s the real issues of acute rural distress and rising unemployment in India seem to have given way to the narrative of narrow nationalism, one wonders whether women empowerment has been consigned to the dustbin of our political discourse. This has gained traction with the Womens’ Day falling March 8 and several reports clearly indicating widely pervasive gender injustice and inequality in all parts of the world. The just released Global Gender Gap (2018) report shows that India stands at 108 in the global ranking. Of particular concern are three issues: poor economic participation and opportunity, unsatisfactory record in health and survival and low political empowerment at the Assembly and parliamentary level.
The share of female workforce has come down in India from 34% (2006) to 26.8% (2018). This has been further exacerbated by loss of jobs of 8.8 million women during 2018, as per the report brought out by the CMIE. This report clearly underscores the fact that uneducated wage and farm women labourers in the rural area who are the most vulnerable sections. The NSSO report (68th round) also brings out how the percentage of unemployed women in rural area has gone up from 4.2% (2004-05) to 13.6% and in urban area from 14.9% to 27.2% during the same period.
India scores very poorly (147th rank) in terms of women’s health and survival sub index. The MMR per lakh remains at 174, though the 12th Plan’s target was to bring it down to 100. The most distressing aspect is the nutritional status of adolescent girls. As per the RSOC report (2013-14), around 43% of girls are severely thin.
The Gender Gap report also brings out how political empowerment remains the most troubled script for women, cutting across the countries. Barring Norway, which has a score of 56%, it’s as low as 16% for China. Bangladesh with a score of 52% scores over India (35.2%). India has a proud record in women franchise, which they received as early as in 1935. The Constitution enjoins upon the state to make special prevision for women 33% reservation in panchayats for women. The experience, 27 years, later has been mixed with women sarpanches in some states like Rajasthan, Kerala, Maharashtra and Karnataka bringing out significant reforms in education, health, sanitation and drinking water availability.
Prof Steven Sinding has shown how reduction of fertility rate amongst women has a powerful impact on economic growth. Citing example of East Asia and South East Asia he has brought out, how these countries have achieved phenomenally high growth due to reduction in the total fertility rate from around 2.5% to around 1.3%. In fact in most of the developed countries the TFR varies between 1.5 and 1.7, while in India it remains at an abnormally high figure of 2.3. The demographic dividend that India seeks to harvest can become a demographic disaster, if maternal reproductive health care is not properly addressed.
The theme of Womens’ Day this year is “Balance for the Better”. The Beijing Conference in 1995 had underscored the importance of education and training of women and containing violence against women. It also called for gender mainstreaming and adapting gender budgeting to address the concerns of women specific programmes. India introduced Gender Budget in 2005-06. The allocation has, however, remained stagnant around 5%. Most studies clearly show that the gender budget cells in various ministries have become dysfunctional and there is lack of proper coordination between Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Women and Child Development. Women are not involved in the planning process and Budget preparation. According to Prof Yamini Mishra, lack of political will and priority to pursue women specific programmes is affecting the process of closing the gender gap injustice.
The political dispensation at the centre is high on rhetoric and very poor on achievement. Schemes like ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ carry a paltry allocation of Rs 280 crore! The National Crèche Mission scheme for working mothers is languishing, as utilisation of fund was Rs 65 crore as against allocation of Rs 200 crore during 2017-18. The Maternity Benefit Scheme (Rs 6,000 per mother), which requires Rs 24,000 crore for all India coverage, receives a paltry sum of Rs 2,400 crore, covering only 10% of such mothers. The Parliamentary Standing Committee has recommended that the scheme should be universal. The Ujjawala Scheme, a pioneering scheme to provide smoke free fuel connection to poor rural women witnesses that 50% of the beneficiaries have not availed of a repeat cylinder. This is due to their incapability to buy; due to poor earning opportunity.
In contrast, Odisha has been a pioneer in ensuring high political empowerment amongst women. It has been the first state to increase the reservation for women in panchayat from 33% to 50% (2011). Further, it has recently announced to 33% reservation to the women for the state Assembly and parliamentary seats. This is a sharp contrast to the 108th amendment for providing 33% reservation to women in Parliament, which has been gathering dust due to infighting amongst political parties to provide further reservation to OBC women. The Government of Odisha has also unveiled a number of schemes like Mission Shakit, Mamata, promoting girl’s education, loans at 1% interest for education, hostel accommodation for 5 lakh tribal girl children.
The UNO has identified this year’s theme as ‘Think Equal, Build Smart and Innovate for Change’. Karl Marx had written in ‘Critique of Political Economy’ that “it is not the social consciousness of men that determines their being; on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness”. Bereft of adequate political empowerment, hamstrung by poor reproductive health and dwindling engagement in the labour market, the social consciousness of women is characterized by an overwhelming sense of frustration. Odisha has been a trendsetter in mitigating hardship of poor women and politically empowering them. This must be replicated by all states and at the All India level. Meaningless rhetoric and tokenism for gender justice must be eschewed!
S N Misra and Sanjaya Kumar Ghadai