On July 5, Bina Agarwal, professor of development economics and environment, University of Manchester, was conferred with the Order of Agricultural Merit award, Government of France, 2017. In an interview with The Indian Express, she discusses various issues such as gender wage gap in rural sector, recent farmer protests and employment opportunities for women in manufacturing. Edited excerpts:
It is assumed that women are less productive in jobs than men, and therefore paying them lower wages is justified. Has this assumption changed in the past two decades?
Women’s lower wages have rather little to do with actual productivity and much to do with assumptions about their productivity. Although minimum wage legislation has moved towards gender parity, women still receive less than men, even for the same tasks, due to biased assumptions.
Earlier, even agricultural economists assumed that female labour is less productive than male labour, and converted female labour time to half of male labour time, with no justification. For my PhD thesis in the late 1970s, however, I found evidence from the Punjab Agricultural University, where they had tested potato digging equipment with women and men, which showed women to be several times more productive than men.
The gender wage gap has much to do with employers’ biased perceptions, women’s lower bargaining power, their responsibility for child care, and their clustering in the lower-paid segments of the labour market.
Can the government take any specific steps to reduce the gap in the rural informal sector?
Apart from specifying equal minimum wages, the government must provide women more job options. For instance, wherever MGNREGA has been effectively implemented, it has raised women’s wages, since the majority of MGNREGA workers are women. Enhancing rural women’s access to land and capital would also help increase their earnings.
The Chinese economic boom led to large-scale employment of women in manufacturing. Can the Centre take any steps to involve India’s rural female workforce in manufacturing?
First of all, we need manufacturing employment itself to grow, which is not the case at present. But manufacturing also requires a different kind of skill than farming. Most rural women are not trained for jobs outside farming. Of course their daughters, who are better educated, can potentially find employment outside farming, including in manufacturing. This is what happened in South-East Asia in the 1970s, and in China subsequently. Second, we need measures to help young women acquire the skills needed in the growing sectors.
One factor that the Chinese model worked was because rural women could shift to dormitories close to manufacturing centres. Is that model replicable here?
Dormitories would work in India as well. There is high demand for working women’s hostels in cities, but we have few, and hardly any in small towns. Safe accommodation would encourage girls to seek urban jobs. Currently, women’s safety is a big issue.
When it comes to women’s contribution in the economy, which sector do you see as playing a larger role?
Today, most women are still working in agriculture. So, we need to start there. Middle-aged rural women cannot move out easily. So, they need ways of increasing their earnings within farming. This means ensuring that they have access to land, inputs and technology. Rural self-help groups, which are in large number, can also provide the base for starting group enterprises, even group farming through land leasing, as done by Kerala under its Kudumbashree programme, which I am currently researching.
But we should also think inter-generationally. Younger educated women need unconventional options. For example, why don’t we train more women to be carpenters and plumbers? Construction is a growing sector which needs many layers of skills, not just laying bricks. Also we need other business models, such as joint start-ups by groups of women who could pool their skills and finances.
The Centre has set the target for universal LPG connection by 2019. Is this achievable and will it solve rural women’s health woes?
It is an unrealistic target. Firewood is still the single most important cooking fuel in rural India. It is still gathered by women from local forests and village commons. True, it is not a clean fuel, and women face serious health problems from ingesting cooking smoke. But can they suddenly switch to LPG? Do they have the right stoves? Can LPG be delivered reliably to their homes, even in remote areas? Can most rural households afford LPG? I believe not.
Despite high agriculture growth in recent years, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have seen farmer protests. Where are the things going wrong?
The reasons are complex, but an important one is the absence of jobs for rural youth who don’t want to farm. I wondered that the Madhya Pradesh agitation had so many young men in jeans and shirts. What farmers are asking for is not simply loan waivers but higher returns for themselves and employment for their children. This is not just an agricultural crisis but a rural crisis, of which jobless growth is a part. Also, when one state’s farmers get loan waivers, those in other states understandably ask—how about us? Ironically, we forget that most poor farmers don’t have formal credit anyway, so they gain nothing by the waivers.