With the world being compelled to expedite digitisation in the COVID-19 era, the union budget also went paperless this year, with a tablet replacing the traditional briefcase. With ‘digital’ being the buzzword, the tech industry has welcomed the budget with a fair amount of fervour. The upcoming Census may be the first digital Census. Financial incentives have been announced to promote digital modes of payment. However, in a country where there is a deep digital divide between genders, is ‘Digital India’ leaving women behind? 

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women has compelled the United Nations to highlight several critical areas as short-term priorities for government action, including skill training and digital literacy. In this context, India faces a glaring gender gap concerning digital access and skills. According to the 2020 National Family Health Survey (NFHS), only 42% of Indian women have ever used the internet compared to 62% of men. This divide becomes further pronounced in rural India, where only 34% of women have ever used the internet, compared to 55% of men. Notably, as part of the gender budget, a small allocation of INR 120 crores has been made under the PM Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDisha) towards digital literacy for rural women.

Gender budgeting has been actively practiced in India since the turn of the century. It is not a separate budget for women but an analysis of the overall union budget to examine its gender-specific impact and translate gender commitments into budgetary operations. The gender budget statement is divided into two parts, depending on the intensity of the gender component in public expenditure. Part A includes schemes that are 100 percent targeted for women, while Part B is composite schemes with at least 30 percent benefits to women. For the fiscal year 2021-22, the gender budget has risen by 6.8% from the previous year’s budget estimates, but notably, the allocation for part A fell by 13% year-on-year. Further, compared with the revised estimates for 2020-21, the overall gender budget has shrunk by 26%, with education schemes taking a massive hit

The flagship Samagra Shiksha programme’s overall and gender allocation has been reduced by 19.8%. In comparison, the National Scheme for Incentive to Girl Child for Secondary Education has been cut by 99%. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao has not been allocated anything. These schemes have been cut in an age when classes have been shifted to the digital mode, making it even more difficult for girls to access education. Issues of affordability and poor connectivity are compounded by age-old biases such as digital devices being considered ‘unsafe’ or an ‘unhealthy distraction’ for girls, as well as enforcement of gender roles, including increased expectations to contribute to household chores. 

These gender roles and biases are assigned at an early age and become ingrained by the time women reach adulthood. A key illustration of this is the under-representation of women in STEM, which is not due to skill inadequacy, but a result of assigned stereotypical gender roles, with nearly 76 percent of Indian women believing that their male counterparts have a genetic advantage in math and science. Given the vital role of science and technology in economic development, policies aimed at encouraging and retaining women in the STEM pipeline should be expanded. In this regard, the 2020-21 budget has retained its yearly allocation of INR 100 crores towards the DISHA Programme for women in science and INR 42 crores towards the National Skill Training Institution. However, there needs to be increased focus on early investment in skilling and promotion of STEM education to increase retention and help breakdown gender stereotypes, with higher financing for infrastructural facilities such as well-equipped laboratories.

Another area where COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact is the case of female-led enterprises. In the first half of 2020, funding for women-founded and co-founded start-ups in India fell 24% year-on-year. Additionally, women-led micro and small businesses are particularly at the  risk of closure, as they constitute smaller companies working in lower-margin markets. Research shows that they are more prone to face instability than micro-businesses led by men. Women own around 20% of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), particularly micro-enterprises. A survey conducted in July 2020 found that one in three women-led enterprises have either been temporarily or permanently closed, and 45% of those that faced permanent closure do not foresee starting another enterprise ever again, even if markets returned to normalcy. While the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, received a significant boost from the union budget, with a provision of INR 15,700 crore, more than double the previous year, women-owned MSMEs tend to face constraints in access to finance and skills. Therefore, introducing a gender-targeted component would have prevented women from being crowded out of credit schemes.

Studies indicate that technology is pivoted towards widening the gender gap. Technology-mediated empowerment, with an emphasis on digital inclusion, is central to women’s full participation in emerging from the pandemic-induced crisis. The oversimplified narrative of gender, technology and development presented in multiple proposals hinging on the Digital India Campaign is inadequate to address concerns. Proactive policy making and implementation is the need of the hour. Decision making bodies must be inclusive and have women in positions of power to facilitate identification of problems that men could be blindsided to. The government needs to consider adopting more feminist digital infrastructure policies, constituting an ecosystem approach with elements including access to high-quality connectivity, programmes for digital skills, enterprise development and credit, and public data and cloud infrastructure to give a fillip to the digitalisation of women’ businesses. 

This article has been written by Sapni from r-TLP and Shruti from from Rethinking Economics India Network as a part of the collaboration series between the two organisations.

The Rethinking Economics India Network (REIN) is the National Network of the global Rethinking Economics movement. It looks to organize locally against a background of social movements of which we are one part. Operating as a nation-wide ecosystem of stakeholders in the space of pluralist and heterodox economics, we interface with individuals, universities, civil society, and the private sector to scale collaborative efforts for teaching, learning, and discussion and build a movement for economics that is pluralist and inclusive.

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