Noted public finance economist and one of the pioneers of gender budgeting in the country, Lekha Chakraborty, has said the pandemic is time for the Kerala government to think about a basic income for women, like a monthly cash transfer to housewives for the unpaid unvalued work they do without break.
Lekha, while talking to Onmanorama on Tuesday, said in public finance there were participation income and basic income. "Participation income is derived when the government acts as the employer of last resort. When everything else fails, the government comes up with employment opportunities for men and women and they get to participate in the economic activity and earn an income," said Lekha, who has just been elected to the governing council of the prestigious International Institute for Public Finance, Munich.
However, Lekha said that participation income was not a viable public finance option in the time of the pandemic. "When there is a livelihood crisis, cash transfers are important. Policy makers will have to give importance to cash transfers to women," said Lekha, who is now professor at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.
She said that in the systems of national accounts, household work that women do for their families are known as "hard to price" categories. "What is not paid, what is not measured, that does not come into your policy perspectives," she said.
She said that giving importance to the care economy would improve the well-being of a state more than if the finance minister was limiting his focus to just the paid work.
A report published by the International Labour Organization in 2018 shows that, globally, women perform 76.2 per cent of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men. In Asia and the Pacific, this figure rises to 80 per cent.
Gender budget and domestic violence
Lekha also argued that domestic violence against women had a macroeconomic cost. She said that the University of California had probed the link between gender budgeting and violence against women. The study looked into the experiences of states in India, where gender budgeting was strong and whether it had resulted in an inverse relationship between domestic violence against women. They found it was so.
"The higher your commitment to gender budgeting, the lower is the crime against women," Lekha said.
She said that government-run public policies on women could empower women and give them a better say in domestic affairs. "I think there is scope for it. gender budgeting is not just expenditure related decisions, it can also include tax strategies," she said.
Take property tax for instance. "If there is a differential rate to that, with a bias in favour of women, then perhaps men might encourage women to register the property in her name. The government is providing a tax-related gender budgeting imperative and the woman gets entitled," she said.
Is it a sin to ban liquor?
Lekha found it especially commendable that nearly 20 per cent of the schemes included in the last budget presented by T M Thomas Isaac had benefited women fully or in some way or the other. She described Isaac as having a "beautiful gender lens".
But when she was asked about allocations in the budget that would harm women, like the investment in bars and such outlets, her basic feminine instinct to call them wrong was tempered by academic wisdom. "Getting revenue from sin goods, of course, it affects women. But at the same time, the health consequences from men getting access to inferior stuff should also be considered. And that again is going to shoot up household health expenses. It will also have an effect on household violence," Lekha said.
Sin goods need to be banned, she said. "Because more than anything it is poverty inducing. But I am also aware of what would happen if the ban is enforced. The moment you take a decision like this, the counterfactual is the access of men to inferior liquor and also the dangerous cross-border issues that such a local deprivation can cause," she said.
Lekha said the empirical evidence was shocking. "In the beginning I was arguing for a ban on sin goods because when people are cooped up in their homes, this could induce violence and this can further intensify intra-household gender tensions. But when I was looking at the evidence in front of me, of what has happened, I think we need to be very careful while making such a decision," Lekha said.