Gender equality and the NDA paradox

Now that the annual PR-driven excitement of Women’s Day is over, the impending Lok Sabha elections offer an opportunity to assess this regime’s record on gender equality. Key macro-data highlights a curious paradox of the Narendra Modi government. Despite having a better quality of gender-oriented policies than the predecessor United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the needle on gender equality has scarcely moved, and in some cases has reversed under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).


In December 2018, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index placed India at 108 out of 149 countries, the same as the year before. The more granular sub-rankings, however, showed a deterioration on all counts. For instance, in health and survival, its rank fell six point from 141 to 147 over the year (the third lowest in the world), in educational attainment rankings, from 139 to 142. Although not strictly comparable because the base is larger now, India stood at 87 out of 142 countries in the 2016 rankings, suggesting a significant and rapid deterioration.


Then, the National Sample Survey Organisation’s latest jobs survey showed a sharp fall in female labour force participation rate from 42.7 per cent in 2004-05 to 23.3 per cent in 2017-18.  Many theories have been advanced for this fall, which has been sharper than the labour participation rates for males in the same period (84 per cent to 75.8). Among them: Women are leaving the workforce to pursue higher education; or in some segments of society, the stigma against working women keeps them at home. The first explanation is plausible given the explosive growth in the number of women enrolling for higher education — from 1.2 million in 2010-11 to 17.4 million in 2017-18. On the second, it is inconceivable that attitudes would have regressed so drastically in a decade, that too when women are supposedly being better educated. The 45-year high in unemployment following demonetisation is probably a better explanation, highlighting the basic truth that gender equality is not just a matter of pandering to a narrow vote-bank. Such policies are important, but they need to be underwritten by sustained economic expansion too. 


In terms of women’s empowerment, the Modi government has, on the whole, been active and practical. In his first Independence Day address, the prime minister spoke eloquently against violence against women. His Ujjwala scheme for distributing subsidised cooking gas to poor households has been a success, as even critics will acknowledge, reducing housewives’ cooking chores and reducing exposure to coal fumes.


Mr Modi’s minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi has been energetically practical in promoting the rights of women in the workplace. In April last year, her ministry notified an increase in the maximum period of maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Then, noting a decrease in the recruitment of women on account of the longer maternity leave, she announced that the government would pay half the salary of the extended 14 weeks to women earning over Rs 15,000 a month in the public and private sector using excess funds from the labour welfare cess (this has not been notified yet). Ms Gandhi also inaugurated a website for women to register sexual harassment claims and was among those women ministers who pressured the junior foreign minister to resign following #metoo allegations against him.


Among the government’s misses the Triple Talaq law would figure. Though the NDA may have earned the gratitude of many Muslim women for moving to outlaw this egregious practice, the proviso for erring husbands to be imprisoned is unlikely to help the cause of their divorced spouses.


The United Progressive Alliance’s policies, on the other hand, were less inspiring and in some cases somewhat cynical. The Women’s Reservation Bill, which Rahul Gandhi is championing once again on the campaign trail, has proved a non-starter because most parties have, rightly, opposed it. Reserving 33 per cent of Lok Sabha seats for women is as pointless as the company law mandate for women’s representation on corporate boards, which has signally failed in its objective to galvanise women’s employment in the white-collar workplace.


It was the UPA that came up with the notion of a gender budgeting, a good idea that degenerated into a proforma exercise. After protests over a brutal gang rape in 2012 attracted national and international TV coverage, Parliament toughened laws against rape and passed a law on safety in the workplace from sexual harassment. In 2013, the finance minister also instituted a “Nirbhaya Fund” for protecting the dignity and safety of women and a Mahila Bank to extend loans to women. Of the two, the first does not appear to have achieved much: earlier this year, the Nirbhaya Fund proposer, P Chidambaram, complained about the use of the fund for building construction projects. As for the Bank, that merged for want of business into the State Bank of India in 2017. 


In 2014, a record 65.3 per cent of women turned out to vote, marginally behind the turnout for men. Latest Election Commission numbers suggest that they will turn out in even greater force this year —women account for more than half the new registrations. Will their aspirations be fulfilled in the next five years? As before, the answer lies in the economy, stupid.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel