Author : Sunaina Kumar

Published on Nov 17, 2023

Assembly Elections 2023: There is justice in the poll promises that political parties are making to women voters, whose assertion at the polling booth in terms of turnout and independent choices is only too evident to these parties.

Assembly Elections 2023: Why unconditional cash transfers to women are here to stay

The expansion of the welfare state in India, and elsewhere, has led to a preoccupation with welfare policies that focus on women. Women are predominantly the recipients of welfare as they are likely to be poorer than men, which is a fact euphemistically disguised as the “feminisation of poverty.” According to the United Nations, “women are the world’s poor,” and the pandemic pushed women further into poverty.

This partly explains why unconditional cash transfers to women have emerged as the defining trend in the ongoing assembly elections. The most intensely debated of these programmes have been rolled out in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka and has been promised in Rajasthan, as electoral sops that are meant to sway women voters by political parties across the spectrum.

Paternalistic Focus On Women As Beneficiaries

The Ladli Behna Yojana in Madhya Pradesh, implemented earlier this year, provides a monthly transfer of Rs 1,250 to female beneficiaries with a family income of less than Rs 2.5 lakh per annum. The Gruha Lakshmi scheme in Karnataka, which pays women heads of families Rs 2,000 per month, was considered a contributing factor to the election outcome in the state.

In Rajasthan, the incumbent government has guaranteed every woman head of family Rs 10,000 a year if voted back to power. Tamil Nadu, likewise, has recently implemented the Kalaignar Magalir Urimai Scheme which provides Rs 1,000 per month to all women above the age of 21 with an annual household income of less than Rs 2.5 lakh.

The names of the programmes, “Ladli Behna” and “Gruha Lakshmi” are deliberately evocative of the well-meaning paternalistic welfare state where women, excluded from meaningful social and economic participation, are perceived only as beneficiaries. Couched in the language of patriarchy, they emphasise women’s roles as mothers, wives and daughters, and reward them in “recognition of their hard work.”

Regardless of how political parties frame their language for these programmes, it must be stated that women in India are deprived of the opportunity of paid work, in great part due to the disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic and care work.

Expansion Of Cash Transfers After Covid-19 

The Covid-19 pandemic, in a sense, visibilised how the care burden contributes greatly to the poverty of women. It was during the start of the pandemic, between April to June 2020, that the central government undertook an emergency unconditional cash transfer, the largest globally, by providing Rs 500 for three months to 206 million female beneficiaries in the country, demonstrating that the government could cushion the impact of economic shock on households and provide a sound social safety net to female citizens.

Adapting from the experience of the central government, Assam was one of the first states to introduce unconditional cash transfers in the country, with the Orunodoi Scheme, launched in 2020, which provides Rs 1,250 per month to female beneficiaries for procuring essentials like medicines, pulses, fruits and vegetables.

West Bengal’s Lakshmi Bhandar scheme, started in 2021, provides a monthly allowance of Rs 500 to women from the general category, and Rs 1,000 to those from SC and ST category. When West Bengal went to polls later in 2021, the scheme had already paid off with voters, according to analysts.

Evidence from other countries backs the gambit by political parties in India. Studies show that cash transfers and targeted programmes affect electoral behaviour, lead to a substantive increase in voter turnout and can increase pro-incumbent voting choices.

Conditional cash transfers to women under Direct Benefit Transfer for programmes that cover maternal and child health, nutrition, education, access to cooking gas, livelihoods, and pension, have been gaining ground over the past decade in India, and have a positive impact on women’s empowerment and development outcomes, as various studies demonstrate.

Unconditional cash transfers, which tap into the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) have emerged as a popular policy intervention since the pandemic. UBI or a minimum income guarantee has been hotly debated not only in India but in every country where it is implemented, as untenable for governments in the long term.

Its proponents argue that the widening inequality exposed by the pandemic, the climate crisis, the cost-of-living crisis, and the increasing threat to livelihoods caused by tech and automation, collectively make a case for basic income.

Assertion Of Female Voters

In India, all of these trends have converged with one crucial factor, the emergence and assertion of women voters as they become a key electoral group. The turnout of women voters has been higher than men in two-thirds of state elections in India. More women in India are becoming educated and are socially empowered as grassroots leaders and members of self-help groups which have steadily expanded in every part of the country.

A quick scan of data confirms the rise of women voters in the ongoing elections. In Madhya Pradesh, the turnout of women voters rose from 29.1 percent in 1962 to an astonishing 74.1 percent in 2018. Of the 5.26 crore voters in Rajasthan, according to the State Election Commission, 2.51 crore are women.

Women are voting in greater numbers and are increasingly able to make autonomous voting choices, irrespective of the influence of males in their families. Political parties have astutely adjusted their policies to this shift. However, the participation of women in politics has not kept pace with their increase in voter turnout.

With the exception of Panchayati Raj Institutions, where nearly 45 percent women participate in local decision-making, among the highest in the world, women have been under-represented in legislative bodies. The Women’s Reservation Bill which reserves 33 percent of seats for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies is a bid to address this and find favour with women voters.

The gap in women’s political participation may be slowly narrowing, but Indian women’s participation in the economy and access to land and assets continues to be dismal. The gap in labour force participation rate in India is unabated, according to a report by the government, 77.2 percent males and 32.8 percent were in the labour force in 2021-22.

The report attributed this to social factors, educational qualifications and gender discrimination in terms of wages and opportunities at the workplace. While long-term measures are needed to address these inequalities, unconditional cash transfers provide a remedy through redistribution.

Sunaina Kumar is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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Sunaina Kumar

Sunaina Kumar

Sunaina Kumar is a Senior Fellow at ORF and Executive Director at Think20 India Secretariat. At ORF, she works with the Centre for New Economic ...

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