By Chitvan Singh Dhillon
As the world finds itself challenged by the deadly coronavirus and the impending slowdown, developing countries like India seem to face another problem. The ILO, in Rapid Assessment of the Impact of the Covid-19 crisis on Employment, has warned that ‘those who are most likely to lose their work and incomes are casual workers and the self-employed’. What is worrisome is the fact that around three-quarters of employment in India is non-regular—either self-employed or engaged in casual work. The ILO report has found that (using 2020 population figures) 118 million workers in India are casually employed, representing around 25% of the workforce, while slightly more than half or 246 million are self-employed. It is pertinent to mention here that women are more likely than men, albeit marginally, to be in non-regular employment. Therefore, women have or are likely to experience greater loss of employment than men.
As per the World Bank (modelled ILO estimates), India’s female labour force participation rates, usually calculated as the share of women that are employed or are seeking work as a proportion of the working-age female population, stand distressingly low, at a mere 23.413% (2019). Our neighbouring countries have fared better—Bhutan (58.3%), Nepal (81.6%), China (60.63%), Bangladesh (36.14%), Myanmar (47.54%) and Sri Lanka (34.75%). Slightly more women work in Pakistan than in India (24.096%). Pakistan’s female labour-force participation rate is rising, while India’s is flagging. Such a trend is disturbing.
India, therefore, has been hit with a double whammy. On the one hand, we find our health systems overwhelmed by the pandemic. On the other hand, our female workforce is likely to experience massive unemployment, which may result in gender inequality. The million-dollar question in this thematic debate, therefore, becomes ‘ with India chasing its ambitious goal of earning the coveted $ 5 trillion economy tag by 2025, how can it ensure than more than half of its productive workforce is not left behind?’
The government has announced a massive fiscal stimulus package to alleviate the plight of migrant workers and other vulnerable sections to weather the adverse impact of the pandemic. However, there’s a lot more that needs to be done to arrest and then reverse this perverse trend.
States governments should initiate awareness generation campaigns to cultivate a positive attitude towards women joining the labour force since social orthodoxy is one of the critical impediments in women’s participation in economic activities.
Local bodies with financial aid from state governments should open more crèches in towns and cities. At the same time, crèches will open up more employment opportunities.
Self-help groups, as engines of growth, can help spur a positive change at the grassroots level. They can help improve access to the formal banking sector, which, more often than not, prevents women from joining the labour force.
There ought to be a greater gender-neutral formalisation. Employment in the formal sector will help women get access to benefits under various legislations. Besides, supply-side reforms to improve infrastructure and address other constraints to job creation could enable more labour force participation. Budgetary allocations to social sectors need a big push, including investment in education, which can lead to higher female labour force participation in the long run.
Social norms are mutable, and it is the broader economic trends and government policies matter. Bespoke government initiatives such as Skill India, Make in India, and creating new quotas based exclusively on gender can work wonders. The training of women should also be enhanced since vocational training is strongly linked with rising female labour force participation rates. But we need to invest heavily in skill training and job support.
Can India rise to the challenge? Only time will tell!
The author is Indian Economic Service officer. Views are personal