NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - A new fund to ensure women's safety, a women-only bank and an overall nine percent increase in spending for gender were among measures proposed by finance minister in his 2013/14 budget on Thursday.
Despite a fiscal deficit, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram unveiled bigger-than-expected spending in a budget aimed at reviving economic growth and pleasing the public ahead of polls next year.
Gender rights featured prominently in this year's budget speech, partly due to pressure to address women's issues after the gang rape and murder of an Indian student in December. The case sparked protests and fuelled national debate about women's rights.
"We have a collective responsibility to ensure the dignity and safety of women. Recent incidents have cast a long, dark shadow on our liberal and progressive credentials," Chidambaram told parliament.
"As more women enter public spaces - for education or work or access to services or leisure - there are more reports of violence against them. We stand in solidarity with our girl children and women and we pledge to do everything possible to empower them and to keep them safe and secure."
He proposed setting up a fund with an initial investment of 10 billion rupees, which would be called "Nirbhaya" (meaning fearless) - a Hindi name given by the media to the December gang rape victim who reportedly fought her six attackers as they beat and raped her on a moving bus.
Experts say the fund could be used for shelters, compensation and medical support for victims of rape, helplines, or public campaigns to change age-old patriarchal attitudes which promote violence against women.
The National Crime Records Bureau says more than 24,200 rapes were reported in India in 2011 -- one every 20 minutes. Women also face other forms of violence including dowry and ‘honour killings', domestic abuse and trafficking.
WOMEN ONLY BANK
Another highlight of the budget was Chidambaram's proposal to establish the country's first-ever women's bank.
"Can we have a bank that lends mostly to women and women-run businesses, that supports women SHGs (Self Help Groups) and women's livelihood, that employs predominantly women, and that addresses gender-related aspects of empowerment and financial inclusion?" asked the finance minister.
"I think we can. I therefore propose to set up India's first women's bank as a public sector bank and I shall provide 1,000 crore as initial capital." He said he hoped to receive a banking licence by October.
Experts say millions of women lack access to finance across India -- partly due to illiteracy, remote locations, lack of documentation, but also because men still often control family budgets. Women who wish to start small businesses often do not have the financial expertise.
India's gender budget (funds allocated to the Ministry of Women and Child Development) for women's programmes was increased by 9.2 percent from the previous year to 971 billion rupees.
This will be used for recurrent schemes which include health and education programmes such as providing maternal health support and scholarships and hostels for girls.
Chidambaram said he was providing an additional 2 billion rupees to the women's ministry for schemes to tackle gender discrimination, particularly for vulnerable women such as widows.
Initial reaction was sceptical, with comments on social media sites such as Twitter suggesting that the women-only bank was unnecessary and that the Nirbhaya Fund was another channel for corruption.
"What we need is education, for both male and female. What we need is fast-track courts for crimes against women. What we need is development at the grassroots level - one of them being more toilets for women. And what we really need is security," wrote Adrija Bose on the popular Indian news site, FirstPost.
"Thank you for your very populist budget, but you must know it won't help us much. Most women will still be groped on the streets - perhaps even on the way to your all female bank."