In the past few Budget presentations, women’s voices have found some value in the bureaucracy. As we contemplate the Budget, what is it that top economists in the country find significant for Indian women’s growth? The possible recommendations and suggestion that they raise, come from years of analysis and research into studying the feminist cause of the country’s economy.

One such noted development economist, Bina Agarwal has written extensively on land, livelihoods and property rights; the political economy of gender; poverty and inequality; legal change; agriculture and technological transformation. A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia is one of her finest works which has created an impact on the governments, NGOs, and international agencies in promoting women’s rights in land and property.

Here’s an exclusive conversation that SheThePeople.TV had with Agarwal on her thoughts on the Union Budget and its influence on women.

What is the one top issue you think the budget should address for women?

Over 90% of women in India work in the informal sector, especially agriculture. The budget needs to make special provisions for helping raise the productivity of women farmers, by ensuring they have access to credit, inputs, subsidies, technology and training in new farm practices. Also, women need jobs and hostels near the workplace.

There has been a great deal of discussion on why Indian women’s labour force participation rate is so low. Many attribute this to cultural factors, such as women withdrawing from the labour force as family income rises. But the National Sample Survey shows that when women who were engaged primarily in domestic activities were asked if they would be willing to work, 30% said they would be if appropriate job options were available near their homes. Also, younger women in small towns are seeking jobs, and access to safe transport and hostels near job locations should receive priority in the budget.

Do you think that raising the income tax ceiling will benefit women?

This will not make much of a dent, since most women don’t earn enough to fall within high-income brackets.

There is speculation that there may be a 20% increase in the WCD ministry’s budget. Do you think this is a fair allocation for women?

It depends on the absolute size of the WCD budget and how the WCD allocates the additional funds. Also, we need a specific allocation for women’s programmes in all panchayat budgets. This will enable funds to be spent at the village level on activities that specifically benefit women. In Kerala, for example, 10% of the panchayat budgets are so allocated.

ALSO READ: MAKAAM Seeks Recognition, Incentives For Women Farmers In Budget

Earlier budgets have had allocations for women entrepreneurs, what more does the government need to do as the numbers show a slow pace of growth?

Women entrepreneurs need more than financial support, they also need institutional support, and many need training in running business enterprises, especially if they do not come from business families. However, if groups of women were encouraged to set up enterprises together, that could make a big difference, as it could bring in a diversity of skills and provide mutual support. Women would then be more likely to make use of budgeted allocations.

Bina Agarwal
Picture Credit: Bina Agarwal

Safety is a big issue when it comes to women retaining their jobs. Do you think workplace safety must feature in the government’s upcoming budget?

Absolutely. Physical security while travelling to and from work through safe public transport, working women’s hostels run on professional lines, and a workspace free from sexual harassment, are all very important for more women to come into the labour market. The upcoming budget needs to do a great deal more on all these counts.

How could the upcoming budget enhance the capabilities of SHGs and for rural women in this regard?

SHGs can provide the basis for many innovative schemes that go beyond savings and credit. In particular, since women in SHGs often develop a sense of solidarity and trust, this can become the basis for joint enterprises, both in the farm and the non-farm sector. For instance, the Joint Liability scheme of NABARD—the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development—has led groups of women to launch joint enterprises in many cases.

We need a specific allocation for women’s programmes in all panchayat budgets. This will enable funds to be spent at the village level on activities that specifically benefit women. In Kerala, for example, 10% of the panchayat budgets are so allocated.

Women farmers have been fighting for land rights and recognition for a considerable amount of time, as also seen from their participation in recent marches. Should the Budget include allocation targeting women farmers?

Despite being major contributors to agriculture, women farmers have been greatly neglected in government policy. To begin with, few women have land titles. And those that do face gender biases in access to technology, training, inputs, irrigation, machinery and markets. We, therefore, need measures both to increase women’s access to land and to make the land more productive. For this, they not only need support for essential inputs but also institutional innovations, such as promoting ways by which they can pool their resources to farm collectively. Groups can help increase farm size, bring scale economies, save on hired labour, and improve access to credit, inputs and markets.

Kerala, for example, has a programme of group farming in which rural women lease in land collectively, pool their labour and capital, and share the produce equitably. In my recent research, based on a detailed field survey I undertook in 2012-13, I analysed the relative productivity and profitability of women’s group farms and individual family farms (95% of which were male managed), in Thrissur and Alappuzha districts. I found that both the annual average value of output and the annual average profits per farm were several times higher on women’s group farms. They performed especially well in commercial crops such as bananas and vegetables.

Union budgets are not only about financial allocations, they also provide pointers on the directions of economic policy. I think institutional reforms need to go side by side with financial disbursements.

Picture Credit: Bina Agarwal

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