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India’s budget needs to address gender inequity in employment

The country can’t expect to be a superpower with gender disparities worsening the way they are

The latest bulletins from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) present a dismal picture. The calamitous fall in employment in April 2020 was followed by a partial recovery in May and June, but the recovery tapered off by September. October and November saw declines again. This slowdown in economic activity can be seen in other indicators such as electricity generation or two-wheeler demand in November. As the employment recovery stopped and household incomes declined, consumer sentiment nosedived.

The economic shock of covid continues to batter the Indian economy, which was already in a slowdown before the pandemic hit. The initial months of unlocking appeared to provide some succour, but the relief was short-lived.

Contrary to what many believe, the pandemic has not been a great leveller; both the disease as well as the economic shock have hit some sections harder than others, exposing pre-existing fault-lines. One of these inequalities is the gender gap in paid and unpaid work.

According to CMIE data, male employment in August was 98%, and female employment was 91%, of the respective pre-pandemic averages. My estimates show that accounting for previous employment, women were 9.5 percentage points less likely than men to be employed in August 2020, compared to August 2019.

This August, it looked like employment was on track to make a ‘full recovery’ to pre-pandemic levels, already marked though these were by high unemployment and substantial male-female gaps. Instead, we have seen a clear drop in women’s employment from August to November 2020. CMIE data shows that urban women have borne the brunt of this drop. This is particularly worrisome because so far data from other national data-sets, such as the National Sample Survey, has revealed that India’s decline in women’s labour force participation rates over the last 15 years has been in rural areas, not urban. If the pandemic-led recession has led to a fall in urban rates, which were already lower than rural, it makes a bad situation worse.

CMIE data also shows that younger women, in their early 20s, have been particularly hurt. This is the second time in recent years that their employment fell sharply. The last time was in 2017, due to the economic shock of demonetization.

Gender differences in time spent on unpaid work are ubiquitous: everywhere in the world, women spend much more time than men on domestic chores and care work, including childcare. But India has among the most unequal gender divisions; women spend up to 10 times more time on housework compared to men.

The first month of the lockdown was marked by an absence of domestic help, integral to the lifestyles of many families. Data suggest that men increased hours spent on housework in this extraordinary situation. Did the pattern persist with ‘unlock’ as domestic helps returned to work, and men to their paid jobs? My estimates reveal that these green shoots of gender equality did not get further enhanced in August.

Increase demand for women’s work: Despite the presence of two strong preconditions for women’s participation in paid work— falling fertility and rapidly rising female education levels—Indian female labour force participation has registered a decline. While some believe that this represents a willing dropping out, i.e. women unwilling to work despite opportunities, evidence suggests alternative explanations.

Several surveys have documented an unmet demand for paid work by women. Women want to work, but are hampered by a combination of factors. One, they need work commensurate with their rising educational qualifications; two, they need conducive conditions (transportation, toilets, regularity), and three, they have to balance the pressures of domestic chores.

The government must commit resources to enable job creation, raise spending significantly to cushion falling incomes and increase consumption demand. Supply-side measures such as loan waivers or lower interest rates will not boost investment unless producers are optimistic about being able to sell their output.

Will those with tenuous employment and declining incomes increase spending? No. The government’s top priority, especially in a time of crisis, should be to cushion the blow with the provision of cash and in-kind transfers. Plus, special measures to boost demand for women’s work and concerted support to women’s self-employment and livelihood-generating activities need to be taken. Increased financial allocation to the rural employment guarantee scheme is necessary but not sufficient, as it would exclude urban women. Also, women with high levels of education need jobs commensurate with their qualifications.

Every crisis offers an opportunity. India can’t aspire to be a global superpower with gender inequalities that are worsening over time. If the government is indeed committed to gender equality, the budget is an excellent opportunity to back that intent with resources.

Ashwini Deshpande is professor of economics at Ashoka University

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