Two pieces of statistics have garnered a lot of attention recently. The first is that the Indian economy is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, despite the lingering effects of demonetisation and the implementation of the goods & services tax (GST). The other put down India as the most dangerous country for women in the world. Understandably, the government PR machinery drummed up the former, whilst trashing the second one. Regressive gender relations stand out like a sore thumb in the overall narrative of a fast-growing economy. If the growth story is to make a material difference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chances in the 2019 general elections, his policies aimed at gender equality are likely to play a vital role.
Anyone with some understating of how cross-country surveys and rankings are implemented will take the Thomson Reuters report on India being the most dangerous country in the world with a pinch of salt. Data from some of the most hostile countries towards women (and fundamental human) rights are either unavailable or unreliable. That being said, it is undeniable that many things in India are not right when it comes to gender issues. India ranks amongst the lowest within the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to equal work opportunities for women, access to services, the safety of women and their political representation. The issue of declining safety of women may be in parts perception rather than hard numbers, but perceptions are all that matters in politics. Why this is particularly important for Modi is because he is probably the first post-liberalisation Prime Minister who has actively put gender issues on the map of economic policy-making. Largely, the effectiveness of his economic policies will depend on these initiatives aimed at gender issues. The damning reports on gender violence do not help his cause; neither does the rampant sexist and misogynistic comments from his party members. These opposing forces make the success of his gender projects crucial to the economic manifesto for the 2019 elections.
Modi sets a great store by symbolism. The colour of the recent economic report card reflects that. This makes his failure to table the Bill for equal representation of women in Parliament a symbolic failure to establish that his government is serious in addressing the gender imbalance. Behind all the propaganda machinery of their gender policies, the government seems to have grasped the crux of the problem: Indian women are severely disadvantaged both at the workplace and within the households, and economic policies can only succeed if they can simultaneously address the cultural and economic gender disadvantages. The two-pronged initiatives that have been undertaken to address this are laudable, but closer inspection will reveal the lack of holistic planning that is likely to relegate these initiatives to the collection of well-meaning but poorly executed programmes that is sadly commonplace.
Several reports have highlighted the significant impact of equal employment opportunities for women on the country’s GDP. By some estimates, this could add up to 2.5 percentage points to the GDP a year. As it stands, the programmes geared at the gender disadvantage in economic conditions are failing to take off. India’s female labour force is already the second-lowest among the G20 countries. Since 2005, it has fallen by about 10% from an already low 35%. Overall job growth, a vital part of Modi’s manifesto in 2014, has been lacklustre. This has hit women—who form about 48% of the working-age Indians—harder. When employed, women are paid 80 paise for every rupee paid to a comparable man. India lags almost all major Asian economies in female labour force participation at all levels of seniority.
Despite that, a coherent set of policies aimed at decreasing the gender disadvantages in the workplace is absent in the policy pipeline. The recent increase in the provisions for paid maternity leave is seen as a step in the right direction. However, any policy is only as successful as the number of people who benefit from it. A staggering 97% of all female workers in India are in the informal sector and will have no access to this extended maternity leave. The other major problem with the increased maternity provisions is that shifting the financing of this project entirely on private businesses will adversely affect employment opportunities of women. In most countries, maternity provisions are partially funded by the state. Therefore, maternity provisions will only benefit the minority of women who work in the formal sector and may come at the cost of even lower job growth for other women.
Of course, it is not entirely fair to blame one prime minister when Indian women have not enjoyed the same rights and privileges as men within the family for centuries. Strong preference for the male child has weakened the bargaining position of women within the household. Even otherwise liberal families view women as not having to work as a sign of financial affluence. It is in this area that this government has made meaningful strides to advance the cause of women. A large proportion of the beneficiaries of the Jan-Dhan Yojana has been women. These are still baby-steps towards addressing the abysmal gender gap in asset ownership, which is true for all socio-economic levels, but it is a positive move nevertheless. By some accounts, the initiatives to connect disadvantaged households to cooking gas pipeline and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan are slowly gaining momentum. This has positive economic spillovers, and safe and clean fuel and sanitation go at the very heart of the issues women face in a rural household. Improved sanitation will be a big leap forward for the health of rural women. This improvement, though, is from a very low base. India’s public spending on healthcare has been and remains low compared to any economy of its size, which disproportionately affects women: only about 17% of rural women have access to any form of antenatal care. This reflects in a high, albeit declining, maternal mortality rate.
For a young country like India, creating employment opportunities is non-negotiable to maintain a healthy growth rate. That cannot happen with the low female labour force participation and the cultural gender bias. How the economic initiatives that address the gender issues fare, will partially determine the mandate for Modi in 2019. Whilst the range and breadth of the initiatives undertaken to address the gender issues by this government are unforeseen, it may have done better with a focused strategy that makes meaningful and long-term effects on the labour-force participation of women, which is an economic imperative. To what extent the economics of these gender policies mitigate the concerns about declining safety of women in India remains to be seen.
By- Swarnodeep Homroy, Assistant Professor and SOM Research Fellow, Dept of Economics, Econometrics and Finance, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Views are personal
(This article is based on academic research on gender issues in India and beyond)