The promising Indian economy: a growth without women ?

Author : Chloé BLANCH.

Indeed, the Indian economy is very promising, not only because its growth is so strong that it has exceeded China’s, but mainly because its many weaknesses have been consolidated in recent years. From 2012 to 2014, its financial fragility, noticed through a 2-digit inflation and an increase in the current account deficit, worried the experts, but these two indicators have since then been reduced. Consequently, the sovereign rating given by Moody’s to India went up last November. India is therefore considered as the next 3rd largest economic power in the world for the 2030s by the Center for Economics and Business Research.

However, this economic development has been achieved in a context of great inequalities not only between poor and rich, but also between men and women. More surprisingly, India has managed to maintain its economic growth, despite what appears to be a low participation of women in economic development. First, this lack of women in economic activity is tangible because the Indian population is missing 63 million women, according to the 2018 economic survey of the Indian government.

Where does this demographic hiatus come from? It is mainly a result of the aggregation of Indian families’ individual strategies. This is primarily due to an endemic phenomenon of feticides, denounced by many local NGOs, but also by the Indian Supreme Court, despite the Pre-conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994, supposed to counter this problem. In fact, the birth of a boy is usually celebrated and is a source of pride while the birth of a girl is often considered as a burden by their family. Families especially want to avoid the financial burden of paying a substantial dowry to the future husband of their daughter. But perhaps more worryingly, for the same reasons, infanticide is also still practiced, especially in the poorest regions of India, according to the latest data from the government health survey about children from 0 to 4 years old.

The infant mortality rate for girls, according to the National Family Health Survey III, is thus multiplied by 1.5 when compared with boys’ mortality rate. In addition to infanticide, the health of girls but also of women is much more neglected than men’s health: girls are for example less vaccinated than boys, and Indian women are much more likely to die of cancer than men, which is contrary to the global trend. Female excess mortality is also explained by maternal mortality.

If the living conditions of women could be improved by obtaining a large enough salary of their own, they are also missing from the labor market, for reasons other than demographic ones.

Indeed, the Indian Economic Monitoring Center (CMIE), a think tank, notes an increase of 0.9 million in the rate of employed men, while the rate of employed women has decreased by 2.4 million. According to a 2017 World Bank report, women’s participation in the labor market fell from 34.8% to 27% in India over the past two decades. India is even positioned behind Saudi Arabia and many developing countries in terms of female employment. This trend is all the more astonishing as it has occurred in recent years, during one of the most economically prosperous periods for India.

How can this trend be explained, despite the traditional correlation between economic development and the improvement of women’s status?

Firstly, the place of women in families and in Indian society is a barrier for women seeking employment. It is obviously difficult to ignore the fact that women are sometimes still considered as minor by Indian society, as the Manou laws claim they are. Having a job, and even worse having a job with responsibilities, can be considered as a socially unacceptable behavior for a woman. According to a UNDP report, women would prefer to be employed as entrepreneurs for fear of not being considered legitimate. It is also a question of not interfering with the role that they endorse in the family: they have the obligation to carry out all the domestic tasks to look after their home. And these tasks can be quite time-consuming, like fetching wood and water. However, it should be noted that this figure can be partly explained by a strong disposition of women to leave their jobs for the benefit of family life, and not only by women who have never had a job.

Employed women in fact face many difficulties to thrive in their jobs. Indeed, in addition to the problem of their legitimacy in a work environment, they have difficulty accessing the labor market because they cannot move too far from home. The security problems for a woman on her own on the street or in transport are quite common. Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the horrifying cases of rapes in the streets or in public transport have been on the news in recent years.

As a result, women would contribute just 17% of the country’s GDP, which is well below the global average of 37%, according to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2015. This study also estimates the shortfall in this weak contribution: if women participated in the Indian economy as much as men, India would see its GDP increase by 60% or $ 2.9 trillion by 2025. Women would therefore seem to be the key to prosperity in India.

Their « low economic participation » should nevertheless be questioned. Indian statistical standards exclude domestic work, as most countries do, but also a part of women’s informal work. However, according to the new definition of worker of the International Labor Organization, which includes domestic chores, 85% of women should be considered as workers. It is therefore a trend for women to leave jobs paid for unpaid work but still contribute to the country’s economic activity, especially given the importance of the informal economy in India.

The issue of additional economic development in India is therefore found the stakes of female emancipation, but the latter must be achieved through a salary not just a job strictly speaking. However, without denying the impact of social norms on women’s employment in India, the issue of infrastructure development in India remains crucial for growth that includes women statistically, through participation in the formal economy, and financially, by raising their living conditions. It would seem that social norms would more easily accept formal economic activity by women, if infrastructures allowed it. In fact, a better network for electricity and water would greatly reduce women’s obligations to the home.

India still faces major challenges, notably an irreversible demographic gap, but since the many government reports do not deny these problems but rather seek to resolve them, it would seem that this country is ready for a new kind of economic growth, this time with and for women.

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