Is the New India bypassing women? Gendered Implications of India's Growth Nitya Rao1

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Is the New India bypassing women? Gendered Implications of India's Growth

Nitya Rao1

High rates of growth have characterized developments in the Indian economy over the last few years, with a growth rate of close to 9 per cent for three consecutive years from 2005-6 to 2007-8, surpassing all expectations (Government of India 2007). Whereas GDP growth amounted to less than 4 per cent per year during 1965-74 (in fact since Indian independence in 1947), it has been close to 6 per cent per year since 1985, an increase in the growth rate by one-and-a-half times. Even more significant is the increase in the annual rate of GDP per capita growth from 1.4 per cent during 1965-74 to 4.3 per cent during 1995-2004, a threefold increase, resulting partly from a slowing down of population growth (Rao et al. 2008).
This remarkable growth, often claimed as evidence for the success of a pro-market strategy that has led to an expansion of choices and opportunities, is viewed as a key characteristic of the 'new India'. Yet concerns about the inclusiveness of the growth process remain, pointing to the persistence of an 'old India', with not all sectors, states or sections of the population able to equally access these new, market-based opportunities. The interests of urban, private capital (big business) and rural social elites (often newly emergent caste-based groups) continue to be met at the cost of providing education, health or extension services to the poor, confronted with both rising prices and exclusion from the new regime of accumulation (Corbridge and Harriss 2000; Kohli 2006; Bardhan 1998). Jenkins (1999) further points out that rather than disappearing, new forms of patronage have emerged, with political networks being used to compensate powerful allies, as this was perhaps the only way the reforms could be pushed forward little-by-little and sustained.
Recent analyses of growth in India reveal that in terms of its sectoral composition, while agriculture's contribution has remained stable at around 18-21 per cent during the last decade (though declining to less than 10 per cent in the last few years), industry's contribution has hovered around 25 per cent, with services increasing to over 50 per cent (Chandrasekhar and Ghosh 2007). A disaggregated analysis suggests that it is mainly finance, insurance, real estate and business services that have contributed to this growth. Deeper analysis of this data, however, indicates that the faster a sector grows, the lower the participation of women in that sector (women make up about 35 per cent of the workforce in agriculture, 25 per cent in industry, and less than 20 per cent in services); participation of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) is also lower (Rao et al. 2008).
Headcount poverty has continued to decline in the last two decades,2 yet the sectoral shifts in growth have led to the steady rise in inequalities, giving rise in fact to new forms and manifestations of inequality, both material and non-material. Reports of continuing farmer suicides from different parts of the country have raised questions about the neglect of the rural sector, still home to over 60 per cent of the Indian population, and its exclusion from growth. A rapid decline in sex ratios in the prosperous parts of the country, revealing an overall improved quality of life over the last two decades, similarly indicates that with rising household incomes and access to technologies such as those for pre-natal sex determination, son preference and female disadvantage are intensifying. This is seen in women's poorer survival chances, their declining mobility, and increased violence against women.
In India, while being disadvantaged is multi-faceted, caste and gender are recognized as two key indicators of social stratification. Women and members of lower-caste groups experience a range of inequalities: in health and nutrition, education, wages, occupation and ownership and control and access to assets and resources; but perhaps women of low-caste groups are multiply disadvantaged. Low entitlements, social barriers and discrimination alongside changing familial relationships3 combine to dampen their capabilities and hinder market possibilities. As a result, the low castes, and in particular the women amongst them, suffer disproportionate rates of poverty -- a situation that is passed on from generation to generation despite gender- and caste-based affirmative action by formal institutions (Mehta and Shah 2006), as enshrined in the constitution of India.
The Approach Paper to the 11th Plan highlights this concern, drawing attention to both the rural-urban divide and the gender divide as critical barriers to growth (Government of India 2006, 3). This has led to a 'new equity agenda' that takes account of inequalities based on a number of long-standing background variables such as parental education, caste and gender. But it also recognizes new forms of exclusion (based on access to particular forms of education and skills, infrastructure and communication, political marginalization and cultural stereotyping, to name a few) as major obstacles to long-term equitable development, or indeed sustained growth (Birdsall and Londono 1997; World Bank 2006, UN 2005). Yet within the present paradigm of development thinking, while there is recognition of the need to deal with equity issues, the solutions are not seen in terms of refocusing growth priorities, including investing in areas where women are concentrated, such as agriculture. Rather, these are conceptualized in terms of using some of the returns from growth for programmes of social protection and targeted support to those unable to avail of the new opportunities being created in the high-growth sectors.4 'Gender balancing' to take care of the needs of women would be achieved through schemes and special programmes to deal with anaemia, maternal mortality, pregnant and lactating women, credit, etc. (Hirway 2006), all reinforcing women's primary role as mothers. The 'new' India, in its celebration of markets, fails to note that women face ideological and material constraints to freely participating in markets and it is these dimensions that need to be urgently addressed.
Central to the discussion of growth is an analysis of labour force participation rates, directly seen to contribute to economic productivity, in turn to incomes and well-being. Enhanced female participation in the work-force would then be seen as contributing positively to growth. Yet, in India, female labour force participation rates have been stubbornly low, with women and low-caste groups concentrated in low-paid, informal work. It is not surprising then to find women, especially educated women aspiring to a limited number of white-collar jobs, leave the labour force rather than join it, as soon as their family circumstances allow this to happen (Das and Desai 2003). Women's low participation is also linked ideologically to the phenomenon of 'jobless growth', wherein women's access to jobs is often seen as depriving men of opportunities and a threat to their provider roles, hence contributing to the increased violence against women both within the home and at the work-place in the modern growth period. Women then prefer to trade in autonomy and control over income to improved material and social well-being, given their dependence on the family for social security in the near-absence of state provision. While investments in education and health have risen, rather than translating into employment (given the nature and conditions of work, the gender divisions of labour and growing security concerns), they contribute to growth indirectly through a host of social reproduction tasks including a focus on the care and upbringing of children.
The urgent need for rethinking the very conceptualization and ways of measuring inequality therefore led the MDG Task Force on Gender Equality to identify three key, interrelated domains requiring urgent attention: a) the 'capabilities' domain referring to basic human abilities as measured through education, health and nutrition; b) the 'access to resources and opportunities' domain, which includes access to economic assets (land, property, infrastructure) and resources (income and employment) as well as political opportunity; and c) the 'security' domain that seeks to reduce vulnerability to violence and conflict (Birdsall, Ibrahim and Gupta 2004). Collectively, these could create an environment that would enable an expansion of choices for women, in particular rural women, by helping address crucial social, structural and ideological constraints. Women's interests can perhaps better be served through appropriate and holistic policy measures and mechanisms that create an enabling environment for their participation in the economy, polity and society.
I examine in this paper women's work participation across three very different sectors: first, the largely stagnant, yet female-dominated agricultural sector; second, manual scavenging, recognized as humanly degrading, but which survives as a caste-based occupation (restricted to the SCs); and third, the fast-growing information and communication technology (ICT) industry, which, however, keeps women largely confined to repetitive and routine tasks at the lower end of the work spectrum (Mitter 2003). This is followed by a discussion of education as a basic capability. Finally, I turn to the growing threat of violence facing women in the 'new' India.
Understanding change is never straightforward, nor is it value-free. Gender researchers have often taken a critical view of economic development, as despite improvements, a host of problems remain -- persistent wage gaps, sexual harassment, constraints on mobility, double burdens of work, limited space in politics, etc. (Elson 1991; Rustagi 2000; Hirway 2002). The effects of growth and prosperity are often contradictory for women.
An important issue then is that of periodization and what is new or has changed in India today. As far as women are concerned, the constitution of independent India recognized them as equal citizens with similar rights as men. A legal framework was put in place during the decade of the 1950s to ensure these rights. Yet implementation was weak and the 'Report on the Status of Women in India, 1974', revealed large gender gaps across key areas of education, health and employment. The period from 1975-85 was perhaps a watershed in giving visibility to the continuing gender inequality in society. Yet it is the late 1980s and early 1990s that can be said to mark the start of a 'new' India for women. There was a spate of legislation in the realms of marriage and the family (Prohibition of Dowry (Amendment) Act, 1986, Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act, 1994, etc.), as well as political participation of women (the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in 1991 guaranteed one-third representation to women in elected local government bodies), all of which sought to give women a voice across the different institutional sites from the household to the state. While implementation continues to lag behind intention, the policy directions suggested by the National Perspective Plan for Women and Shramshakti, the Report of the Commission on Self Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector, led to affirmative action particularly in the spheres of education and entrepreneurship,5 to provide women a more level playing field as far as market opportunities were concerned.
With a rise in incomes, especially in the last decade, there has been substantial improvement in women's education and health status; and since the passing of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, women's voices are increasingly heard at the local level. Table 1 shows some indicators of changing women's well-being at an all-India level that portray rising well-being overall, with, however, areas of concern, such as the maternal mortality rate, and most recently, the share of earned income.

Table 1: Selected indicators of women's well-being

Data Year

HDR year

Female adult literacy

Female GER (combined)

Female life expect-ancy


MMR per 100,000 live births

Total fertil-ity rate

Share of earned income
















































































Source: UNDP's Human Development Reports (HDR) for different years.

Note: The indicators presented in this table follow the UNDP definitions (combined GER stands for the Gross Enrolment Ratio at Primary, Secondary and Tertiary levels; IMR is the Infant Mortality Rate per 1000 live births, MMR the Maternal Mortality Rate, GDI the Gender-adjusted Human Development Index, and GEM the Gender Empowerment Measure. No information on GEM is available for India after HDR 1998).
Yet this period has also seen a social backlash against women who are educated, have access to credit, or raise their voice. The growing violence and attacks against working women in Indian cities, rape and molestation, are a part of everyday media coverage. The backlash is visible also in the blocking of legislation reserving one-third of the seats for women in Parliament and the state legislatures for the past 14 years. While the reporting of violent incidents may be related to growing media and civil society activism, it has nevertheless led to the demand and passing of a spate of new legislation over the last decade -- to protect women from domestic violence (2005), from being deprived of their inheritance (2005) or from being the victims of foeticide (2002).6
Locating the problem areas requires a disaggregated analysis and Rustagi (2000) shows in her presentation of gender development indicators such as sex ratios, education, female literacy, female infant and child mortality, age at marriage, fertility, and work participation, across Indian districts, just how variable the picture of gendered well-being is, with some groups and regions doing worse than others. One remarkable feature of such analysis is the troubling and complex relationship between economic growth and gender inequality, since equality indicators for north Indian states, which have seen dramatic agricultural growth, are worsening (Nillesen and Harriss-White 2004), as is the gap between the rich and the poor. Yet, attributing growth as 'cause' and gender relations as 'effect' is also problematic, due to the multiple factors interacting and contributing to these changes, hence what the paper offers is a nuanced analysis of directions of change.
Access to resources and opportunities has been considered a central element of the equity agenda. One of the big shifts since 1991 has been the reorientation of the state away from its social responsibilities, or indeed social justice, and instead prioritizing economic productivity (Rao 2005). As a consequence, women have become visible as productive workers rather than as passive welfare recipients (Vasavi and Kingfisher 2003) though largely in informal or self-employed work, which has seen rapid expansion in both urban and rural areas, while the formal sector (offering regular wages and benefits) has shrunk in size. This is in line with global trends towards flexibility in labour organization to suit the needs of just-in-time production processes (Mitter 1994), and also towards enhancing efficiency and accountability of service delivery (especially in health and education) through contractual agreements rather than secure employment.
Despite this, one finds female labour force participation (FLFP) almost stagnant at about 30 per cent (40 per cent for rural and 20 per cent for urban females), and less than half that of male labour force participation at around 80 per cent, from 1983-4 to 2004-5, based on data from various rounds of the National Sample Survey Organisation's (NSSO) employment and unemployment surveys (Rao et al, 2008). When one examines FLFP by caste and gender, it becomes clear that while men of all castes are equally engaged in the labour force, SC and ST women have a substantially higher participation than women of other castes in both urban and rural areas across India. This is because there are far greater taboos on upper-caste women, and working for wages is seen as a mark of low status. But a further disincentive is a widening gender gap in rewards to labour, despite regulations to the contrary such as the Equal Remuneration Act 1976. This wage discrimination results from the labelling of the sectors of work in which women constitute a majority as unskilled and semi-skilled (Hirway 2002), but also their lack of time to work a full day due to increasing burdens of domestic work, now more rigidly allocated to women. While urban areas do appear to offer more opportunities, the nuclear/small family setting means a much greater burden for women handling both domestic and employment- related work, leading to many of them dropping out of the work-force.
The new job creation taking place mainly in the self-employed sector is polarized between the high and low end of the spectrum. One finds a small minority of highly skilled professionals able to access remunerative work and a large majority of women with less than primary education7 at the lowest end, working long hours for low wages in the service sector, either in schools and hospitals or as domestic help in households (Unni and Raveendran 2007; Himanshu 2007). In the rural sector, given the stagnation in agricultural growth, men have been diversifying into construction and services, such as transport and petty trading. Women's involvement in agriculture has, however, remained stable at over 85 per cent (in comparison to 71 per cent for men). Given the lack of growth in the agricultural sector, women's concentration in this sector has had mixed effects on them, as discussed in the next section.
Insights from field studies conducted in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to understand the gendered implications of growth offer some explanation into how the processes of employment creation or the lack of it impact women's lives and social position. While some non-farm opportunities have indeed become available in the local areas, employers are not keen to employ women workers. A jute businessman in West Bengal (buying jute, sorting and packing into bales and loading them for transportation) looked very puzzled when asked about the prospects of employing women: 'Look this is not a bank. It's a jute araat (wholesale depot). It is hard work. Even the Bengalis can't do it. I get labour from the Bihar border as those men can work harder' (Mitra 2007, 44).8 In Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, a similar response was obtained from the owner of a dal (lentils) mill – men were better able to perform both labour and managerial jobs (Nair and Mehrotra 2007, 43). A brick-kiln owner here did employ women, as part of family groups, but similar to Gupta's (2003) study of brick-kilns in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, only men were on the employment register as workers; women were included as part of 'family labour'. While all these employers seemed aware of the labour laws, they were practiced minimally. With no agricultural incomes and limited access to non-agricultural jobs or the public space, the women's relative bargaining power in the household has weakened, leading simultaneously to an intensification of patriarchy and controls on their mobility.
Both the field studies found Muslim women9 taking up stitching or embroidery work at home, and indeed across India Muslim women dominate different categories of home-based work (Sachar 2007). But only the poorest of the Muslim women do this work: it is laborious and has to be done on time, despite all the domestic work. The contractors are often highly exploitative, too; for embroidering one sari, a worker is paid about Rs. 800-1,000 and it takes almost a month to finish, or barely Rs. 25 per day, way below the minimum wage. The same sari sells in metropolises such as Kolkata for about Rs. 4,500. As Jaheda Begum, a kantha10 worker who also sub-contracts, puts it, 'Where do we have the contacts and the resources to do what the contractor does? We know it is exploitative but something is better than nothing' (Mitra 2007, 44) While microcredit for women has grown by leaps and bounds in the country,11 it clearly does not meet the capital needs of potential entrepreneurs like Jaheda. They lack other assets, such as land, which could be used as collateral for gaining larger bank loans, but they also lack the mobility to travel to major cities and markets to expand their contacts. The assumption that women are only capable of managing small amounts of money and petty businesses also persists.
Employment then is not a particularly good indicator of women's status or empowerment in the Indian context; neither does it appear to be connected to growth or indeed to income. In a scenario of low wages and harsh working conditions, with little support for the performance of domestic work, it is no surprise that women want to exit the labour force altogether if their husbands can provide for them. The implications on gender relations, however, reflect a loss of both mobility and autonomy for women and a strengthening of male authority and control.
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