Did really women take a bigger hit in COVID-19?
It is said that in any crisis, social or economic, women bear the bigger brunt and also take longer to recover. This time around, the perception is also borne out by statistics. According to CMIE, women accounted for less than 11% of the total Indian workforce, but 14% of the job losses were women. That is not all.
Even the subsequent economic recovery has been unfair to women. For example, when the overall economy started recovering in November, CMIE observed that more than 90% of the men got back their jobs. However, in the case of women, the job recovery was only 50%. In short, not only have job losses hit women harder, but even their long term social security has been compromised. That is why this budget becomes important for women.
Start off with tax sops for women in Budget 2021
There used to be concessional tax rates for women but that has been dropped in the last few years. This budget could make overall incomes tax-free up to Rs500,000 per year. Additionally, the Union Budget can give a special concession to women for a period of 2-3 years to offset the pain of COVID-19.
One way is to offer women special additional Section 80C benefit for 2-3 years which will also encourage them to save. The other option is to offer women a higher standard deduction facility for a period of 2 years so that the lower taxes can give them a spending power boost. It will, at least, partially compensate for the COVID disruption.
Budget 2021 should make gender neutrality an article of faith
Today most companies have gender neutral policies so that there is no discrimination. Legally, companies are required to be gender neutral but such ideas are hard to monitor. What the Budget can do as a special case is to introduce gender neutrality in the work place as an article of faith and make companies accountable.
The best way to encourage gender neutrality is to incentivize companies to practice such policies. An independent audit agency can formulate a methodology of audit and assessment of companies on gender neutral score and companies scoring above a certain threshold can be offered special incentives.
Focus on women in informal sectors
Offering sops to women in the organized sector is a lot easier. The bigger challenge is to offer sops to women in the informal and unorganized sector. Unfortunately, the STEPW (Support to Training and Employment Program for Women) saw allocation cut from Rs40cr to Rs5cr in the recent past. That must be restored to its old level or even enhanced.
In the last few years, it has been noticed that women in rural and semi urban areas have a strong propensity for self-employment, given the right support. Today there is a pressing need for such action. The budget can focus on the complete package of easy loans without collateral, technology support, training and marketing support so that women can translate their skills into viable occupations.
Women want prices kept in check
Sky high prices impact women more than any other segment of society. Prices may not be fully controllable. Hence, women expect further reduction in GST rates on items of daily and essential usage to partially compensate for the loss of purchasing power. There is one more demand than women have and that has to do with gold.
Gold prices have shot through the roof in the last 18 months. Most women in rural and semi-urban India prefer to invest in gold. One demand has been to reduce the duties on gold so that effective price of gold can be brought down.
Budget 2021 will be a tight rope walk for the finance minister but women expect a lot from the finance minister, and justifiably so. Perhaps, the budget can make a start by assigning an economic value to the role that most home makers perform and is rarely valued in terms of economic impact. But that could be a different discussion topic altogether.