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14 January 2022

Has India's Covid policy response actually helped women, or is it all just smoke and mirrors?

Jashodhara Dasgupta

The pandemic social policy measures announced in India ignore crucial issues faced by women, girls and gender-diverse people

Smoke and mirrors News story and event

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

Read the essays

Jashodhara Dasgupta is Co-Convenor of the Feminist Policy Collective

In India, the brunt of the pandemic and related lockdowns was borne by the most underprivileged: the poor, those lower in caste hierarchies, minorities, migrants, and internally displaced communities. The unforgettable images of millions of men, women and children trudging hundreds of kilometres across the country to get back to their villages reflects their desperation following loss of income, food, and shelter during the cruelly enforced national lockdown, announced with four hours’ notice but without any support arrangements in place. 

Gender runs as an intersectional disadvantage among almost all economically deprived groups, with catastrophic consequences during the pandemic. Only around five per cent of the 150 million women in paid work in India are in formal jobs with contracts or social protection; the rest are predominantly in the informal sector as farmers, vendors and petty retailers, micro-entrepreneurs, domestic workers, construction workers, and those in the gig economy – sectors with poorly regulated wages and job insecurity. The lockdown and social distancing measures were devastating for women and sex/gender-diverse persons in sex work, begging/blessing and other traditional hijra livelihoods. The heavy load of unpaid domestic care work undertaken by women and girls was further exacerbated by school and daycare closures, the collapse of routine health services, and mandatory quarantine.

Despite inadequate resources, India does have robust social welfare architecture in place. Soon after the first lockdown in March 2020, the first set of mitigation policies was announced: the Prime Minister’s Welfare Scheme for the Poor and the Prime Minister’s Food Welfare Scheme for the Poor being the flagship policies. The Feminist Policy Collective, a platform of feminist economists and gender activists in India, interrogated these policies, hoping there could be an opportunity to promote a gender-responsive approach.

It was encouraging to see that, on the surface, several of the measures included in the Welfare Scheme for the Poor targeted women: they recognised women’s struggles to manage household food insecurity and loss of income. Vulnerable women, such as single women, widows and the elderly were also addressed. A closer look, however, revealed a different picture. For instance, women enrolled in Jan Dhan Yojana – a financial inclusion programme – were promised cash transfers of ₹500 Indian rupees (INR) per month from April to June 2020, but this meagre payment barely exceeds the minimum wages for just one day’s unskilled labour and women were encouraged to become more entrepreneurial and take up loans through micro-credit groups to make up the difference, which could potentially nudge them towards indebtedness.

Before the pandemic, social welfare pensions were already being provided to 30 million registered women, transgender and gender-diverse people. These were already barely adequate, and payments were ramped up in only a minor way via a one-time payment of ₹1,000 (INR) – just $13.40 (US) – to cover April to June 2020. Clearly, this is insufficient and cash transfers and pensions need to be increased to realistic levels given the widespread economic insecurity.

There were also gendered weaknesses in the provision of food aid throughout the pandemic. Household food scarcity during lockdown was especially hard on women and girls, who traditionally eat last and least in the family. The closure of the Integrated Child Development Services scheme – which provides day-care facilities with meals for three-to-six-year-olds – was compounded by the absence of school meals for children, which meant further strain on household food resources. India has a longstanding public distribution system to provide food to the poorest two-thirds of the population. In response to the pandemic, the government upped the amount of food provided via the scheme between April and November 2020, reaching an impressive 800 million people. However, the flaw in this system is that only registered households are supported, meaning that the 90-100 million people without ration cards were not provided for. This food scarcity is likely to affect women and girls the most, since around 45 per cent of women in India are underweight and over half have remained anemic over 10 years.

Another group neglected in the pandemic response was pregnant and breastfeeding women. Existing benefits for this group provided just ₹5000 (INR) – $67 (US) – over several instalments, and are only available for the birth of the first child, not for any subsequent children. The scheme has been severely under-resourced and has likely reached barely a fourth of target beneficiaries. This proportion shrank even further during 2020, when the pandemic meant that funds failed to reach most districts. In addition, women informal workers were also neglected.

The PM-KISAN, a cash transfer scheme which promised small and marginal farmers a payment of ₹2000 (INR) – $ 27 (US) – was announced with fanfare as pandemic relief, however this initiative had already been announced and planned over a year before the pandemic began. More importantly, this benefit almost entirely overlooks women agricultural workers or women working as unpaid helpers on family farms without land title documentation, even though an estimated 97 million women work in agriculture. Likewise, women informal workers, who make up almost half of the building and construction workers in India, for example, are mostly unregistered and have hardly ever benefited from any social protection. Overall, despite claiming to target and support vulnerable groups, the package of pandemic social policy measures announced in India ignores crucial issues faced by women, girls, transgender and gender-diverse people, especially given the unpaid work undertaken in households, maternity, food scarcity and challenges with undocumented workers in the informal sector. Moreover, the overall investment was too meagre at 1.7 per cent of GDP given the context of inexorable price rises of all essential items, sky-rocketing fuel prices, and indirect taxation, along with tax concessions to the richest in the country.

The pandemic is amplifying existing gender inequalities and the intersecting forms of gender disadvantage faced by those negotiating myriad aspects of the current crisis. The airbrushed schemes announced were an exercise in smoke and mirrors and appeared to be largely gender-blind in their design and impacts, as they ignored the economic realities and gendered struggles of the pandemic. Instead, there needs to be a dynamic gender-responsive and data-driven response to the crisis that would empower women to take control over their circumstances, and be flexible enough adapt to the emerging and fast-changing requirements of the post-Covid world.