Female labour participation improved across most Indian states in 2018

Dhiraj travels from Meerut to Delhi every week to offer at-home beauty treatment to housewives in East Delhi apartments. This 32-year-old lady earns about Rs 12,000 a month, but her mother-in-law, a government school teacher in Meerut, objects to her travelling job. "She thinks I should try to get myself a school job like her. She expects me to wait at home and take care of my daughter, whom I leave with my sister," says Dhiraj.

Her mother-in-law's vision is shared by a majority of women across Delhi-NCR. Dhiraj's clientele of women from low-middle-class families staying in these East Delhi homes often comprises graduates who do not wish do a job as that would need them to venture out of homes.

Dhiraj is a rarity, if data on working women in NCR is anything to go by. Female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in Delhi, at an absurdly low 11.5 per cent in 2012-13, just inched up to 16.1 in October-December 2018. (The measurement patterns have changed somewhat — earlier the rural and urban areas were clubbed, but now only urban areas are considered — but the picture holds up). It would seem to add up to the despair around women's low LFPR. But that would not be entirely correct.

In just one calendar year, 2018, 14 of the 22 large Indian states saw women's LFPR rising. This means more women in more states are lining up for jobs than those confining themselves to their homes. LFPR is the segment of population currently employed or seeking employment. It excludes students, those engaged in household work, pensioners, recipients of remittances, those living on alms, and infirm or disabled persons. 

Haryana is one of the states where women's LFPR has climbed rapidly. A decade ago, female LFPR here was 15.4 per cent. But despite the supposed vicissitudes of demonetisation, it rose to 18 per cent in December 2018. It, in fact, jumped from 12.8 per cent just six months earlier. Equally surprising is Himachal Pradesh. A decade ago, the percentage was 56.6 per cent, and then it crashed to 15.1 per cent by 2015-16 without any clear reason. One might have imagined it would go further downhill from there. But in October-December 2018, the percentage recovered to 25.8 per cent. Similarly, the rate in Rajasthan has risen from 13.6 per cent to 15.1 per cent in just six months.


There has been a recovery in women's LFPR across most of India — in industrialised Maharashtra, as well as predominantly rural Odisha, Jharkhand and Punjab. But Dhiraj's Uttar Pradesh is not one of those states. Its rate, already one of the lowest at 11.4 in 2012-13, came down to 9.9 per cent by December 2018.

The data for South India are quite curious. In three South Indian states, women's LFPR has risen through 2018. But Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are exceptions. The supposed rationale for a drop in women's LFPR in these states is that those higher up on the education ladder have fared the worst for job losses. Yet, as government data show, some recovery has happened in Tamil Nadu, the situation in Kerala is almost unchanged, and there has been a drop in Andhra Pradesh, which ranks lower in education rate than the other two. It is the same data set that showed unemployment rising to a 45-year high.

Most curiously, while the April-December period has seen the national male LFPR staying flat at 73.6 per cent, female LFPR has risen from 18.8 per cent to 19.5 per cent. The trend flies against the logic of a tight labour market, which should hit women asymmetrically.

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No doubt that there has been a slowdown in the job market since 2012-13, even if one factors in the difference between the two sets of data. The former is rural plus urban while the latter is urban. LFPR for women in the years from 2012-13 to 2015-16 was 25 per cent for all states. The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) that put unemployment at a 45-year high shows women's LFPR at 19.5 per cent at the end of December 2018.

"It may be that we are measuring something which is not correct," says National Statistical Commission member Pulak Ghosh. The Commission, which was functioning without most members, has just got repopulated with three members, including Ghosh.

Ghosh has a point. Some of that data could be updates through the 7th National Economic Census, which has just begun in Tripura and Puducherry. It will roll across states till October. It is not meant to measure LFPR but the data to enumerate all economic establishments to create a National Statistical Business Register could shed some light on the nature of employment in India.

The female population in most states is aiming for jobs with a better status than Dhiraj's mobile beauty treatment business. At home, she is helping her three sisters study more to get jobs in the government as school teachers, even if those are contract ones. They are willing to wait at home to prepare for the exams.  

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