India’s Growth Story Needs Concrete Reforms and Policy Upgrades for Its Women

India’s female labour force participation rate has remained woefully low for decades. This trend has only declined.

8 min read
Hindi Female

International Women's Day (IWD) celebrated globally focuses on recognising women's social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. The United Nations has decided this year's theme as "Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress" – aimed at tackling economic disempowerment.

The campaign theme for the same year is "Inspire Inclusion." Through this campaign, the importance of diversity and empowerment in all aspects of society is emphasised. Also, it underscores the crucial role of inclusion in achieving gender equality.

How does this theme (and the significance of the day) measure up in the context of looking at and studying the socio-economic conditions of women (from an intersectional lens) in India today?


Over the last few years, a considerable amount of mainstream development thought has tried to focus on enabling a more gender-inclusive growth strategy for developing nations, especially for larger developing countries like India.

Indian political parties in a hot election season are now offering doles and cash handouts to women in the name of promoting Nari Shakti, in search of garnering the 'women vote’ without working on the more structural, systemic issues behind the lack of progress in gender-based performance for women.

For those aware of the nature of systemic issues affecting the exacerbated presence of gender inequality in/across India, it is about time that more than half of India’s population, whose under-representation of agency (voice) remains invisibilised in/across key social, economic developmental indicators, warrant greater (more assertive) policy emphasis.


On the Worsening Employment Scenario and Work Condition for Women

India’s FLFPR (female labour force participation rate) has remained woefully low for decades, but this trend has further declined during the last nine years of the Modi government.

As per the World Bank data, the LFPR in 2012 was observed to be at 27% which dropped to 22.9% in 2021. The recent Oxfam report argues that if India’s FLFP reaches the current Chinese levels, India’s GDP will be boosted by 27%. If it matches the level of participation of men in India, the GDP will rise by over 43%.

However, in 2022, the FLFPR increased to 23.9%.

Research from CEDA, Ashoka University on analysing PLFS (period labour force survey) data shows that this increase in labour force reporting can be attributed to an increase in women’s participation in the agricultural sector.

This is concerning as most women working in the agricultural sector are affected adversely by working in areas of low productivity, poorer wages, in some instances on unpaid, deeply exploitative work contracts.

India also has one of the largest proportions of female-based informal employment-population amongst the LMDCs (like minded developing countries) and the lowest levels of women entrepreneurs working in the organised, industrial space.

The hidden cost of the pandemic affecting women in the worst possible across different labour markets exposed the nature of the precarity of work experienced by women.

Our Centre for New Economics Studies, in its research, documented the nature of troubling scenarios experienced over the last three years by female domestic workers, daily-wage worker-based mazdoor mandis, ASHA workers, Anganwadis, nomadic communities, street vendors, et al amongst those occupied by the unsecured, unorganised, informal workspace.

Post the pandemic, women were observed to shift from salaried employment (with a less significant wage gap of 34%), to casual employment (where the wage gap here is 50%) and self-employment (wage gap here is 160%).

This signals an increased 'informalisation’ of work for women workers in the macro-employment scenario, which provides disturbing scenarios for increasing precarity of work and vulnerable livelihood conditions.

The persistent scale of gender inequality in India’s formal workforce has not only led to lesser participation of women in organised, growth-driving sectors of employment (say, manufacturing, services, transport, and communication, etc), but also affected structural and performative aspects of the economy (as argued before).

The trend reflects a desperate need amongst those women entering/returning to the workforce – due to lack of 'good jobs’ in the organised sector – are seen to be absorbed by the unorganised, informal space, often, at lower wages, and under much harsher, exploitative work conditions/contracts.

It’s also critical to highlight that most Indian women historically in both, rural and urban parts of the country – have worked in a highly precarious, vulnerable, informal (and unorganised) work landscape.

From tilling tirelessly as unpaid agricultural land workers to being occupied as street-side street vending to doing banned work of manual scavenging, women’s aggrieved condition in vulnerable employment has been part of a historical wrong that the Indian nation-state has been unable to correct or boldly address.

Mehrotra et al (2014) argue how rural women are in a more precarious condition, joining the workforce during times of economic crisis – as 'shock absorbers’– and exiting the workforce during high-growth periods (most growth-generating sectors have highly skewed male-female ratios, as seen since the 2003-04 and 2011-12).

This pattern hasn’t changed over the last nine years, and in fact, worsened.


An Unequal 'Deal' for Indian Women

There has been some attention given to analysing the unequal ‘deal’ women have got in years after the pro-market reforms of the early 1990s, which is evident in terms of female-male wage offerings, nature of employment contracts, education, skill opportunities, etc.

As per ILO (International Labour Organisation) reports from 2018, Indian women spend 297 minutes per day on unpaid care work as against 31 minutes by men, while in the case of paid work women spend only 160 minutes compared to 360 minutes by men.

This statistic points to the need to incorporate new concerns, besides the existing focus on childcare and job creation, on time-use surveys and women's time poverty.

There still remains far less mainstream discussion (and attention) on vital concerns stemming from the form and role of the 'care economy’, increasing 'unpaid work’ for women amongst other interconnected social factors (say, motherhood expectations), that have inhibited women’s preference for participation in 'paid’ work across states and allowing them to attain a more equal role in shaping India’s development story.

By ‘care economy’, one refers to the ways in which ‘care’ is regulated, financed, and provided by care providers (most often being women across age groups).

The critical role care plays in the development of children’s personalities (and education) and the medical care of the elderly makes it imperative to qualify this as a priority in the social and economic core policy of states in India.

In fact, in more developed countries within Western Europe and North America (Canada), governments play a crucial role in supporting the care economy, by investing in affordable access to a robust care infrastructure for children and the elderly (seen as care receivers or 'dependents’).


Motherhood Penalty

From a growth perspective, the requirement of a care infrastructure and studying a deeper functioning of the care economy in relation to women’s overall participation in the workforce may need to incorporate a time-endowment (time-availability) criterion.

This concept – time endowment – was earlier articulated by Gary Becker, who explained how there is a greater need to understand female labour supply (across sectors) through a lens that views the allocation and poverty of ‘time’ as reasons affecting female participation (and sustenance) across working spaces.

What this means is that the (social) expectation of a woman to take care of a child in the early years of the child’s age significantly affects her work time endowment on a day-to-day basis, in turn affecting her full-time work commitments.

One can perhaps acknowledge this added social (and economic) cost of being a care provider as a 'motherhood penalty’ – imposed in households where there is an expectation from women to be primary care providers of the child.

As a consequence, with lesser time endowment, women can allocate less time towards work (or education/skill-upgradation) significantly affects their work preferences over time too.

In India’s structure of employment, it has been observed how post the age of 30, owing to marriage or motherhood, a significant number of women (especially in urban areas) shift from full-time work to part-time (or casual) employment contracts. This has also been widely observed in cross-country studies in feminist literature.


On Women’s Reservation Bill and Other Government Policies

On the political representation spectrum, a lesser representation of women across the political, and policy decision-making arena, observable across different Union, State, and local level governing bodies has been a long-standing issue.

It was hoped that the current government pitching a 'reformist’ agenda would ensure (as promised in its manifesto), “33% reservation in parliamentary and state assemblies through a constitutional amendment” as part of a 14-year journey for the Bill.

Note how Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 1999-NDA government was keen to work towards this issue then, but couldn’t because of a lack of clear consensus, and mandate in Parliament.

On 21 September 2023, however, Indian legislators passed the first legislation considered in the country’s new Parliament building: the Women’s Reservation Bill, 2023.

The bill, which passed both houses of Parliament almost unanimously—with just two votes against—will ensure that women occupy at least 33 per cent of the seats in state legislative assemblies and the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.

However, the legislation is scheduled to come into force after India publishes its next census (which one doesn’t know of) the date for which has not been set. So, the implementation of the new law will remain stuck for further some time.

Earlier, not only did the Women’s reservation bill lapse once in 2014 and then again in 2019, but the BJP government (which brought the Bill to pass in 2023) has itself never come close to even giving out 33% women representation in the tickets offered to candidates for local, state, or national level elections.


Hindutva’s Paternalistic Lens Disenfranchises Women

The campaign Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter) launched in 2015 was aimed at preventing gender-biased sex selective elimination, ensuring the survival and protection of the girl child, and ensuring education and participation of the girl child.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development explicitly states that this campaign focuses on "challenging mindsets and deep-rooted patriarchy in the societal system”.

In the same year, PM Modi strongly endorsed a small grassroots campaign started in Haryana called #SelfieWithDaughter where fathers were asked to tweet photos with their daughters and subsequently asked to upload these to the Foundation website. This received widespread media coverage nationally and internationally.

Addressing the burden of care work for Nari Shakti to thrive remains key. The Hindutva lens reinforces the motherhood penalty for women without listening to their independent voices and needs.

A Bold Reimagination of a Feminist Growth Story

This author and Srivatsan Manivannan in a 2020 paper written for an edited book, examined the high degree of undeniable gendered occupational segregation in post-reform India.

We studied the severe lapse seen in India’s post-1990s female labour force participation rate, and the increase in the gender pay gap, all, revealing a direct connection to the masculinisation and feminisation of different labour categories.

The growth policy ecosystem has consequentially ignored the lack of importance attributed to the incredible magnitude of unpaid labour undertaken by women in/across sectors (especially in the unorganised, informal space).

Addressing India’s current challenges of wage stagnation, under-employment, and unemployment, and enabling the economy to grow in the future, not only depends on channelising investments in financially productive areas but also on increasing time-endowment for women to participate in ‘paid’ work opportunities while ensuring upward economic and social mobility over a sustained period.

(Deepanshu Mohan is Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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