India Is Building a Women-Only Social Safety Net

Political parties across India have promised a host of new social programs exclusively for women. Is it politics or progress? 

By , an independent editor and journalist reporting on gender, environment, culture and socio-economic issues.
Women play a game in a village on the outskirts of Bangalore.
Women play a game in a village on the outskirts of Bangalore.
Women play a game in a village on the outskirts of Bangalore, India, on Oct. 27, 2021. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

BENGALURU—Saraswathi was paying close attention to the election in her native Tamil Nadu last April. The COVID-19 pandemic had ravaged the 47-year-old’s finances, and both the incumbent party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the opposing Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party had promised relief in the form of monthly cash transfers to women. Saraswathi, who, like many Tamilians does not use a surname, had voted for the incumbent in the last two elections. But this time, she said, it was time for change.

“We suffered in the pandemic, and the previous government wasn’t able to do anything to help,” she said, her face sunburned and splattered with age spots from decades of farm labor under the southern Indian tropical skies. Saraswathi voted for the opposing party and, when the new government took over, she received roughly $50 in cash support for women hit hard by the pandemic.

Women are the fastest-growing political constituency in India. Sixty-seven percent of the country’s registered women voters—as many as 294 million individuals—cast their ballots in national elections in 2019. While registered male voters still outnumber female voters, a greater proportion of women turned out to vote in the 2019 national elections than men—the first time in India’s history that the gender gap in voting flipped. Politicians across the country are taking notice. Over the last several years, political parties in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Goa have launched a slew of new social programs aimed at empowering women—and winning their increasingly important votes.

BENGALURU—Saraswathi was paying close attention to the election in her native Tamil Nadu last April. The COVID-19 pandemic had ravaged the 47-year-old’s finances, and both the incumbent party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the opposing Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party had promised relief in the form of monthly cash transfers to women. Saraswathi, who, like many Tamilians does not use a surname, had voted for the incumbent in the last two elections. But this time, she said, it was time for change.

“We suffered in the pandemic, and the previous government wasn’t able to do anything to help,” she said, her face sunburned and splattered with age spots from decades of farm labor under the southern Indian tropical skies. Saraswathi voted for the opposing party and, when the new government took over, she received roughly $50 in cash support for women hit hard by the pandemic.

Women are the fastest-growing political constituency in India. Sixty-seven percent of the country’s registered women voters—as many as 294 million individuals—cast their ballots in national elections in 2019. While registered male voters still outnumber female voters, a greater proportion of women turned out to vote in the 2019 national elections than men—the first time in India’s history that the gender gap in voting flipped. Politicians across the country are taking notice. Over the last several years, political parties in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Goa have launched a slew of new social programs aimed at empowering women—and winning their increasingly important votes.

In August 2021, the incumbent All India Trinamool Congress party government in West Bengal confounded polls by winning a third term—a victory widely attributed to strong support among certain groups of women, including tribal, Muslim, and low-income women, as well as women from India’s privileged castes. The party’s leader and chief minister of the state, Mamata Banerjee, had launched several programs targeting low-income women and girls. In elections in Assam last year, female voters played a similarly pivotal role in the Bharatiya Janata Party retaining power, after the party introduced a series of direct benefit transfer programs for women the year before.

“This idea that women as a constituency are different from men was noticed by many in the Bihar elections [in 2005], when Nitish Kumar promised cycles for girls,” said Mukulika Banerjee, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. Access to bicycles was widely reported to have helped reduce the school dropout rate among girls, something that Banerjee said Kumar “was definitely rewarded for.” Women’s voter participation in elections in the state increased from 42 percent in 2005 to nearly 60 percent in 2020, according to data from the Election Commission of India. And Kumar, now the chief minister of Bihar, continues to tout social welfare programs for women as a key part of his party’s platform.

Campaigning on cash benefit programs ahead of elections has become so widespread that it has gained the attention of India’s judiciary. The Delhi High Court, the apex court in the union territory of Delhi, is now hearing a case against two parties—the Indian National Congress and the Telugu Desam Party—for promising cash transfers ahead of the 2019 Andhra Pradesh elections. In late 2021, the court issued a notice to the Election Commission asking it to take stronger action against “corrupt electoral practices” like offering cash incentives.

But defenders of the programs say the incentives are simply redress for long-standing inequities. “It’s not about handouts or benefits,” Banerjee, the anthropologist, said. “It may have as much to do with the politics of recognition. It is about recognizing that women are living with structural inequality.

Whether for political purposes or not, putting money into the hands of women has real economic benefits. “Resources controlled by women unambiguously improves their bargaining power within the house,” said Karthik Muralidharan, a professor of economics at the University of California San Diego. In many parts of India, women are bound by patriarchal customs. Gudiya Devi, a newlywed from the state of Bihar, has no access to household finances, which are controlled by her husband and parents-in-law. “I have to depend on them for basic necessities,” Devi said.

There is evidence that giving cash transfers to women leads to greater expenditure on things that benefit the whole family, such as food, education, and health care. Saraswathi, who has benefited from several women-only social welfare programs, often hides the money she receives from the government from her husband. “Otherwise,” she said, “he would spend it all on alcohol.”

A more empowered female population has also been shown to benefit the economy as a whole. A policy experiment conducted by researchers at Yale University in rural Madhya Pradesh found that women whose wages are directly deposited into their own bank accounts are more likely to work outside the home. Female labor force participation in India has been declining since 2005 and fell even further during the pandemic. Direct deposit programs that give women autonomy over their finances can help slow or reverse that trend.

Kamalam, a 41-year-old entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu, who also does not use a last name, was a housewife until a decade ago, when she began receiving benefits from a range of government programs, including microloan, livelihood, maternity, and now pandemic support programs. “I opened a bank account to save money for myself, but over time I ended up starting my own dairy farm,” she said. “Now even my husband helps me with the farm work.”

While it’s easy to dismiss the onslaught of women-only cash transfer programs as political pandering, the financial benefits for women and the economy are real.

Saraswathi’s old thatched dwelling, which she shared with her husband, has been replaced by a modest, one-bedroom brick house, thanks in part to a loan from Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, a national housing program launched in 2015 to encourage affordable housing. To be eligible for benefits, low-income families must include a female member of the household as a co-applicant. Saraswathi’s role in securing these benefits gave her a level of control over the household finances that she previously did not have, including a say in what paint colors and tiles would be used for their new home.

But the extent to which cash transfer programs like these can achieve their purported goal of helping to address entrenched gender inequities remains to be seen. While Saraswathi’s name was required for her family to be eligible for housing benefits, this was not the case for ownership of their new home. The house, adorned with shiny tiles and colorful walls that Saraswathi chose herself, is in her husband’s name.

Mahima Jain is an independent editor and journalist reporting on gender, environment, culture and socio-economic issues.

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