Unless there is a quantum jump in the expenditure on (quality) education and a massive generation of productive employment, the youth and the poor will remain marginalised and excluded.
India's Union Budget for 2024-25 was significant on two counts: (1) the government highlighted the achievements of this government in the past decades and (2) it presented a broad approach to India as a developed country in case the party is returned to power in the forthcoming elections.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman started her speech with bombastic claims of a “profound positive transformation of the Indian economy in the last ten years”, with “social inclusivity through coverage of all strata of society” and “geographical inclusivity through the development of all regions in the country”. This too rosy a picture of our economy is factually incorrect in most ways: The claim of the Niti Aayog that Multi-Dimensional Poverty declined during the economic slowdown has been refuted by many experts, who have shown that the poverty has increased!
The decline in the headcount ratio of poverty claimed by the FM is also incorrect; as no consumption expenditure data is available since 2011-12 (you cannot compute the headcount poverty ratio without data on consumption expenditure). The claim that the increase in women’s participation in the labour market reflects their empowerment is factually incorrect, as this increase is mainly in their self-employment and this means increased vulnerability of women in the Indian economy. The pandemic was not at all handled satisfactorily by the government firstly, beginning with the sudden thoughtless lockdown that made thousands of poor helpless migrants walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes, and many other missteps, including the severe shortage of oxygen cylinders when they were needed the most. Finally, the performance on the employment front also has not been good. A majority of the claims made by the government are thus contested.
GDP-centric strategy won't help
The focus of the budget is on the poor, youth, women and the farmer, which is desirable. However, the details of the budget do not reflect this focus. It is important to note that the overall GDP-centric strategy of the government will not help these four sectors automatically. The poor and youth particularly need an employment-centric strategy that is strongly backed by education and skill formation. The generation of productive employment on a massive scale is a sure way of reaching inclusive growth. With 79% literacy (21% illiteracy) and about 30-35% population educated up to the secondary level, the Indian workforce is just not capable of participating in the mainstream growth process.
Unless there is a quantum jump in the expenditure on (quality) education and a massive generation of productive employment, the youth and the poor will remain marginalised and excluded. Incidentally, free food grains to 800 people (almost 60% of the population) is also charity, a freebie. The generation of productive employment is a far better alternative.
The concept of women’s empowerment is rather complex to understand. The roots of women’s disempowerment and their subordination lie in patriarchy. Women’s overall low participation rate and their inferior status in the labour market arises from the patriarchal division of labour under which women are responsible for the unpaid domestic work and unpaid care of the child, the old, sick and disabled in the family and are also restricted in the labour market by several patriarchal norms. The division of labour at the household level allows men the role of breadwinners for the family, and women to be homemakers. That is, women carry the responsibility of household upkeep (cleaning, washing, cooking etc. for the family) and for providing care to the child, old, sick and disabled in the household. Even when there is hired help, it is the woman of the household who is responsible for household upkeep and care.
Consequently, women either do not enter the labour market or they enter it with domestic responsibility on their shoulders. That is, gender inequality in the labour market starts right at the entrance of the labour market. With lower human capital and restricted mobility in the labour market, thanks to patriarchal norms, their choice in the labour market is also gendered. That is, they prefer to work closer to home, prefer part-time or flexible work, and a safe environment at work; and they are usually overcrowded in stereotyped low-productivity jobs. In a traditional country like ours particularly, the woman’s status is usually that of subordination.
No policy to address women's constraints
If the government wants women to be empowered and also to enter the labour market, they will have to work first for the reduction of unpaid work. This can be ensured by improving technology (providing fuel-efficient stoves for cooking in place of primitive stoves using fuel wood); by providing infrastructural support to reduce unpaid work (for example, providing water supply at the doorstep); by shifting a part of unpaid work like child care, disabled care or care of the old to mainstream institutions. Part of the unpaid work can be provided by market institutions (that charge for child care and other care) or by civil society organisations. These steps will release women from the burden of unpaid work to a significant extent, and reduce their time stress to enable them to acquire new skills or to participate in productive work. To bring about gender equality in the labour market, the government will also have to take a quantum jump for improving the education and skill levels of women.
Unfortunately, the Government of India does not recognise the role of unpaid work and social norms in women’s subordination and women’s low participation and low status in the labour market. It has not formed any policy to address women’s real constraints. The government must understand that burdening women belonging to weaker sections with more work in the labour market without reducing their unpaid work is likely to hurt their empowerment.
As regards the strategy for moving our country to “Viksit Bharat” (A Developed India), a continuation of the same growth path will not help in achieving inclusive and all-pervasive development in the country. Sabka Saath (Development for All) will happen only when one takes care of the large lagging and marginalised sections of our population.
(The author is Director and Professor of Economics, Centre for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press.)