Interview with Ms. Sri Ranjani Mukundan

Ms. Sri Ranjani Mukundan is a student researcher pursuing a master’s in Public Policy from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. Her interest lies in the field of gender policy, economic policy, urbanization, and governance. She has previously worked at McKinsey & Company as a research analyst, along with this she has also written two research papers on “Urban Development Index” and “Viability of Green Jobs in India” that have been published in national and international journals.


1. Can you please shed some light on what you feel about the gender aspect in 2021

budget? What would you say can be improved and where do we still lag behind?


Ms. Mukundan: Personally, I had a lot of expectations from this “budget like never before”. Being the first post-COVID-19 budget—I expected the spending/allocation in social sectors to go up—as a lot of social issues surfaced during this crisis—from gender-based violence to

interruption to education to migration issues. India has had gender budgets since

2005 in many states—despite that the allocation to gender-related policies fell by 26%

compared to last year. I think we lag behind in one major aspect: Concentration of

spending with a few ministries and states: Data from past gender-budgets show that

95% of the allocation of gender budget was taken up by just 5 major ministries that

were traditionally focused on women-centric policies such as the Ministry of Education and

Ministry of Health—leaving out many others. And in terms of States’ uptake, only 16 out

of 36 states and UTs follow gender budgeting. Not making it mandatory for all

ministries, departments, and states to look at their budgets through a gendered lens in

entirety has led to haphazard allocation—and is concentrated in pockets—leaving out

different policies and schemes out of this picture. Despite having gender budgets for the

last 15+ years, we haven’t been able to penetrate to more ministries/departments to

encourage spending on issues of gender.


2. COVID-19 has shown varied impacts on everyone and this also includes widespread

gender-based inequalities. How do you feel this can be corrected and what sort of

responses are still needed to tackle the same?


Ms. Mukundan: There are 2 parts to answering this. Firstly, in terms of framing the issue of gender policies to “naturally” mean the women-centric policy is problematic. Every time we speak about gender-discrimination and solving the same, the onus is on empowering women to tackle these issues. However, what we are missing is from the picture, is the role of men and boys in the dialogue of gender equality in India. So, I think framing policies to include all different stakeholders will be the first step in tackling this issue. Working with men, women, transgenders, and other gender minorities in the country to understand what is the need of the hour, what are the gaps and challenges, and finding ways to include everyone in policies will be the way to go.

Secondly, policies should shift from thinking about filling the hole in the wall to what’s

actually causing these holes in the first place. There is sufficient evidence to show that the

root causes of all this are how societal norms are gendered—be it from the household (or

personal) level to a much broader public realm. Thus, addressing the root cause, and not the

manifestations of these causes should be the way to go. There is a lot of research done around how gender sensitization campaigns (in communities) and gender-sensitive curriculum (as part of the school) help transform the mindsets of people. Therefore, institutionalizing these channels will be an important step in addressing gender-inequality issues in the long run.


3. According to you, what domains require urgent women-centric or gendered focus on

research and data collection for developmental economics and growth in the

country?


Ms. Mukundan: Like I mentioned previously, we cannot look at this issue in silos. It would not be correct to say that we should just rectify labor market issues or improve safety for women—because all these issues are interrelated. For instance, there is gender discrimination right from birth—sex selection of children, prioritizing boys’ education over girl child, child marriages, access to healthcare, addressing labor market biases to access to technology—the list keeps growing. But objectively looking from a research standpoint—the lack of gender-disaggregated data is a huge deterrent to targeting policies. For instance, the same policy might have a different impact on men versus women. If we do not have this data, one might continue to assume that the scheme is working well—when it might not be for a particular group of people—irrespective of gender. As a young researcher myself, I’m almost always at crossroads when it comes to picking a research topic—since most areas that actually interest me lack quality gender-disaggregated data. This is a huge gap that results in sub-standard research in areas that actually need improvements.


4. Why do you think female representation in the field of economics is so low?


Ms. Mukundan: I don’t think there are any specific reasons for the low representation of women in the field of economics—it is pretty much because of the same reasons why there is a poor representation of women in any field. There is this really interesting article written in Forbes magazine that talks about why there is low female representation of women—the author argues how economics has maybe become irrelevant to women and other minorities, and thus the subject is unable to pique the interest of young women. The basic idea behind the “you get what you deserve” market mechanism single-handedly ignores all discrimination and double burden that women go through and the ample privileges men enjoy. I am with the author of the article on this point—it is important to teach development economics where issues of relevance and importance—such as how the subject is now being used to bridge different inequalities—is taught, instead of just the basic demand and supply and laissez-faire.


5. Recently a Supreme Court judge asked if sex between a husband and wife can be

considered rape, no matter how brutal the husband is. How do you think statements

like these affect the progress that India has been making as a largely patriarchal

society?


Ms. Mukundan: I think, in the last 7+ decades, we have made great progress in terms of gender equality in the country. Today, we are talking about issues so openly that’d have probably gone unnoticed in our parents’/ grandparents’ generation. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is on the same page about the issue. I sometimes find intra-generational opinion divides about what gender equality or feminism means to people. Having said that, people in positions of power must be very cautious of what they say—simply because of the influence, they have on society. Be it a Supreme Court judge or a really popular Bollywood actor, these people influence thousands of others than an average commoner in the country—and making statements like these reinforce the patriarchal norms, which also influences the millions of youth today—leading to a younger generation thinking it’s “okay” to say statements like these—which I think is really problematic.


Interviewer- Sanaa Munjal

Image Source- LinkedIn