Vol. XLIII No. 24 June 16, 2019
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Agrarian Distress and Signs of Old Patriarchal Economic Order

Archana Prasad

THE NSSO Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), 2017-2018 was released one day after the new government assumed office. It confirmed the earlier ‘leaked reports’ that the unemployment rate in the country had reached an all time high of 6.1 per cent. In fact the opposition campaign had been predicated on the fact that the fast track reforms and the pro-corporate policies of the government had unleashed an unprecedented employment crisis. Though the government denied these claims during its re-election campaign, their own report shows that there is unprecedented economic distress which is reflected in the complete collapse of any capacity of the economy to generate work, let alone decent work.

One of the most significant aspects of this report has been the continuing decline of women’s employment in both rural and urban areas. But what is evident is that worsening agrarian distress seems to be the driver of women’s unemployment. The total workforce in agriculture has come down by approximately 4.3 million persons, whereas the total workforce in the urban regions has reduced by approximately 1.3 million people. An estimated 6 million people lost their jobs or went out of the workforce between 2011-12 and 2017-18. Of these approximately 5.9 million were women workers. Rural women in the working age population who are not employed increased from 64.3 per cent in 2011-12 to 76.3 per cent in 2017-18, where as the working age women who were unemployed in the urban areas increased from 69.5 per cent in 2011-12 to 78 per cent. This means that there was a decline of employed women in the age group 15-59 years by 12 per cent in the rural areas and 8.5 per cent in the urban areas. This means that the number of non working women increased by approximately 3.9 million workers in the rural areas and about 0.42 million in the urban areas.  This means that more than 90 per cent of the women who lost work were from the urban regions. The urban female population women at a working age went up by 6.3 per cent whereas the urban male population in the working age went up by 2.3 per cent. Did working age women therefore shift from rural to urban regions in search of work?

The rural workforce data seems to suggest so as stated in the PLFS: “It is seen that in rural areas, during 2017-18 compared to 2011-12, the share of self-employed persons has increased by 3 percentage points among male workers while it decreased by nearly 2 percentage points for female workers. The share of regular wage/salaried employees in rural areas increased by nearly 4 percentage points among male workers and 5 percentage points among female workers during this period. The share of casual labour has decreased during this period among both male and female workers in rural areas by nearly 7 percentage points and 3 percentage points respectively” (PLFS p.62). In the urban areas female self-employment has declined by 8.1 per cent for women and 2 per cent for men.  The share of female regular workers in the urban areas increased by 9 per cent. These figures clearly repudiate the claims of the Modi led government that it has created lot of employment opportunities for self employment for women workers. But the data provided by the PLFS seems to be contrary to this. In fact in overall terms, the number of self-employed people has fallen and this is largely driven by the drastic falling rate of self-employment of women in urban and rural areas.

One of the main arguments given for declining female workforce participation rates is that women have become more educated and therefore sit out of the workforce for lack of decent employment. This argument can be examined by considering the unemployment rates amongst those who have education and those who do not. The data shows that this may be true to a large extent especially amongst urban women who are educated higher than the secondary level and many of whom were aged between 15 and 29 years, which constitutes about 32 per cent of the women’s labour force. The report also shows that work participation rates of women in all educational categories have declined even though the rate of decline amongst highly educated women may be slightly more than others. Thus, though it cannot be denied that education is a factor, perhaps economic distress trumps education as a driver of the employment crisis in India. This is largely because new jobs are not being created and the manufacturing and agricultural sectors are in big trouble.

Another indicator of agrarian and economic distress is the miniscule rise in nominal wage rates. For casual and public works in the rural regions, the average wage rate for men went up by Rs 118 in six years between 2011-12 and 2017-18 or less than Rs 20 per year. For women it went up by Rs 70 in the same period or  about Rs 12 per year. This not only showed that in real terms the wages probably declined. As the recent report Widening Gap (2019) by OXFAM India states urban female workers, the share of non-agricultural informal sector – unincorporated proprietary and partnership enterprises in areas such as manufacturing garments, paper, wood and straw products etc. – dropped sharply by 13.6 percentage points. The gender pay gap was 34 per cent in India, that is, women get 34 per cent less compared to men for performing the same job with same qualifications.

From the discussion above, it is quite clear that current economic and employment crisis been driven by the burgeoning agrarian distress that has reached its crescendo in the last five years. It is also driven by the lack of job creation in the non-agricultural sector and the creation of a large labour reserve of which women form a significant part. The question is whether the re-elected government has the motivation for tackling the crisis has revealed itself in a highly gendered fashion? If we look at the past record of the government its vision is centred around a traditional division of labour where women are conceived as ideal home makers or people who will be empowered to work from the home. The consolidation of social conservatism will probably not enable any significant social transformation that is required to help women to increase their mobility, enjoy a safe environment and work to better their creative potential. Hence New India is unlikely to find any space for women workers because it will strengthen and remould the old patriarchal family. Thus, the fight for right to work for the women of the country cannot be disassociated from the struggle against social and cultural conservatism that forms the ideological basis of the re-elected NDA sarkaar.