In light of the devastating economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing restrictions, the Government of India (GoI) announced a series of wide-ranging fiscal and monetary measures, aimed at spurring growth and creating a self-reliant India. In fact, since March 2020, the central government has rolled out three stimulus packages, the total of which amounts to Rs 29.87 trillion or 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
However, these measures have largely ignored the needs of women and have, in fact, failed to protect them from economic challenges that are being posed by the health crisis.
As a result, women in India continue to face a disproportionate impact of the economic fallout triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and suffer from the widespread problems of unemployment, food insecurity, and inadequate access to resources.
Women at the Forefront of Job Loses Due To Lack of Focused Policy
Women in India have, for a long time, faced disadvantages and discrimination, especially in the economic sphere, due to either deeply ingrained patriarchal notions or the less secure nature of their jobs. Moreover, as the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, and to some extent deepened them, women are at forefront of losing jobs and experiencing pay cuts.
According to a survey conducted by the Action Aid Association in May-June 2020, nearly 79.23 percent of women lost their jobs and over 51 percent of them were deprived of their rightful wages during the lockdown period.
Even though the GoI has directed Rs 500 billion towards the creation of temporary jobs under its COVID-19 revival package, there has been no mention of any employment generation scheme specifically targeted towards women or for improving their post pandemic employability rate.
Although certain measures have been undertaken to protect those employed in the organised sector through the provision of employee provident fund relaxations, there seems to be no relief for India’s informal workers – a vast majority of which continue to be women.
From domestic workers to street vendors to factory workers, a total of about 95 percent of Indian women are working in the informal sector and have been left stranded due to the prolonged financial slowdown owing to the pandemic.
In addition, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA) 2005, which guarantees hundred days of wage employment per year to rural households and serves as a major attraction for women, has also not seen anything of substance in the relief package.
Under the GoI’s notification, wages for MGNREGA workers have been increased by a minimalistic amount of Rs 20, i.e., from Rs 182 to Rs. 202. However, the MGNREGA wages notified by the Ministry of Rural Development for the year 2020-2021 are already well above Rs 202 per day in most of the states.
This simply means that the government’s effort in terms of MGNREGA is hardly a measure that should have been included in the emergency package in the first place as these wages would have increased anyway in the coming year, and therefore, have done little to help women in the rural areas to deal with the COVID-19 challenges.
As a result, the GoI’s massive stimulus package has neither been able to ensure women’s continued employment nor has it been able to protect the country’s already declining female labour force participation rate.
Lack of Access To Free Ration
Access to food has become one of the most pressing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as many individuals – especially women – have suddenly found themselves unemployed, facing shortages of supply and significant price inflation. The government, thus, announced free ration distribution under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), entitling poor households and migrant workers to 5 kg of grains (rice and wheat) and 1 kg pulses on a monthly basis. This distribution was to be done through the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS).
Despite the initiative, many women in India have not been able to claim the free rations, which has directly threatened their food and nutritional security, further intensifying the pre-existing problem of female undernutrition within the country.
The primary reason being that the PDS continues to base its food allocation on an out-dated population estimate, where the list of beneficiaries was last updated between 2013-2016, excluding a large number married women who follow the traditional practice of changing their surnames after marriage.
Besides, eligibility to access the free ration scheme still predominantly relies on women having ration cards. However, according to a survey conducted in 2018, nearly 70 million poor women live in households that lack ration cards.
Although some states did launch alternative systems for beneficiaries to access free food without ration cards through an online process, because of the lack of literacy and awareness among women in comparison to that of men, this elaborate system has made it all the more difficult for women to acquire rations in order to sustain their own lives as well as of their loved ones, adding to their distress.
These ground realities have nonetheless, been ignored by the government in drawing up the COVID-19 relief package, thereby, sidelining women and depriving them of adequate food and nutrition.
A Minimalistic Direct Benefit Transfer
In order to help the poor deal with the rise and the impact of the pandemic, the government announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 500 to be credited to nearly 200 million women account holders of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), for a period of three months starting from April.
However, at a time when economic activity had completely stopped due to the strict nationwide lockdown and sources of income generation were lost, a minimalistic amount of Rs 500 per month seems rather insufficient to run the affairs of the household and to address the plight of millions of women who are already at a greater socio-economic disadvantage than their male counterparts.
In fact, reports suggest that a minimum of Rs 3,000 a month is required to help the poorest citizens manage their basic needs during the pandemic. And given that women are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, they should have been entitled to at least this minimum monetary assistance, if not more.
Besides, roughly half of the poor women, i.e., 0.56 percent do not even have a PMJDY account and are thus excluded from these direct benefit transfers. Considering that, as of January 2020, nearly 18.7 percent of the 378 million Jan Dhan accounts were dormant, this exclusion is likely to be even higher.
There are also cases where women, despite being PMJDY account holders, have received no money at all. Whereas, for some women, the requirement to visit the banks to withdraw the cash has served as a major constrain.
As a matter of fact, the density of rural bank branches is thin. Thus, women’s proximity to financial institutions to secure these cash transfers remains to be a huge challenge.
This combined with the norm of social distancing made matters extremely difficult for women to gain any kind of benefit from these direct cash transfers.
Extrapolating from these facets, it would not be a stretch to say that the government’s efforts in carving the direct benefit transfers lack the thrust to stop millions of the poorest women from slipping through India’s social safety net.
Women at Greater Risk of Closing Down MSMEs
According to India’s sixth economic census (2016), 13.8 percent of business establishments are owned by women and the majority of them are microenterprises operating in sectors – like tourism, hospitality and education – which are some of the worst-affected industries due to the pandemic.
However, with limited access to financial assets, credit facilities and social protection, these women-led-enterprises are at a greater risk of being chocked or face perpetual closure on account of a steep decline in demand, inability to pay debts, labour shortages, etc. However, while the GoI’s stimulus package ensured provision of easy credit and collateral-free loans for MSMEs, none of the measures include any special provisions earmarked for women-owned microenterprises and business, and nor do they provide any concession to industries that do end up employing a large number of women.
Women have, thus, been woefully neglected in drawing up India’s new financial incentives. But having faced higher levels of hardships, they should have been placed at the centre of the government’s stimulus efforts.
After all, they do represent half of the country’s population. This inclusion is vital not only to ensure equality of rights but also for a long lasting and sustainable recovery of India’s dipping economy.
(Akanksha Khullar is Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS) at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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