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Want Growth? Focus On Women, Mr FM

20/03/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 7: A woman labour working at a construction site ahead of International Women's Day near India Gate on March 7, 2015 in New Delhi, India. International Women's Day (IWD), also called International Working Women's Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year. In different regions the focus of the celebrations ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women to a celebration for women's economic, political, and social achievements. (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Every year as Budget season creeps in, familiar discussions on the fiscal deficit, taxes and reforms begin, reach a crescendo as the government tables the Finance Bill and then fade away.

It wasn't different this year. And, like every year, the most critical priority area that needs structural reform -- the economic empowerment of women--was ignored.

This was surprising given Finance Minister Arun Jaitley's stated aim to push growth into double digits. It's unlikely that India will get there without expanding economic opportunities for women. The allocations to security funds and colleges in Budget 2015 will not be enough.

To be fair, the Narendra Modi government hasn't been the only one to treat the empowerment of women as an exercise in lip service.

An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report released in mid-November 2014 estimated that higher participation of women in the economy could add 1.5 to 2.4 percentage points to India's gross domestic product growth, providing an engine other than manufacturing and services.

This might well be a conservative estimate. Lakshmi Puri, then deputy executive director of UN Women, said in 2011 that India's growth rate could jump by 4.2 percentage points if women were given greater career opportunities.

"Higher participation of women in the economy could add 1.5 to 2.4 percentage points to India's gross domestic product growth, providing an engine other than manufacturing and services."

However, women's labour participation may be falling. Referring to government data, the OECD report said that working-age populations of men and women rose by 100 million between 2000 and 2012. But the number of women with jobs or seeking them grew by a mere 7 million. For men, the rise was close to 70 million.

A separate analysis of data from the 2011 census showed that only half as many urban women work as compared to their rural counterparts.

It's not as if women who work have great careers. The OECD report estimated that a third of them are unpaid and only 6% get benefits like maternity leave. There is also a dearth of female entrepreneurs.

There is one finding that seems counter-intuitive: better educated women and those from better off families are less likely to work. Literacy and affluence, it seems, tend to intensify the social barrier to women working.

In a paper titled 'India's Economy: The Other Half', published in 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Persis Khambatta, a fellow at the centre, and Karl Inderfurth, former US assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, said almost half of all women stop working before they reach the middle of their careers. Blame it on even the well-educated among us clinging to traditional views of women's roles.

"India could use information technology to leapfrog over patriarchal hurdles by delivering education and skills training--a buzzword in the Modi government--to women."

Could it be that social status rises with women being restricted to the home? The answer is all around you.

Among Brazil, Russia, India and China--the BRICS-- India has the lowest female participation in the workforce. In fact, even Somalia and Bahrain do better.

Studies abound on India's dismal record. The World Economic Forum (WEF) placed India in the 112th position in a list of 134 countries in its 'Global Gender Gap Index 2010', which analysed gender-based disparities and how equitably income, resources and opportunities are distributed between men and women.The report warned that that "persistent health, education and economic participation gaps will be detrimental to (the country's) growth".

Klaus Schwab, WEF founder, said: "Low gender gaps are directly correlated with high economic competitiveness. Women and girls must be treated equally if a country is to grow and prosper."

India could use information technology to leapfrog over patriarchal hurdles by delivering education and skills training--a buzzword in the Modi government--to women.

Vocational skills, when imparted, work. The Self-Employed Women's Association, for instance, has successfully awakened the entrepreneurial spirit in scores of women.

Lack of sanitation infrastructure and security have been correctly identified as economic blockages. A strong governmental push for rural infrastructure--roads, toilets, water lines--would mean women can travel safely and don't have to answer the call of nature in the open, which leaves them vulnerable to sexual predators. The government seems to recognise this and it is an important part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Initiative).

Could job quotas help? India has been big on quotas for various communities irrespective of the beneficiaries' economic situation. While quotas are anathema to most economists, could they be applied for women through well-framed parameters focused on the beneficiaries' financial state? It's worth a debate.

Whichever route India chooses, it's unlikely to succeed without a change in the societal mindset. On that front, a Budget scope's can be limited. Empowerment and opportunity can, however, be potent tools.

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