India imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world to contain the spread of Covid-19. This resulted in a near-complete shutdown of all economic activity in April 2020, with gradual and partial lifting of restrictions throughout the month of May. The obvious effect of this lockdown was a massive increase in unemployment.
According to data from Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)’s Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS), the average number of employed persons between March 2019 and March 2020, i.e. in the one year preceding the lockdown, was over 403 million (403,770,566). In April 2020, this number came down to a little over 282 million (282,203,804), which was a roughly 30 per cent drop. In other words, employment in April 2020 was 70 per cent of the average in the preceding year.
Globally, it is expected that in the Covid-19 pandemic, women are likely to be more vulnerable to losing their jobs compared to men. A research note from Citibank estimates that there are 220 million women employed in sectors that are potentially vulnerable to job cuts: of the 44 million workers in vulnerable sectors globally, 31 million women face potential job cuts, compared to 13 million men.
What would a similar picture for India reveal? Note that between 2004-5 and 2017-18, while the male-female gaps in educational attainment have narrowed considerably, gaps in labour force participation have widened. Female labour force participation rate, stubbornly and persistently low in India over decades, has declined precipitously over the last 15 years. Will the already widening gender gap in work participation and employment widen further due to the lockdown and recession? Are the women who are already in the labour force (a small and declining proportion of working age women) more vulnerable to job losses compared to men? Are the socioeconomically disadvantaged caste groups more vulnerable compared to the upper castes?
In a recent paper, I explore the gender and caste dimensions of the first job losses. Total employment for men was greater in the pre-lockdown year than for men, and more men lost jobs in the first month of lockdown than women. However, given the pre-existing gaps, to get a sense of relative losses, we can compare the number of people employed in April to the average for the previous year.
A comparison of this estimate for various groups (see chart) reveals that there are gender and caste disparities in the early lockdown-induced job losses, where women have suffered relatively more than men (rural women more than urban women) and Dalits (Scheduled Castes) suffered relatively more than upper castes, specifically rural Dalits. Rural women’s employment has suffered the maximum relative loss.
From this aggregate longer period picture, we can zoom in and focus specifically on the lockdown. CMIE household level data is longitudinal, i.e. it allows us to track the same set of households over time. I used the nationally representative sample of over 37,000 households sampled in April 2020 (post-lockdown) and compared their employment status to the last time they were surveyed, which was in November-December 2019 (pre-lockdown).
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This comparison enables us to generate precise estimates of the magnitude of job losses, as well as the relative importance of factors that shaped these job losses. This estimation reveals that men are more likely to be employed overall and the drop in male employment is greater than female by 17.6 percentage points.
However, women who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase were 23.5 percentage points less likely to be employed in the post-lockdown phase compared to men who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase. Male heads of household were 11.3 percentage points more likely to be employed in post-lockdown phase, compared to female heads of household who were employed in the pre-lockdown phase. The caste differences are smaller than the gender differences, but the lockdown affected employment of the SC-ST-OBC groups relatively more adversely compared to the higher ranked group of castes.
While women and Dalits have suffered disproportionately more job losses, risky, hazardous and stigmatized jobs are exclusively their preserve. All frontline health workers (ASHA, or Accredited Social Health Activists) are women; manual scavengers are exclusively Dalit. Thus, for several women and Dalits, the choice seems to be between unemployment and jobs that put them at risk of disease and infection and make them targets of vicious stigma.
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India’s economy has “suffered even more than most” as a result of the lockdown (The Economist, 2020). India’s growth rate has been faltering over the last six years, decelerating each year since 2016, to reach 3.1 percent in the first quarter of 2020 (January to March), just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit India. My study reveals that in addition to mounting overall unemployment, pre-existing inequalities along gender and caste lines are likely to get reinforced, unless the specific contours of disadvantage are recognised and addressed.
(Ashwini Deshpande is Professor of Economics, Ashoka University)
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