Prime Minister Modi has, on many occasions in his victory speeches, publicly credited women as the “silent voters” behind the party’s stupendous electoral wins. “Nari Shakti” (women power) has taken a front row in politics for the first time in Bharat, with political analysts and pollsters all discussing the game-changing vote bank in rural to urban areas alike. Technically, larger number of women have voted for the BJP than for any other political party.
Prime Minister Modi’s image of a leader who is reliable and forward thinking is a refreshing first for the woman voter. He has not only identified out the very basic issues that need to be addressed to allow women in Bharat to lead a life of dignity and freedom, but has also strengthened his policy framework with reforms that have strengthened the faith of the Indian woman voter in the BJP. Even in his Independence Day speech this year in the midst of handling a global pandemic, he did not forget to mention the importance of women’s healthcare. Breaking the taboo of menstruation and the importance of using sanitary pads, a subject that has rarely found a place in the power corridors of Delhi, he announced that in 6000 Jan Aushadi Kendras more than 5 crore sanitary napkins at the cost of Rs 1 have been provided to women. This seemingly low priority, falsely so, women’s monthly issue has never found a place of pride in a national address. However, this is only a small fragment of the vision that the Party led by PM Modi has in mind to truly empower Indian women by changing the narrative entirely around them and the real issues they face.
The larger picture is reflective in the government’s policies that are positively impacting the lives of women with a palpable impact on women’s lives in marginalised communities and backward areas. Of course, the most popular schemes by the Modi-led government that are much talked about and have high implementation rates are Pradhan Mantri Ujwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and “Izzat Ghar” under the Swachh Bharat AbhiyanYojana. But the micro interest that the present dispensation has taken towards the betterment of Indian women’s quality of life is unprecedented. The nomenclature itself used for many of the schemes, for instance “Izzat Ghar” (house of dignity) instead of Shauchalaya (toilets), is reflective of their agenda to create an equitable society. However, what is lesser known is the variety of other schemes that have been launched since 2014 aimed at tackling age old social evils against women, lack of women’s healthcare, to solve issues of access to loans, employability, financial independence, security and safety.
For instance, the government’s initiatives, Stand Up India and the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY), have women as their primary beneficiaries. According to the Ministry of Finance led by the Finance Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman, bank loans of Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1 crore are facilitated to at least one scheduled caste or scheduled tribe member and one woman borrower per branch of scheduled commercial banks, out of which over 81% of the account holders were women. The Ministry also detailed that as of 26 February 2021, more than 81 per cent, that is, 91,109 accounts with an amount of Rs 20,749 crore have been sanctioned to women entrepreneurs under the Stand-Up India Scheme.
The PMMY has also been similarly welcomed by women across the country with “about 68 per cent, that is, 19.04 crore accounts with an amount of Rs 6.36 lakh crore have been sanctioned to women entrepreneurs under MUDRA scheme since inception,” as of February 26, 2021. The scheme intends to give upto Rs 10 lakh loans to the non-corporate, non-farm small/micro enterprises classified as Mudra loans given by commercial banks, regional rural banks, small finance banks, micro-finance institutions, and non-banking financial companies.[i]
Importantly, government procurement from women-owned micro and small enterprises (MSEs) has also hit a record high in FY21 since the launch of the public procurement policy monitoring platform MSME Sambandh in December 2017 by the government. Government departments, organisations, and ministries had already purchased goods and services worth Rs 563.88 crore from 3,622 women-owned MSEs as of March 8, 2021, in the current financial year vis-à-vis Rs 393.43 crore worth procurement in FY20 from 3,655 women MSEs.[ii]
Meanwhile, the credit guarantee fund trust for micro and small enterprises (CGTMSE), which operates the credit guarantee scheme for micro and small enterprises (MSEs), had accorded guarantee approval to 67,171 loan accounts of women entrepreneurs for an amount of Rs 3,366.63 crore as of December 12, 2020, in the current financial year. This was stated by the MSME Minister, Shri Nitin Gadkari, in a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha in February this year. The accounts approved during FY20 for women entrepreneurs under CGTMSE to support their business expansion and growth stood at 1,24,984 involving Rs 5,367.38 crore.[iii]
In an interaction with 100 beneficiaries, the Prime Minister said: “one of the aims of this scheme is also to increase self-confidence among the people…so far, the conventional thinking has been that employment is generated either in the public sector or in the private sector. This scheme has helped in the development of the ‘personal sector,’ as a means of livelihood and self-employment.”[iv]
In the interaction was Ms. Kiran Kumari from Bokaro, Jharkhand, who was once a hawker and is now a proud toy-and-gift shop owner after receiving a loan of Rs. 2 lakh.Ms. Munirabanu Shabbir Hussain Malek from Surat who received a Mudra Loan of Rs. 1.77 lakh, took LMV driving training, and is now earning Rs. 25,000 per month, by driving an auto-rickshaw. Ms. Veena Devi, from the Kathua district of Jammu and Kashmir, who worked as a weaver, received a Mudra loan of Rs. 1 lakh and is now one of the leading manufacturers of Pashmina shawls in her area.
The immensely successful Pradhan Mantri Ujwala Yojana also received an extension in this year’s budget with Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman announcing an additional 10 million beneficiaries this year to the already staggering 83 million LPG connections that have already been provided. The flagship scheme aims towards equipping every below poverty line household with a free LPG connection. A little less than half of the households in India where women are largely responsible for cooking were still using wood and coal in their kitchens leading to serious health repercussions. The subsidised connection and LPG connection and stove does not only directly improve women’s health but also is far more affordable and environmentally friendly.
The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, is a mission launched by the Prime Minister to ensure financial inclusion through access to financial services. Through this scheme, a savings account/deposit account can be opened in any bank branch or Bank Mitra outlet by individuals who do not have any other account. Though it is not exclusively aimed at women, the sheer access to financial savings services has seen over 50 percent accounts being held by women.[v] The Modi led government realises that simplifying processes and making access easier will automatically attract the resilient Indian woman who is known for her financial acumen. However, a more women specific initiative under the popular Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojana (BBBP) is the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana (SSY) launched in 2015. SSY allows parents to plan the financial future of their girl child by opening a savings account in any commercial bank or India post branch. Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana has emerged as one of the most popular schemes owing to the high-interest rate as well as the tax benefits it offers. Under Section 80 C of the Income Tax Act, 1961, individuals can claim tax exemption up to Rs 1.5 lakh from the amount contributed to SSY account.[vi]
In the budget speech (2017-2018) by the Finance Minister, the launch of Mahila Shakti Kendra was also announced with the aim of extending opportunities to rural and marginalised and backward women. The Mahila Shakti Kendra is a one stop support centre across the country, aimed at providing opportunities for skill development, capacity building, awareness , digital literacy , health and nutrition as well as employment. Women can find out more about their entitlement and avail their dues. The scheme also engages student volunteers to interact with the community to provide assistance to women.
Thepopular Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojana (BBBP) was launched in 2015 by the Prime Minister in Haryana. The objective of the scheme was to bring about awareness and sensitisation leading to behavioural change towards the rights of a girl child. In the last six years, the scheme has resulted in the Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) improving by 16 points from 918 in 2014-15 to 934 in 2019-20. Gross Enrolment Ratio of girls in the schools at secondary level has improved from 77.45 to 81.32. Out of 640 districts covered under BBBP, 422 districts have shown improvement in SRB from 2014-15 to 2018-2019. Some Districts which had very low SRB in 2014-15 have shown huge improvement after implementation of the Scheme such as Mau (Uttar Pradesh) from 694 (2014-15) to 951 (2019-20), Karnal (Haryana) from 758 (2014-15) to 898 (2019-20), Mahendergarh (Haryana) from 791 (2014-15) to 919 (2019-20), Rewari (Haryana) from 803 (2014-15) to 924 (2019-20) and Patiala (Punjab) from 847 (2014-15) to 933 (2019-20).
The health impact has been substantial as well. The percentage of 1st Trimester ANC Registration has shown an improving trend from 61% in 2014-15 to 71% in 2019-20 (As per HMIS, MoH&FW). The percentage of institutional deliveries has shown an improving trend from 87% in 2014-15 to 94% in 2019-20 (As per HMIS, MoH&FW). Gross Enrolment Ratio of girls in the schools at secondary level has improved as well from 77.45 (2014-15) to 81.32 (2018-19-provisional figures) Percentage of schools with functional separate toilets for girls has shown improvement from 92.1% in 2014-15 to 95.1% in 2018-19.[vii]
However, the most important impact has been to bring focus and awareness towards female infanticide and lack of education due to backward societal mindsets. In an effort to promote safety and security along with creating an essential support system and nationwide environment for women facing gender-based violence (GBV), the government inaugurated the One Stop Centres (OSC) in 2015. The aim of these centres is to provide emergency response and rescue services, Medical assistance, assistance to women in lodging the FIR, Psycho-social support and counselling, legal aid and counselling, shelter, video conferencing facility. According to India Today, out of 654 one-stop centres for women approved all over the country, only 234 OSCs are functional and 1,90,572 women were supported through these centres till now.[viii]
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme as well has been a land mark programme. Under the programme, the “Izzat Ghar” initiative has found a place of pride. No previous government ever thought of open defecation as an insult to women’s dignity, neither was it seen as a safety issue. But as a reflection of the government’s clear commitment towards the women of India and as well as their understanding of women’s issues in the country, over 11 crore toilets have been built. In 2019, India achieved the unthinkable by becoming open defecation free resulting in a fall in crimes as well as preserving the dignity of women across the country. This was an issue that could have been taken up by the previous governments but it would have required them to have sensitivity and understanding. Importantly, it would have required commitment towards large scare implementation, especially amongst marginalised and backward communities in rural areas and to motivate them towards this end.
In order to fill further gaps in healthcare for women, especially beneficial to women in remote or rural areas of the country who suffer the most due to lack of access to quality healthcare or due to lack of information and education, the Pradhan Mantri Surakshit Matritva Abhiyan was launched by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW). The agenda of this scheme was to provide ante-natal care to pregnant women on the 9th of every month. Ante natal care is provided by radiologists, gynaecologists as well as other specialists in both urban and rural government facilities.
Using the principles of a single window system, it is envisaged that a minimum package of investigations and medicines such as calcium supplements amongst other necessary medication would be provided to all pregnant women attending the PMSMA clinics. One of the critical components of the scheme is identification and follow-up of high-risk pregnancies.[ix]
On the other hand, the government also took modern and bold initiatives by amending the Medical Termination Pregnancy Act of 1971. The Union Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Modi, approved the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 to amend the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. Proposing requirement for opinion of one provider for termination of pregnancy, up to 20 weeks of gestation and introducing the requirement of opinion of two providers for termination of pregnancy of 20-24 weeks of gestation. Further, enhancing the upper gestation limit from 20 to 24 weeks for special categories of women including ‘vulnerable women including survivors of rape, victims of incest and other vulnerable women (like differently-abled women, minors) etc. The amendment also includes the particulars of the women to be kept confidential.[x] This move would ensure women have access to safe and secure abortion services. According to the PMIndia.Gov website, several petitions were received by the courts to increase the gestational age on grounds of sexual violence or foetal abnormalities. This amendment will ensure dignity, privacy and safety for women who need to terminate pregnancy. In a country that sees around 800,000[xi] illegal abortions every year, it is a necessity to ensure that women have access to legal and safe provisions of termination of pregnancies.
The government has also set up a task force to consider increasing the marriageable age of girls due to health and safety reasons. Additionally, in the same vein of creating a safer and more supportive environment in order to keep our children safe, progress has been made with the landmark ruling that ensures the death sentence for child rapists.
Taking women’s empowerment to new levels has also shattered the proverbial glass ceiling. Women now have the opportunity to be granted permanent commission (PC) in all 10 branches of the Indian Army.
The Mahila-E-Haat is another initiative in creating financial independence for women. The platform is open to women entrepreneurs over the age of 18, NGO’s as well as Self Help Groups to showcase their products. The portal is said to have attracted lakhs of visitors since its launch and features over 2,000 products and services across more than 18 categories.[xii] Further, the STEP scheme under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry also aims to provide training, skill development and employability to women over the age of 16 years towards financial independence and employability. It covers an array of industries from agriculture, handicrafts, handlooms, tailoring, computer education, hospitality and even development of skills like spoken English language courses.[xiii]
The BJP manifesto has also included the intention of passing the much-debated Women’s Reservation Bill. The Bill will allow 33% Lok Sabha seats to be reserved for women. The agenda was set in their manifesto in 2014, a clear indication that the Party intends on creating a more equitable environment for women across the country and across professions.
However, women cannot be expected to take on such demanding work roles without adequate support from their employers. Realising the importance of working women who play multi-faceted roles as homemakers and mothers, the government in 2016 increased maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. These benefits were made available to adoptive mothers as well as mothers whose babies had been born via surrogacy.
The government did not shy away from pushing reforms in the Muslim community either, a community seen as more resistant to change and opposed to the Modi government and its initiatives. The shameful and more importantly unconstitutional practice of Instant Triple Talaq was finally criminalised. Additionally, the archaic practice of Muslim women not being allowed to travel for Haj without a male companion was also altered. In 2018, the government amended the Haj policy by allowing women above the age of 45 yrs. to travel without a male companion. Unlike previous dispensations that preferred walking on eggshells with minorities, the Modi-led government cannot be faulted for the bold steps they are willing to take for the future of Indian women irrespective of their religion, caste or creed.
The government has also distributed scooters under the Amma scooter scheme to over one lakh women at subsidised rates; they have distributed homes in Gujarat to women under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and have also launched the “Working Women Hostel Scheme” which include day care facilities and is open to single or widowed women, women with children, women from below poverty line households, handicapped women, as well as women undergoing training.[xiv]
However, it was during the pandemic that one saw the sensitivity of the Modi led government towards the needs of women in the country. During the first relief package announced by the Finance Minister it was evident that they knew that if women were taken care of, the entire family would benefit. To that end, 20 crore women with Jan Dhan accounts received Rs 500 per month for the next three months of the lockdown. Under the Ujwala Yojana 8.3 crore BPL families got free gas cylinders, Rs 1000 was credited via Direct Benefit Transfer for poor widows along with the elderly and disabled, Rs 50 lakh insurance coverage was extended to Accredited Social Health Care Activists nurses (all women) amongst other healthcare and frontline workers. 5 crore families beneficiaries of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MNREGA) which also largely attracts women received Rs 2000 increment and minimum wage was increased from Rs 182 to Rs 202.
The Modi led Government has broken barriers with their women-centric model of governance, with their ability to comprehend that mere tokenism is an insult to the skill, ability, resilience and power of the Indian woman. They have understood that the approach to truly exploring the full potential of women, a single pronged approach is futile and the key changes that every woman in India envisions will only come to a fruition with a multi-pronged approach, not limited to petty handouts but through a change in the entire ecosystem in which she functions. To this end, the Prime Minister has used his immense outreach to strategically break taboos and has used the power of messaging in order to bring a societal mindset change. His government has aimed at financial independence, education, employability backed by creating an environment of freedom and safety.
Much has been achieved in the last six years. Today, the Indian woman has renewed hope that from here on, the status of women will continue to rise with each passing day.
Author Brief Bio: Rami Niranjan Desai is a NE India Specialist, as founding director of the North East Policy Institute, Guwahati she worked extensively in the area publishing on Insurgency and conflict, religion & social movements. She is presently Director of Pathfinder India Consultancy, an organisation that undertakes research and analysis. She has completed her higher education from King’ College in Theology and Anthropology of Religion. Her media outreach is available on India’s leading channels.