Squandering the gender dividend -Sonalde Desai
It is a national tragedy that women unable to find work are dropping out of the labour force
If labour force survey data are to be believed, rural India is in the midst of a gender revolution in which nearly half the women who were in the workforce in 2004-5 had dropped out in 2017-18. The 61st round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) recorded 48.5% rural women above the age of 15 as being employed either as their major activity or as their subsidiary activity — but this number dropped to 23.7% in the recently released report of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS). Is this part of a massive transformation of rural lifestyles or are our surveys presenting a skewed picture? If this change is real, does it offer a cause for worry?
Before we turn to examining these changes, it is important to note that the drop in work participation by rural women is not sudden. The latest data from the PLFS simply continue a trend that was well in place by 2011-12. Worker to population ratio (WPR) for rural women aged 15 and above had dropped from 48.5% in 2004-5 to 35.2% in 2011-12, and then to 23.7% in 2017-18. In contrast, the WPR for urban women aged 15 and above declined only mildly, changing from 22.7% in 2004-5 to 19.5% in 2011-12, and to 18.2% in 2017-18.
One can view this drop in the rural female WPR both positively and negatively. If rising incomes lead households to decide that women’s time is better spent caring for home and children, that is their choice. However, if women are unable to find work in a crowded labour market, reflecting disguised unemployment, that is a national tragedy.
If the WPR is declining due to rising incomes, we would expect it to be located in richer households — households with higher monthly per capita expenditure and among women with higher education. A comparison of rural female WPRs between 2004-5 and 2017-18 does not suggest that the decline is located primarily among the privileged sections of the rural population. Between 2004-5 and 2017-18, women’s WPR declined from 30.6% to 16.5% for the poorest expenditure decile, and from 31.8% to 19.7% for the richest expenditure decile. More importantly, most of the decline in the WPR has taken place among women with low levels of education. For illiterate women, the WPR fell from 55% to 29.1% while that for women with secondary education fell from 30.5% to 15.6%.
This broad-based decline with somewhat higher concentration among the least educated and the poorest is consistent with the industries and occupations in which it has occurred. Decomposing the 24.8 percentage point decline in women’s WPR between 2004-5 and 2011-12, the decline in work on family farms and allied activities contributed the most (14.8 percentage points), followed by casual wage labour (8.9 percentage points) and in work on family enterprises in other industries (2.4 percentage points). These were counter-balanced by a 0.7 percentage point increase in regular salaried work and a 0.5 percentage point increase in engagement in public works programmes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Most of the decline — 23.1 percentage points out of 24.8 — came from reduced participation in agriculture and allied activities.
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