By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) – Indian government plans to set up a bank for women and a fund to implement projects to ensure their safety in the national budget were slammed by some women's groups on Friday, who called the measures populist and mere token gestures ahead of elections.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram unveiled higher-than-expected spending in the country's 2013/14 budget on Thursday, which some commentators lauded as "women-friendly" and aimed at appeasing the electorate after a public outcry following the murder and gang rape of a woman in December.
General elections are due to be held in India before May 2014 and this is seen as the Congress-led coalition government's last budget ahead of the polls.
But some women's groups said the $186 million allocated for a women-only bank and another $186 million for a fund for women's security called Nirbhaya (meaning fearless) - a Hindi name given by the media to the December gang rape victim - were not meaningful.
"These two populist announcements have definitely drawn the attention of the media, but they are not substantive at all given the needs of the women of this country," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based think-tank.
"The ideas are welcome, but the funds insignificant. It works out at 8 rupees for every woman for banking finance and 8 rupees for security and safety. It's peanuts. This is reflective of a lack of commitment and thinking on gender issues."
In an attempt to promote financial inclusion by providing women with easier access to credit and loans, Chidambaram has proposed a bank that will lend exclusively to women and women-run businesses and will be run predominately by females.
But women's rights groups questioned the need for a women-only bank that has such a small amount of funding.
They said it would have been better to improve women's access to financing at existing public sector banks, by creating a women's division in all branches that would offer slightly lower interest rates as well as business advice to encourage female entrepreneurs in the largely patriarchal country.
Some female bankers agreed.
"Anything that helps women to access finance is good. In fact, we should have a policy that focuses on this issue. Not just this particular bank, all banks must take steps to make loans available to women, especially in rural areas," said Naina Lal Kidwai, head of HSBC in India, according to the Hindustan Times.
Some women's groups also said there appeared to be a lack of planning and an absence of detail around the Nirbhaya fund for the security of women, for which the finance minister has given responsibility to the women's ministry.
The Ladies League of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), which had requested that the government set aside three times the amount it allocated for women's security in the budget, voiced concerns over the fund’s implementation.
"What we need to look at is how do we propose to use this fund? We would like to see the details on how we plan to use this money to prioritise security issues for women," said Harbeen Arora, ASSOCHAM Ladies League chairperson.
"In terms of the implementation, the discipline and the integrity that is required to tackle this, the finance minister definitely has not spelt this out and that is where the challenge lies."