Why Modi is silent on women’s employment crisis?

B. Sivaraman

A massive mandate is no license for indifference or callousness in governance towards social crises, like the unprecedented labour force participation crisis haunting Indian women. The next one month in the run-up to the presentation of the full budget on 5 July by Ms. Nirmala Sitaraman would have to show whether this message has sunk in with the Modi Government 2.0.

The 2019 Lok Sabha polls set several records as far as the political participation of women is concerned. Not only 724 women candidates in the fray represented the maximum number ever to contest any Lok Sabha polls. It is a different matter that they just comprised 8.8% of all candidates in the fray numbering 8251, which is far less than 50%, which is their share among voters this time.  Among them, 78 victorious women also set a record as this Lok Sabha would have the highest number of women MPs even though it is a different matter that they accounted for just 14% of the House which is not anywhere near the 33% widely aspired for.

“I spent the last five years to ensure the dignity of women by building toilets”, said Modi while thanking women for the “historic mandate”. The pro-BJP media merchants were busy creating an impression that Modi returned to power riding on the crest of a popular support wave mainly among women, cutting across class, caste and regional differences. That might not be entirely true. Women voters might have achieved parity with men only in terms of voter turnout as the turnout figures for men and women were 66.79% and 66.68% respectively, the difference being only 0.11%. But the CSDS-Lok Niti post-poll survey showed that while 39% among men had voted for the BJP only 36% of women voters had opted for Modi. This means the carefully cultivated 56-inch machismo image of Modi and his muscular nationalism didn’t click as much among women as it did among men. Any psephology expert would tell us that 3% less vote among half the voters is electorally a significant gender disadvantage for the BJP. The overall poll balance-sheet shows that though the Swachch Bharat might have paid high dividends, no doubt, to the BJP, the employment-related crisis of women and other problems like sexual violence and security have obviously taken their electoral toll too.

The work-life crisis being faced by Indian women is multifaceted. At one level, conditions take them out of work-life itself and their share in the labour force is alarmingly declining. Even among those one-quarter of women who come into the labour force, a very high share is facing unemployment and women are not getting jobs though they are ready to work. Even among those women who are already working, the number of those who suffer job losses is historically unparalleled. In short, it is an all-round crisis of women’s work-life.

Women dropping out of the labour force is nothing new but in recent years it has reached the level of a social emergency. Over the last couple of years, many international agencies, think tanks, corporate research agencies, reputed academic centres and leading media houses have been warning about the intensifying employment crisis of Indian women. It was as early as in April 2017, that a World Bank Policy Research Working paper titled ‘Precarious Drop’ had raised an alarm. Based on NSSO reports and the Census reports, the report stated that, “female labour force participation in India dropped by 19.6 million women from 2004–05 to 2011–12. Participation declined by 11.4 percent, from 42.6 to 31.2 percent during 1993–94 to 2011–12. Approximately 53 percent of this drop occurred in rural India, among those ages 15 to 24 years”.

In just eight years two crore women dropping out of employment is no joke! Any government should have acted on a war-footing to reverse the trend. But Modi government, which took office in May 2014, didn’t even acknowledge the problem, leave alone acting upon it. So the female labour force participation further had a free fall during the 5 years of Modi’s first term to hit a historic low of 27% in 2018. Even before the World Bank, the IMF Chief Christine Lagarde, when she visited India in January 2018, declared that exclusion of women from the workforce in a major high-growth BRICS country like India would have adverse effect on global growth. Even before these international agencies, the UN agency for labour, the ILO, had warned of the impending catastrophe for Indian women in October 2014 itself in an exclusive report on Indian women’s labour force participation.

These studies were followed by a spate of reports from reputed think tanks and research centres like Oxfam, autonomous research institutions like Azim Premji University, ICRIER, NCAER, LSE, and even UN agencies like UNDP and UN Women, which were equally shocking. But there was absolute silence on this from one source: the Modi government! Neither Modi nor his minister or officials uttered a single word on this crisis or devoted themselves to find a way out of it. The only exception was Niti Aayog, which acknowledged belatedly, and that too in a journal article,  that the rural women had to bear the brunt of the employment crisis and despite the earlier hype of on ‘feminisation of agricultural work’, more than 50% rural women were out of the workforce.

Some of these studies reveal that in the last 22 years 92% of all new jobs created were in the informal sector and this employment crisis also translates into a low-wage crisis for Indian women. By coincidence, 92% of Indian working women also earn less than Rs.10,000 per month. About 40 lakh scheme workers working for the government earn not even one-third of this amount and Modi announced, without any shame, a meagre increase of Rs.1500 to take the total ‘honorarium’ to Rs.3000 to anganwadi workers, on whom he now wants to dump the full-time crèche work for the unorganised workers also, even while not recognising them as workers!

After 5 years, now Modi can boast of appointing India’s first woman finance minister. It is a different matter that Modi’s hands were forced regarding the choice of Nirmala Sitaraman due to acute paucity of talents in his council of ministers. Whatever it is, neither Modi nor Nirmala have opened their mouths on the crisis of Indian women yet. One of Modi’s favourite jumlas was that his government was for not merely ‘women’s development’ but he was for ‘women-led development’. But he never bothered to even reflect on how women could lead development if three out of every four Indian women are out of work for some reason or the other and if work participation of women is less than one-third that of men. Giving free gas ovens might fetch him votes but would not help women move out of their confinement to kitchens.

The BJP Election Manifesto declared that, “We would formulate a comprehensive ‘Women in Workforce’ roadmap focussed on dramatically increasing the female workforce participation rate over the next five years”. Will they walk their talk? Why they are not able to come up with any specific proposal? The Niti Aayog Chief lost no time to declare that 48 public sector units would be either privatised or closed down within the first 100 days of Modi Government 2.0. But there has not been a single specific announcement to increase work participation of women.

During the election campaign cacophony, the multiple warnings by numerous specialised agencies could have been lost in the din. In the election year itself, the CMIE, based on its surveys, showed that in a single year of 2018 alone women lost 8.8 million jobs—6.5 million in rural India and 2.3 million in urban India. Engineering dramatic election victories cannot make this acute gender dimension of the agrarian crisis vanish. Based on CMIE survey data, Prof. Amit Basole of the Centre for Sustainable Employment of Azim Premji University showed that in the five years of Modi’s first government, 50 million jobs were lost, and most of them since 2016–17, the demonetisation and GST years. Why not introduce a job-loss allowance of 80% of the last drawn wages for three years as being practiced in many countries in the West? Even Manmohan Singh offered Rs.1500 job-loss allowance for six months for workers who lost their jobs in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008–09. Only 5 million jobs were lost then but ten times more jobs were lost during Modi’s rule! But instead of expanding Manmohan’s offer, Modi just scrapped the scheme!

Resorting to very cheap tactics, Modi Government suppressed release of the Periodic Labour Force Survey report of the NSSO in January this year as its findings that Indian unemployment had hit the highest in 40 years was a politically explosive bombshell that landed just three months before the elections. Modi’s minions in Niti Aayog argued that the report was withheld because the methodology followed was wrong. But they could not offer a single convincing counter to the irrefutable arguments marshalled by more than 200 leading economists of the country in a protest statement. Naturally, now that the elections are over, the Modi Government’s vassals in policy establishments had to eat a big humble pie and the blocked report had to be released in the beginning of June, without any change!

The report had even more shocking information on women’s unemployment. Among women who had completed secondary school education, the unemployment rate had shot up from 9.7% in 2011–2012 to 17.3% in 2017–2018 among rural women and for urban women from 4.0% to 19.8%. Perhaps, the Modi magic can only win elections but it is helpless in increasing job opportunities for women!

 BJP’s poll manifesto says that the new BJP government would source 10% of public procurement materials from MSMEs employing 50% women. Why limit it only to 10%? Why not declare first priority in all cases for such enterprises having 50% women employees? Repeated budgets of Modi Government were offering tax waivers to corporates to the tune of Rs.5–8 lakh crore year after year before an embarrassed Jaitley started hiding those revenue foregone numbers from the budget documents. Why not declare 50% tax waivers to all enterprises employing 50% women? The crisis can be solved at one stroke!

Women’s employment scenario is full of paradoxes: their educational levels are going up but labour force participation is declining, and working age population is increasing but labour force is falling. What about highly educated women tech workers? The global tech giant Google’s research wing Google’s Women Techmakers commissioned a study on women in Indian tech industry and released it in Bangalore on the occasion of the last International Women’s Day and the study found that women make up only 34% of Indian tech workforce, holding 40% of entry-level jobs, 30% middle-level jobs and only 10% senior-level roles. The study also listed numerous factors behind this gender bias in the tech sector. Women had to bear the brunt in the mini-IT crisis in 2017 and now the Global corporate consultancy firm McKinsey has come up with another alarming report in June this year that up to 12 million Indian women might lose jobs in India doe to automation in both tech industry as well as in manufacturing by 2030. What contingency plans Modi has to cushion this catastrophic tech impact on women?

Child care burden is mainly responsible for many women leaving the workforce and so also security concerns? Why it is beyond the capacity of the Modi Government to declare specific targets for crèche facilities for unorganised sector women and working women’s hostels in general. The BJP poll manifesto says that the childcare facilities would be increased by three fold. But what was its record in the first five years. Just because it bore the name of a deceased opposition leader, Modi Government mercilessly curtailed the Rajiv Gandhi National Creche Scheme 2006, introduced by Manmohan Singh, mainly to cover the unorganised sector women. Modi altered the 90:10 ratio of contributions from the Central and the State governments for the scheme and reduced Centre’s contribution to 60% and similarly curtailed the funds to NGOs running the scheme. Thousands of creches closed down and the scheme could not cover even 2% of the unorganised women workers. And now Modi proudly declares that his new government would triple the coverage! Why not declare a working women’s hostel and a crèche for every panchayat?

The 2017 Maternity Benefit Act was too late and too little to address the problem of women giving up jobs due to childbirth and child care. It was supposed to cover only 8% of the Indian organised sector workforce and left out 92% of the unorganised and informal workers. Why not transfer Rs.60,000 to the bank account of every unorganised sector working woman who has delivered a child as the equivalent of six-month wages? And why penalise women for begetting a third child by restricting maternity benefit only to the first two children?

Commuting is a severe problem for working women and school girls. Nitish Kumar followed Jayalalithaa’s model of giving free bicycles to school girls and drastically brought down drop-out rate among school girls. But the BJP which was thumping its chest for ruling 15 States in India failed to extend the successful experiment of their own ally in other BJP-ruled States. Recently, Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal allowed free travel for women in Delhi Metro and bus services, which was a very radical move to increase work participation of women. But instead of emulating the move in the States ruled by them, the BJP could only ridicule the move as vote-catching exercise. A prominent English TV channel which also brings out a widely read English magazine and which is now unabashedly pro-BJP thought it fit to bring some elite women before the cameras only to condemn Kejriwal’s move to provide free transport as an “insult to women”!

The Congress-led State government in Karnataka first declared in December 2018 that girls in the State would get free education in government educational institutions up to postgraduate level and then the Rajasthan government followed suit in January this year, and since then Punjab government has also made a similar announcement. Despite Modi’s high-flown Beti Padao! slogan, why are the BJP-led State governments not coming forward to emulate this and even declare that they would bear the educational cost for girls even if they study in private schools? Sadly, when it comes to women’s welfare, even the usual jumlas of Modi are missing!

 The nature of democracy is such that an overwhelming vote need not necessarily mean overwhelming support from the people. It could well be a desperate vote and perhaps the perceived absence of a viable alternative was at work. A few false steps could swing the political pendulum to the other extreme within a matter of a few days. Have we not seen impressive election victories turning into re-election tragedies in five years in recent Indian history!

Jun 27, 2019

Sivaraman. B. [email protected]

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