!

Women's groups, according to Patel, have demanded a separate listing of women-specific items and transparency in the utilisation of the allocated amounts for women's programmes under different heads. Transparency in the utilisation of the panchayat budget, for instance, would reveal the impact of this on women. As things stand however, the lack of financial and functional autonomy for the panchayats has rendered these bodies toothless.

The CWS study also reveals that under-utilisation of funds is a major problem affecting women's development in the country as a whole. A case in point is the budget of the Tribal Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd. (TCMFIL), which markets minor forest produce and aims to set up 1,876 grain banks. Of the TCMFIL budget of Rs 73 million, as much as 31.2 million has not been utilised. Another example is MPLADS (the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme), the funds of which are meant for the development of the constituency. In Maharashtra, only 66.5 per cent of such funds were utilised.

Also, there several examples to show that utilisaton of funds differ from state to state. Generally, the southern states have shown a better track record (of utilisation) in terms of women's development programmes, while Meghalaya showed up a deficit budget or over-utilisation.

According to Dr Patel, the study shows clearly that "The World Bank directive to charge 'the use' is guiding our policies towards women, the working class and all disadvantaged groups." Effective implementation of the right to information and greater transparency will help bring back the priorities of these sections of society onto the agenda.