Amrita Datta & Alakh N Sharma
A rather substantial decline in female labour force participation rate (LFPR)—from about 29% in FY05 to just around 22% in FY12—as reported by two recent rounds of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), has been a matter of wide academic and public debate in the country. India presently has the tenth lowest female LFPR among 130 countries in the world, and it is much lower than all its South Asian neighbours except Pakistan. A large number of experts and commentators have attributed this decline to the marginalisation of women in the labour market. Others have termed it as a positive development because of rising educational enrolments of women in schools and colleges as well as withdrawal of a large number of women from work due to rising income (called income effect in economic discourse). Very often, in this polarised debate, the real issue concerning women’s employment and economic empowerment has been missed.
It needs to be noted that in a poor country like India and more so in the rural areas, due to a variety of reasons, a very large percentage of women are engaged part-time in several economic activities along with their domestic and care duties which are very often not properly counted and captured by the national statistical surveys resulting in lower reporting of economic participation of women. This ‘invisibility’ of women’s work has been widely documented and analysed in feminist economic literature and is not unique to India, but at the same time, this is a rather significant factor in the so-called reported lower female LFPR. This is amply revealed by an extensive survey conducted by the Institute for Human Development (IHD) during 2009-10 in a stratified random sample of 36 villages in Bihar. As against a ridiculously low estimate of LFPR of women in rural Bihar – around 6% by the NSSO, the IHD survey reports 35% participation. Notwithstanding some differences in survey tools and approach, the under-reporting of women’s work is closely revealed by this survey. In addition, several experts have also pointed towards deterioration in the quality of NSSO investigators as well as supervisory staff, most of whom have been hired on contractual basis overtime.
In fact, the under-counting of women workers may be one of the most important reasons for the recent reported decline in female LFPR. However, at the same time, other factors have their own share in the