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A Country of Half-Nots

There is a contention that if women of India are allowed into the labour force as equal partners, India may reach the levels of China and Vietnam on the manufacturing scale. However, age-old religious restrictions may not allow this to ever happen in India.

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By Sujit Bhar

An interesting interview has surfaced in Article 14, a journal of legal, media and social ethics, in which Ashoka Mody, a former International Monetary Fund and World Bank economist, has argued against the GDP growth numbers craze that India has been under for quite a while. GDP, he feels, is a very inaccurate way of measuring a country’s health and overall growth. He has been critical of the policy principles accepted and implemented by Jawaharlal Nehru and somewhat continued by his daughter Indira Gandhi, and has also been critical of the current BJP aim of taking India to a $5 trillion economy as confused and says that the talk of this as an Indian Decade was mere “juvenile economics”.

The interviewer, Kavitha Iyer, has asked some pertinent questions regarding the economy and how we could get out of this situation and Mody has placed his bet squarely on the development, education and participation of women, directly and equally in the economic growth of the country. Rightly, Mody has argued about countries, including China, Vietnam and even Cambodia, accessing the growth model via a large-scale inclusion of women in the workforce. He says that the Indian model wasn’t development oriented, not focused to improve the fate of the common masses, but that it benefited only the top 5% of  the population.

Mody’s arguments have, time and again, circled around equal participation of women in the growth of the economy, and also the growth of the small scale industries that have huge employment potential, instead of “headline-grabbing” projects such as the Apple factory in Chennai. Mody pointed out that what the country is celebrating today is merely “superficial gloss”, and that when the dust settles on the post-Covid base effect, India’s much touted GDP growth would look closer to 4% or even 3%, and not the over 6%  that major international agencies are harping about today.

Frankly, the post-Covid base effect was something that had been talked about earlier, but quite conveniently forgotten later. When you see growth falling from 100 to 1, it is a fall of 99%, but when growth goes up from 1 to 2, the growth rate is 100%. That is the great fallacy of India’s “growth” story today. Mody’s assertion shows this up as plain obfuscation; obviously a political move.

Error of judgement

Whatever the other factors may be, Mody sticks to his incorporation of women in the workforce theory. It is here, maybe, that Mody has made a major error of judgment. It is not that equal participation of women will not boost India’s production and consumption curves, but the fact is that in order for that to happen, India will have to come out of its thousands of years of practice of Brahminical and patriarchal oppression of women in India.

Where Mody is entering is the no-no zone of Indian religious biases that, within the current degenerate social atmosphere, seems a Himalayan, if not an impossible task. This particular set of practices had been very well explained by Uma Chakravarti, in her article Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India, talking about gender, caste, class and state, in Economic & Political Weekly in 1995.

According to Chakravarti, “The general subordination of women assumed a particularly severe form in India through the powerful instrument of religious traditions which have shaped social practices. A marked feature of Hindu society is its legal sanction for an extreme expression of social stratification in which women and the lower castes have been subjected to humiliating conditions of existence.” 

Mody argues in the interview that “As women come into the workforce, they have fewer children, they adopt better child-rearing practices, and they devote greater resources to educating the children. The children therefore grow up to be more productive. That cycle perpetuates itself over generations.” In India, though, such thoughts come as a slap on the traditional practices of the country, especially as espoused by patriarchal Hinduism over thousands of years. When we realise that militant Hindutva forces are again ruling India today, we also have to realise that those age-old practices that subjugated women in Indian societies are back, and bent on perpetrating those practices. Even as China, Vietnam and Cambodia are ahead in absorbing women into the ranks of labour, India will not be able to get out of this stifling religious dreadlock.

The situation is very intricate. Says Chakravarti: “…a fundamental principle of Hindu social organisation is to construct a closed structure to preserve land, women, and ritual quality within it. The three are structurally linked and it is impossible to maintain all three without stringently organising female sexuality.” Women’s participation, in general, has been excluded from Raj Dharma, or from the wellbeing, ownership and growth of land. There have been honourable exceptions of great female warriors and queens, who have shaped societies in different ways, but there was absolutely no general acceptance of women in equal terms, simply to perpetuate this subjugation.

Social structures and strictures have been stringent within Hinduism, as in some other ancient religions too. What this leads to is a near complete absence of women from the work field. And when they do, like in rice plantation nurseries, they neither carry the right to land, nor do they have any say in what crop may be sown or how. Laws empowering women have stayed as fading ink marks on paper, with the generally incompetent and lethargic justice system of our country not willing to take up the cause of women in general terms. Changes have been expedited as far as criminal cases go, but on the social scale the law of the land remains weak.

Fate of the Women’s Reservation Bill

Think about the promise of filling up a third of Parliament with women. The Women’s Reservation Bill, was passed in Rajya Sabha in 2010, but as of December 2022, female representation in Parliament and most state legislatures across the country is below 15% with 19 state assemblies having less than 10% women lawmakers. Government data says that state legislatures which have more than 10% women lawmakers are Bihar (10.70), Chhattisgarh (14.44), Haryana (10), Jharkhand (12.35), Punjab (11.11), Rajasthan (12), Uttarakhand (11.43), Uttar Pradesh (11.66), West Bengal (13.70) and Delhi (11.43).

Providing such abysmal data, Law and Justice Minister Kiren Rijiju had said in Lok Sabha that Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu and Telangana have less than 10% women legislators. The recent Gujarat assembly elections threw up only 8.2% elected women representatives. In Himachal Pradesh, only one woman was elected.

Women MPs in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are at 14.94% and 14.05%, respectively. The average number of women MLAs in assemblies across the nation accounts for only 8%.

This is a period in history when the representation of women in parliament in New Zealand has crossed the 50% mark. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, New Zealand is among a half-dozen nations in the world that can claim at least 50% female representation in their parliament by 2022.

Globally, about 26% of lawmakers are women. In electoral representation, India has fallen several places in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global ranking of women’s parliamentary presence, from 117 after the 2014 election to 143 as of January 2020. India is currently behind Pakistan (106), Bangladesh (98) and Nepal (43) and ahead of Sri Lanka (182).

Riding a dream

Within this scenario, Mody’s arguments fail to hold water. While the legislature panders to the tastes of a few powerful lobbies that are almost all bereft of women, society as a whole is yet to realise the power of women that is being wasted within the suffocating walls of religious beliefs.

Those are the skewed sensibilities of today’s India, not quite unlike what it was thousands of years ago. We have been hearing of women’s empowerment from different angles, but when we consider the fate of half of this 1.4 billion-strong country, we realise that the women have never been in focus.

Mody’s contention is brave, yet fallacious. As long as religion has a say in our future, women of India will not be allowed to take up control and enjoy equal rights. This also means that women will never have an equal footing in jobs—by jobs, we mean blue collar and no-collar jobs—and this will also always be a country of half the population.

Of course, socialism looks a way out of this quagmire. But communism, or even socialism, as a concept, has failed economically around the globe. As an emerging economy, India needs the help of capitalist societies and biases, but without the shackles of religious obfuscations. How that can be made possible without social and political will is for anybody to guess.

—The author writes on legal, economic and corporate issues, apart from social commentary. He is Executive Editor at India Legal.

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