Low female workforce participation is an intricate challenge of our time
Indias social self-knowledge is being stunted. Politics is hugely important and rightly so. Politics structures society. But the specific form of our politics seems to make it,even more than religion,a kind of opium: more a distraction that gets us high,than a deliberative exercise that confronts reality. There is little patience in understanding the delicate capillaries that nourish society. A perfect example of this was the passing over of what might turn out to be a very consequential debate for Indias future: the low rates of female workforce participation in India.
At a superficial level,the picture is dismal. India,globally,ranks eleventh from the bottom in female workforce participation; after hovering around the 30 per cent mark,the rate fell. Part of the problem seems to be,as most papers on the subject suggest,serious measurement errors. As a society,we are finding it hard to measure,and therefore,to measure up to ourselves. But even then,behind these numbers is a welter of social forces whose impact we need to understand.
Some of these changes were to be expected. Scholars like Jeemol Unni,Geeta Kingdon,Ravinder Kaur and Kunal Sen have analysed the drivers behind this phenomenon. There is the usual income effect: as incomes grow,participation declines. Klasen and Pieters,for example,argue that at lower levels of education,participation is driven by economic necessity; only at very high levels of education and income do pull factors dominate. The education effect females staying in school longer seems to be strong. The literature seems divided over discrimination effects,but even in studies that show some effect,once you control for other variables,the
effects do not seem very large.
But two large trends make the puzzle more intricate. Fertility rates are declining. Female participation in higher education has seen a revolutionary rise. In urban India,female enrolment is now slightly higher than male enrolment. In fact,there is a reverse puzzle waiting to be unpacked: a large proportion of the gains in the gross enrolment ratio in higher education has been the rise in female enrolment; male enrolment was stagnant for almost 20 years. These trends are the basis for the optimism expressed in a recent London School of Economics and Political Science working paper by Surjit Bhalla and Ravinder Kaur,that Indias female participation is poised for a big leap. But even their optimistic take leaves you wondering: gains in female enrolment in higher education are simply not being matched by commensurate increases in labour force participation. Given anecdotal evidence on female performance in education,the best human capital is not coming to the market.
This is where politics abridges a more complex social imagination. Whether you believe in strong intuitions of citizens or replace them with the weak correlations of social scientists,cracking this puzzle will require attending to a range of institutional issues like safety,social policies on maternity and social norms. Female labour participation will depend upon the perceived opportunity cost of working. This cost is measured in intricate ways. But it is not rocket science to conclude that it will,in part,be a function of the support systems available. But do we have the architecture of such a support system?
This is where the failure of a broader institutional thinking comes in. It is increasingly clear that for educated women,besides the standard cultural and job rigidity story,two issues are germane. First,child care. And second,which is being much less noticed is,as Anuradha Mathur argued,elderly care. More women are dropping out to care for parents. But the paradox of progress is that the burden of these demands will increase,rather than diminish,in years to come. First,child care has become more,rather than less,parent intensive. In effect,the more educated women now compensate for the massive failures of the school system by having to engage with childrens education. Second,elderly care is imposing increasing costs.
Our solutions in these areas have two models,neither fully workable. Reliance on family alone will disadvantage women; and that system is under stress anyway. Another solution is state provision,which we are a long way off from affording. But here is the catch. We are in a system where urban India does not even trust the state to provide elementary education. It will take a heroic turnaround in the credibility of the state for demanding educated parents to trust the state with their children. And there is virtually no institutionalised elderly care to speak of. The other model,which is our de facto model,is private provision. But there is a sense in which private provision is hugely expensive,because it is completely individualised,works only at the very highest income levels. So,between state failure and the prohibitive costs of market access in these areas,there is no easy solution to facilitate workforce participation.
In a limited way,government recognises this: programmes like MGNREGA provide cooperative child care. In keeping with the tradition that the family takes care of you,there are crèche programmes named after Rajiv Gandhi. But there is virtually nothing that will take care of future labour market needs in urban India. And if neither the state nor the market cut it,will the education gains easily translate into labour force participation?
There is another missing piece to this. For care structures to evolve in this area,you need models that combine some element of family participation for trust and accountability,some collective action to achieve more scale than individual provision,and some state support to ensure that the burden on individual families is low. For all its energy,our civil society also seems to be weak in throwing up institutional solutions to these problems. The low trust and lack of cooperation that doom the state also make the emergence of care cooperatives hard. There are occasional successes like SEWAs child care support through cooperatives,but that model cannot be replicated elsewhere. It is a fantasy,but imagine what the shape of our urban politics and economy would be if RWAs,instead of mobilising around building gates,found ways of running cooperatives that could mitigate some of these challenges. It is a fantasy,but imagine what would happen if the government,through zoning,facilitated the emergence of daycare cooperative around every corner: parents cooperatives as ubiquitous as Mother Dairies.
Our associational life is not linked to cooperation: it is the most radically individualised and privatised in the world. Female participation will find it harder to break through. It is here that a politics that is living in the past,so besotted
with simple-mindedness and surface dramas,is obscuring the intricate challenges of our times.
The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,
and a contributing editor for The Indian Express