It is going to take some time for reactions to come in from various quarters over the 2013 Union Budget and even as the stock markets reacted with a dip of 291 points on the Bombay Stock Exchange over the government’s stand to slap more taxes on companies as well as the super-rich and offering little concessions for large investors, there is one major component that has stood out. For long, activists working for issues around women have been pointing out that women have never been considered integral when it came to planning social, political and economic policies. The refrain has been that the true indicator of a country’s womenfolk being held equal citizens with their male counterpart is when there are elements of gender budgeting. While earlier, less than 2 % of the total state or central financial resources are earmarked for women, the Finance Minister’s ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ allocating Rs 1,000 crores for ‘the safety and empowerment of women’ while paying tribute to the 23-year-old Delhi gang-rape victim is the first step towards making the women of the country an integral part of the country’s investment, thereby validating her role. ‘Nirbhaya’ it may be mentioned was the name by which the 23 year old paramedical student came to be called by the media, in efforts to keep her identity protected and the fund announcement in fact follows the promulgation of an ordinance to enhance punishment for crimes against women, including death for rapists in case the victim dies or is left in a vegetative state.
What is worrying is that the Finance Minister has left it to the Ministry of women and child development and other ministries concerned to work out details of the structure, scope and application of the fund. The factor for worry comes in partly because the track record of Central funds being implemented judiciously on the ground is abysmally low in the country and partly because there needs to be support mechanisms in place for victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse and violence, domestic violence and acid attempts. Often, women who have suffered or experienced physical, mental and emotional effects of various forms of violence against them have also to pick up the costs of treatment. In fact, it was only in the case of the Delhi rape case and partly because of widespread protests that led the Government to offer free treatment but there have been no such precedents earlier on. On another tangent, the Nirbhaya fund should also be invested in taking up long-term gender sensitization programs and initiatives among youths. Such programs and initiatives would need to involve both boys girls, starting from the schools onwards and can include engagements and discussions about patriarchy and its norms. There is an equally strong need for a women friendly environment at police stations where women who have been violated need to be comfortable enough to share what they have experienced and have the confidence in the system to file an FIR. More often than not, women do not have the confidence to file FIRs owing not only to the fear of social stigma but also the probability of being made to feel violated when unsympathetic personnel at family counseling units, police stations etc. While the fund allocation in itself is important, there needs to be more value in terms of how the fund is to be translated into action and what lesson plans need to be put in place.
Interestingly, the budget also throws a contradiction in development paradigms. Often, a progressive state of affairs and a nation at peace and on its path are marked by increased allocations for public good that includes stipulations for education, health, women, better connectivity etc and lesser investments in the defense sector. Chidambaram while marking allocations for women has also put in his weight behind increasing costs for the Defense too in a case of sheer irony. In the midst of a major modernisation drive, the Defense ministry has got a 14% hike in its budget with an allocation of Rs 2,03,672 crore for 2013-14 and a promise to provide any additional fund required for ‘national security’. Mention may be made that there are several acquisitions in the pipeline besides upgradation of infrastructure in the northeast along with China border, which is ominous. Women of the region in any case, falls out of the ambit of protection of the ordinance to protect women from sexual violence as the impunity of the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act gives them the shield of impunity. In this scenario, it will be interesting to look at the interplay of how women of the region will benefit from the “Nirbhaya Fund” while living under the shadow of invigorated security personnel protected by AFSPA.