Abstract: Communalism, the actual and possible effects of economic reforms on women’s position, and the rising violence in our society have become problematic issues for the women’s movement. Many of these developments have roots in the past while some are new emanations. Feminist response to these issues has been more in the .form of a generalised anxiety rather than clear analysis and understanding of the nature of our polity and changes therein; the nature of economic reforms and how they have been carried out; policy shifts Al many areas and their impact on different sections of women; and importantly, where the movement’s energies should be spent. Past strategies have reached a dead end and recourse to legal remedies is not sufficient to bring about changes in the entrenched attitudes and values in society. Where does one go from here?
Keywords: Women’s Movement, economic reforms, democratic institutionalism, constitutional liberalism, development agents, gender relations, micro-credit
The 1990s have brought new and formidable challenges before the Women’s Movement and Women’s Studies. Our political space is diminishing with deteriorating electoral politics. The problem of governance has assumed ominous proportions. There are many issues that demand deliberation and attention in all our activities — in our research agendas, in our public debates, in our policy interventions and in orchestrating our collective strategies. We have to move away from a preoccupation with single issues. An effective civil society cannot retire from the vices of the state nor subsist on a diet of customised single issue activism” [Bajpai 2003]. First of all, we need an understanding of constraints that limit our effectiveness rather than bank upon yesterday’s utopias.
We all feel extreme disquiet at rising communalism, about the actual and possible effects of economic reforms on women’s position and about the rising violence in our society. Many of these developments have roots in the past while some arc new emanations. What one notices is that the feminist response has been more in the form of a generalised anxiety rather than clear analysis and understanding of: (a) the nature of our polity and changes therein,. (b) what economic reforms are all about and how they have been carried out; (c) what the policy shifts are in different areas; (d) how they affect different sections of women; and (c) where one should now spend one’s energies.
Within the Women’s Movement itself past strategies have- reached dead-end. Recourse to legal remedies is not sufficient to bring changes in entrenched attitudes and values in society. Shilpa Phadke looking at scholarly writings on the Women’s Movement emphasises how law as the main redressal mechanism has been dominant in our strategies for change. (Shilpa Phadke, “Thirty Years on: Women’s Studies Reflects on the Women’s Movement”) Hindutva has appropriated the language of feminism for different ends. Our earlier efforts to build broad solidarity have been drastically curtailed by Hindutva forces. We have to ask ourselves what has given strength to these regressive forces. It is not that these have suddenly descended on us. It is because we failed to anticipate, read portends and take action. To The Hindutva forces that have a strong ideology, a well formed committed cadre, our pale, amorphous secularism was no match. We underestimated their ideological reach and we discounted the strength of religious identities. We needed a more sustained grass roots activism to nurse our fledgling democracy, not only by women’s groups but by all professedly progressive organisations.
The extensive NGO-isation supported by international agencies has pushed in a niche concentration, replacing visible broad assertive struggles where women’s groups formed federations and were once very active. Most NGOs have become conduits for delivery of government programmes without independent, autonomous mobilisation of people. The National Alliance of People’s Movements formed after Beijing is too remote from the earlier decentralised, regional-level alliances of party wings and autonomous organisations. There are some exceptions. AIDWA and The Seven Sisters (a joint forum of women’s organisations), periodically voice dissent. But there is absence of former women’s conferences held all over the country, forging antes with grass roots women. NGOs no doubt do a lot of good work but they are small groups and their clientele tend to be restricted and fragmented; these do not really represent a constituency that can speak for people at large. There are exceptions like Sewa, Annapurna and Working Women’s Forum which have expanded their outreach, enlarged their area of work.’ 1 With job opportunities in the formal educational sector drying up, to many educated women (and men) the NGO offers a parallel career route. For many of them ng up documentation centres, publishing newsletters or journals and some der training sum up the list of activities that replace real grass roots mobilisation which had been more prominent in the 1980s. Like the ‘desks’ of pre-independence days, women’s organisations in the 1980s tried to carry the message of gender equality in districts and small towns with considerable missionary zeal. Perhaps the fact that the earlier advocacy by women’s groups on women’s issues plus the influential international interventions made the government adopt programmes and policies that were ostensibly designed to bring improvement made one complacent. The problem that while feminist rhetoric was echoed in high profile policy documents, r equality in day-to-day life was hardly touched upon in the actual lamentation of programmes. These women’s programmes promoted by the government often betrayed a limited understanding of women’s actual issues ‘real life problems. This prompts us to ask to what extent this institutionalising of the women’s agenda has really helped us. No one has looked at the proliferation of ‘gender training’ to find out what exactly is delivered here; what the methodology is; what concepts are used, who gives them. Gender as the new language has advantages as well as disadvantages — advantageous in so far as the term sounds neutral and less threatening but disadvantageous because it obscures the focus on women. In practice to most e and in most instances gender is collapsed back into ‘women’ and does not really address both sides of the equation. With the arrival of the no language of ‘empowerment’ the more explicit concern for equality is underplayed, bypassing the power equations between men and women in the family and outside. The exclusive focus on ‘women’ (which itself is problematic as they are not a homogeneous category) whether for poverty eradication of social development, which is precisely what we have been asking for, create other paradoxical situations when the underlying economic-social environment is ignored. For instance, women’s ‘economic empowerment’ in a situation of shrinking employment, declining primary sector, stagnant growth, has resulted in women assuming more and more responsibility for family upkeep tha substitutes for men’s responsibility. Other linguistic changes hide shifts it discourse that postpone and dilute feminist agendas. We now talk of bargaining of negotiation at individual household level rather than at a collective level. Though we speak of class/caste/religious intersection, the emphasis in discourse is on individual identification, how a woman negotiated barriers of poverty, of class or caste. Tragically, a growing, prosperous middle class is more self-absorbed and indifferent to the larger social order. Feminism emphasised the importance of an independent career for educated women in new occupations; in the new highly aggressive competitive situation, work and family are once again difficult to balance for women as well as men.
Institutionalising women’s studies in academia which we hailed as a radical measure to transform knowledge making, values and attitudes has failed to deliver for obvious reasons — it tried to fit in a radical agenda within an orthodoxy-ridden structure. Women’s Studies has come of age and the number of scholars and publications has increased enormously. However, one notices a clear shift in their research agenda — from grappling conceptually and empirically with contemporary development issues and feminist struggles to moving increasingly to ‘representation’ and postmodernist analysis of historical or contemporary texts or media representations. Intellectually stimulating maybe, but all this gives us little clue as to how to fight our daily battles of survival.
Our approach to the economic reforms is again a general negation without adequate study of specific sectors, of specific issues in a more detailed fashion. It sounds progressive to declare an ‘anti-liberalisation, anti ‘anti-globalisation’ stance without really comprehending reality, without pinpoint where the impact on women and men is severe, where it is beneficial, where there are new opportunities, where we have to move away from old strategies. We have to understand what the state can do, should do, what it cannot or should not do. In yesteryears we addressed all our advocacy to the state. Today, in the altered scenario, how should one move forward? I do not find much thinking along these lines in the current discourse. Sharmila Rege in her paper `More than Just Tacking Women on to the Macropicture’ : Feminist Contributions to Globalisation Discourses” makes sense of how feminists have theorised on globalisation. That is where our debate should begin.
Whether socialism in the form of state socialism serves the cause of socialism is raised by Gabriel Dietrich in her comprehensive essay on the loss of the socialist vision. She maps the contours of socialist experiments and their pathologies: Two great failures of the 20th century are (a) underdeveloped countries that strove for rapid industrialisation through a hierarchic system they called socialist, and (b) social democratic governments that tinkered with capitalism [Lebowitz 2001]. If the socialist goal is the association in which the development of each is the condition for the free development of all, then patriarchy, racism, imperialism and class/caste hierarchy arc not compatible with full development of human potential. There is a crying need to build Strong democratic institutions — democratic beyond elections and votes, towards instituting strong traditions of people’s rights and obligations as citizens rather (than forging group-identities and promoting norms and values that will uphold such institutions. We need institutions of constitutional liberalism where the individual’s right to life and property, freedom of religion and speech are accompanied by checks on the power of governments and equality before law is established through independent courts, tribunals and separation of religion and state [Zakaria 2003].
Higher education, long somnolent, is undergoing a crisis and has lost Its original rationale — of being the conscience-keeper, of imparting values, of ‘building a democratic, secular society, of inspiring the young towards original *linking, of initiating original research, of promoting informed., critical dissent the fundamental base on which knowledge and skills can grow. When the dice is crumbling where are the voices of the teaching community? We did not go further than a concern for girls going to school and failed to ask questions about what happens within the educational establishments and how they perpetuate inequalities. Teachers’ organisations in the last 56 years have rarely raised questions of curriculum, of autonomy of educational establishments, of ethics and accountability in teaching practice or of self-regulation. To a large extent our present impasse is due to our own sins of omission.
Changing Polity within Unchanging Frame
The present paper is set in the above context and tries to make some sense of our political economy on the basis of available literature. 2 It begins with how much of our past shapes our political life and why therefore new forms of political action are necessary. There have been many suggestions about how to reform our present system. The suggestions range from limiting of election expenses, state funding of elections, declaration of candidates’ assets, replacement of the first-past-the-post system by a proportional system or calculation of the percentage of votes received rather than the absolute number of votes and so on [Seminar 2003]. What ideas do women have on political reform? That to me have been preoccupied by representation in elective bodies within the existing system through the ‘bibi-beti brigade’, as Madhu Kishwar put it, is indeed a reality. Caste and identity based politics has meant extreme forms of group relativism, articulated in anti-modern ways without confronting the issue of accountability or commitment to truth claims or normative claims. Mayawati can do what she likes, ignore public accountability so long as she can bank on the dalit vote. Thus mainstreaming of marginalised sections into a larger polity is unrealised so long as the group identity keeps them trapped within the caste/religious identity [Rajan 2002, 2003]. The national movement indeed promoted political consciousness but our experience of the democratic process is patchy. A vastly illiterate population, voting directly to legislatures and parliament results in local issues being supplanted by simplistically perceived caste, religious, regional and personality factors without focusing attention on larger issues pertinent to higher levels of the political structure. In what way can a villager appraise decisions on foreign policy or macroeconomic issues? As some suggest, perhaps collegial voting at successive levels may be more advantageous than direct voting. Approximately a little more than half a thousand persons in the Lok Sabha represent our one billion population! The cost of our democracy exceeds the social returns to the citizens. The functioning of our parliament costs us Rs 17 lakh per hour, Rs 75 lakh per day. This excludes other perks — salaries, travel allowances, housing, free rail, air journeys and cars. With 540 political parties, 56 recognised in elections and huge numbers of ministers in the union and state governments, are matters of public interest debated with the seriousness they ought to be? In this medley, what is women’s political role? Women gaining formal .power may not in this institutional environment be effective in promoting their interests because effective participation requires a political environment to validate and respect modes of participation that uphold norms of public life. In such a situation women’s groups should spend more time on institutional capacity-building like, for example, the League of Women Voters or join organisations working for political reform. Something akin to this was attempted women’s organisations in Maharashtra during the last elections, to educate women regarding candidates and women’s voting responsibility. Training women for panchayat office is also being done. Given the nature of the political stem and the low political weight of the gender equity lobby, women face severe handicaps. They are not located visibly as a group nor are they structurally brought together in production like a class. While gender inequality affects all women, class, caste and ethnicity divide them. Additionally structural features such as lack of finance and lack of social resources are barriers. Thus women’s movements have low political leverage. Besides, gender equity concerns are more difficult to gain acceptance unlike interests of workers as a class because they evoke hostility. Relations between the sexes are seen as cooperative, loving, within the family, not open to bargaining. The success of enforcing constitutional guarantees of gender equity and making use of state d peoples’ resources for women’s development depends not only on individual women’s struggles but much more on women’s collective effort to bring institutional changes in civil society and politics. Can a critical resource me from the work of women development agents who are fighting their own struggles at home, bringing them into their work place, making the experience of their struggles bear on public policy as some argue? [Goetz 2001]. Can they be the bridge between the main sites of resistance — the family, community and the state? We do have some examples like the Bhanvari in Rajasthan where a development worker implementing the law against ‘child marriage faced punishment by the upper castes in a gang rape. Women’s groups rallied behind her for filing the case, and later appealed against the adverse court ruling by a public interest litigation. Today we do have many men development workers (and some Bhanvari Devis) who, given awareness backing, can build such bridges. 3 But it has to be a sustained programme building the capacity of such agents through concerted effort. We have seen many policies accepted at higher levels do not get implemented at lower levels. Most people in the villages have to pay bribes to lower-level government functionaries for receiving development funds allotted to panchayats. As important as influencing policy at national or state level is local intervention.
Apart from electoral politics and women’s role as development agents there are other problems in the way our polity has developed. Understanding this can remove our illusions about democracy and the state’s commitment to equality. Take the evolution of the public sphere in India. The imperial state confined within the legal domain only territorial matters, land relations, criminal laws, laws of contract and evidence. Hindu and Muslim laws were treated a covering persons not areas of jurisdiction” [Ali 2001]. As a result of this legacy post independence, the state was protector and protagonist of public interest but relegated matters such as kinship, religion and forms of community identity to the private and personal. Hence the resistance to any reform in this area.
Secondly what really is the concept of India as a nation? The ‘idea of India’ from pre-independence days did not have a unified vision. The national movement has many ideas of India and these are finding expression now. This moving passage from Ben Okri writing about Nigeria about the dawn of independence could well apply to us:
All those who dreamt the nation, created it as they dreamed it —all those who wanted their Gods to prevail, their tribes to rule, their ideas to become paramount, their ideologies to wield the lash, their vengence to be made manifest their enemies destroyed, their crop yields greater than others, their houses the biggest, their children the most powerful, their families the masters, their clans to gain the eternal ascendance of fame, their affiliations to rise the highest, their wars to be fought, their secret societies to gain the golden seat, their souls alone to know contentment, their mouths alone to taste the rich honeycomb of the land. They all created the nation as they dreamt. [Okri 1998]
The distorted development of democracy in India can be traced no only to imperialism but also to our long tradition of patrimony. Despite rhetoric authority does not wish to change the age-old rules of patrimony whatever its effect on equity or efficiency. Local notables are used as key intermediaries between formal authority and the people, funneling ‘prebends’ 4 to mutual clients through them. This means polity and decision makers are free to capricious support who best serve the authority’s interest at any particular time [Jacobs 1989]. One can support sugar barons in a time of fiscal crisis while teachers Oan languish or workers can starve because they are the ones who will deliver , the ‘prebends’ of votes. As we shall see later„ our reforms arc tainted with the lime patrimonial style though the market is supposed to be neutral. Devolution teal power to panchayats is stymied by the same tradition.
Coming to politics and women, in the foregoing context our concern extends beyond issues of representation for women and other marginalised sections. We must address a variety of policies that can involve public participation not just the explicitly political domain because we are not private duals but participants in a shared national life as members, who have a collective will as well as individual stake in the justice and humaneness of public arrangements. We have to create conditions for more informed standing and enlightened public discussion.
While the feminist perception that women’s lives historically or individually went unrecorded and that personal is political is valid, a heavy dependence on concrete testimony to arrive at collective understanding has dangers. The personal anecdote cannot replace critical arguments nor true scions take the place of engagement with ideas. In today’s context, the ton individual anecdote lends grist to the mill of the corporate sector to female or feminine self-involvement without political content — the of the individual ‘achieving’ woman. You do not roll a unitary boulder you try with others to assist in cutting and laying stones, designing a Lion [Rich 2001].
We also have problems with our own gender analysis when we think of For example, gendered division of labour and its accompanying relations r are inseparable but while it gains a political nuance it also takes on a quality of universality. As the word patriarchy becomes political and actionable it simultaneously becomes an abstraction. This approach pulls apart the concrete social organisation (class, caste, ethnicity, gender) making them separate oppressions and the social becomes additive rather than constitutive.
Our economy has a strong household production base where disaggregating by gender effects for policy advocacy becomes difficult even though we are aware of unequal gender relations; likewise the concrete embededness of caste/class/gender is difficult to address. These are issues that have not been dealt with in our analysis or discourses. The hyphen or the oblique does not resolve the problem — it only states the problem. For instance, in addressing how budget allocations benefit women vis-a-vis men, how do. we gauge the distribution of resources within the household without detailed field work every time? Can we answer questions like : if the government spends, so much on irrigation how much water do women get? How do we separate what is commonly shared and what is separate empirically?
Gender analysis in development suffers from another neglect. We have not addressed masculinity and what shapes it in our society. Understanding male subjectivity is central to understanding gender relations and effecting a transformative agenda. Only recently has some work begun here. Why is mal domination necessary for maleness? Why does it need a ‘dominated’? What are male insecurities? “There is a rather stark contrast in much gender analysis of development between the tender attention given to female subjectivities and the analytically crude cardboard cut-outs of pampered sons and patriarchs” [Jackson 1999].
Feminist approach to economic reforms is a blanket rejection. Let examine why reforms were necessary. Let us then see whether the reforms have indeed followed their own logic. Then proceed to see the impact. Where should we seek intervention? Do we really have any options? Let us examine whether there are new opportunities. This paper makes no claims to being able to do this through independent research but suggests through a few random illustrations the lines along which we can move. Between 1996 and early 2003 the Economic and Political Weekly alone carried 112 articles on reforms. There were three issues: (a) impact on poverty and employment; (b) social sect neglect and (c) incomplete reforms. There is a strong point of view that free trade (globalisation) stimulates growth by promoting efficiency and competition All these arguments have caveats. First of all ‘privatisation-liberalisation globalisation’ (PLC) are not of equal magnitude though most critics compound them as indistinguishable. Liberalisation in the sense of privatisation, removing controls on the local economy is compounded with globalisation mainly because they happened together, but they are two distinct events.
Were Reforms Necessary?
The main arguments given are about the fiscal crisis and balance payments problems and the conditionality imposed by IMF that fiscal burden should be reduced , state enterprises should be privatised and the economy should be opened (the stabilisationstnictural reform menu). Much has been said about SAP. If our argument for defending the previous regime is that it was socialist, then facts belie belief. If our defence is that it was necessary for promoting ‘development’ or even growth, the regime had failed in many ways. If it was expected to reduce poverty, the record was not impressive. Actually liberalisation had begun much earlier, in the 1980s under Rajiv Gandhi. It is not helpful to pose the question as one of slate versus market. Neither is good or bad in itself. What the state did or does and how it did is much more significant. Mere ownership by state is not socialism but whether it serves the cause of democracy and socialist goals — to whom the benefits go, who has access to decision-making power, in whose name authority is exercised. There is now fairly good agreement on how our state-dominated system had become dysfunctional. Economic growth had stagnated for well over four decades, so as to earn the sobriquet ‘Hindu rate of growth’ . The discretionary powers held by state functionaries were so wide-ranging, it led to corruption, stifled private initiative. Decisions were nontransparent and were not always in the real interest of society. The amount from state coffers spent on salaries of government employees both at the centre and the states was enormous.5 No doubt there were many good things done, in terms of building an industrial base and technological capability, For the first time in every village or nearby village there was a school but progress in primary education was slow. A large network of primary health care centres was built but public health services were poor. Antipoverty programmes were leaky buckets which did not result in improving employment or productivity. The approach was towards import substitution than building indigenous capability.
Reservation and protection encouraged inefficiency in the absence of investment in improving productivity. This was particularly counter-productive with regard to the small-scale sector. Because of its earlier protection it is now incapable of facing competition from the big companies. Some 843 products reserved for the SSE account for only 21 per cent of their output; 233 reserved items are not manufactured at all. Restrictions on private sector inhibited enterprise.
Land reforms were incomplete [Nadkarni 2002, Saleth 2001]. Tenancy reform led to reverse tenancy where richer landlords leased in land. Consolidation of holdings and improving productivity through other institutional reforms were not pursued. Coupled with population growth we have extremely small holdings and low productivity. The average size of land holdings declined from 0.32 hectares in 1988 to 0.23 now.
There were many snags in managing food policy. Minimum support price to farmers transferred income from urban consumers to rural farmers but in the process the ability of prices to function as triggers for resource allocation was curtailed. Input subsidies (to irrigation, power and fertilisers) lost their rationale. Efforts to cut subsidies by raising issue prices of publicly distributed grain hurt the poor in an economy where the bulk of farmers are net buyers of food. There is one view that many of these maladies were not endemic to the policies as such but were mismanaged because the imbalances that arose were caused by heavy defence expenditure, huge subsidies, enormous increase in bureaucracy and in their salaries and the deficit was met by borrowing thus escalating public debt [Acharya and Marjit 2000].
Were Reforms Done Right?
Admitting that reforms were necessary, did reforms proceed according to the logic of liberalisation? Successful reforms require deregulating prices and controls, liberalising trade and investment, promoting competition and efficiency, raising the rates of return on investment. This should attract foreign investment, bring advanced technology, increase productivity of capital, and lower capital-output ratio. All this should induce higher output, higher employment, and higher revenue through taxes. These resources can be used for social development and anti-poverty programmes.
Most observers agree that the reforms were badly designed, were ad hoc, 6 and distorted rather than smoothed structural reform. [Bagchi 1999]. First of all there was an overemphasis on one or two elements of reform —minimising the role of the state and exhibiting a touching faith that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) would come in a flood. FDI was allowed in sectors where it was not necessary or was harmful — in consumer products and in high profile domestic industries that were doing well like hotels, tourism real estate, non-bank finance [Sengupta 2001]. FDI has come more for taking over existing businesses than creating new capacities. Concessions to foreign companies are often discriminatory. It was more important to integrate the domestic market so that India becomes a single market [Hussain 1999].
There was a sequencing error. “We in this country tend to think of reforms as we do of domestic repairs: call a plumber to fix a leak, an electrician to deal with a misbehaving tube light, a mason to stop a leak. This is the thinking reflected in government announcements: there are labour reforms, and insurance reforms, all isolated stand-alone improvements” [Ashok Desai quoted in Dutta and Deodhar 200]]. Industries that boomed in early 1990s are languishing today. Industrial licensing was removed first and trade liberalisation came after. The result was industries were still focused on the domestic market. Earlier under a protective regime and a closed economy, one domestic industry created the market for another and so all sorts of industries grew — efficient or inefficient. This provided no incentive for improving technology. The present maladies, according to Desai, are not because of reforms in industry, trade and capital markets but because of not undertaking reforms in protection, exchange rate and infrastructure.
The basic problem ailing the Indian economy is low productivity and low growth in productivity across all sectors. Redefining the role of the government to improve governance was a priority. Development of infrastructure should have received importance but action here too was tardy. There was also too much focus only on the corporate sector. A recent study Points out that value added in the organised sector took place mainly in the small factories, not the large ones. In the unorganised sector value added actually went down [Unni, Lalitha and Umarani 2001]. The hundred or so companies have commanded a disproportionate amount of attention and largesse in policy. The share of the corporate sector in national income is only 12 to 14 per cent whereas small firms contribute more than 50 per cent in manufacturing and in services their share is more than 60 per cent. These firms are financed by private money markets, banks do not reach them. On the other hand, public sector banks write off over Rs 8,000 crore and the unpaid debts of companies total Rs 54,973 crore. More than 4.4 million tax returns are filed by non-salaried assessees. The dhoti clad, pan chewing illiterate are the wealth creators of our economy” [Vaidyanathan 2001]. Yet state governments despite being cash-strapped can give away crores to bail out MLA-owned sugar co-ops while teachers and workers do not get their pay. Patrimony continues. So much for a market economy. SSEs which need priority lending have had no proper policy. Mergers and acquisitions appear to be the preferred form rather than building
of new capacities or technological innovation by the corporate sector for brand advantage and market control. One of the premises of liberalisation <is that a competitive market economy will promote efficiency. How will this be achieved in such oligopolic structures?
As for labour reforms, only exit policy is talked about. Compensation led to bunching in some sectors like petty trade and auto-rickshaws. In industries which were dying, employment was trimmed by keeping new recruits out rather than by promoting early retirement pm 1992]. When public sector banks offered settlement that varied from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 10 lakh, 30 per cent staff opted for it; soon banks had to bolt their doors. But such handsome settlement was not available to ordinary workers in the organised sector. VRS does create problems — when senior mangers retire it leaves a vacuum in the decision-making cadre and increases work load for others.
The National Renewal Fund for retraining and compensation were tied to policies to encourage exit and privatisation but were non-functional due to resistance from public sector employees. In any case the amount is too insignificant to help organised labour. The Employment Generation Fund is not in operation at all. If small sector is neglected, the case is worse for the unorganised sector that generates 60 per cent of GDP, employs 350 million and includes 92 per cent of our working population. There has been very little policy initiative here. The bill for social security for this sector may provide a safety net but cannot help to upgrade skills and technology that will improve their employability and productivity. The new mantra of micro credit through self-help groups for micro enterprises in rural sector is subject to many qualifications. It is treated as a panacea for all problems — including promoting `empowerment’ of women. While it is a good initiative with potential, it cannot take the place of real developmental inputs — provision of infrastructure, marketing. skill up gradation etc. “It is improper conceptually and operationally to isolate the poor from the mainstream economy and hope to achieve a sustained improvement in their well-being over the years when the overall economic environment is constrained” [Shetty 2002]. Considering that 95 per cent of SHGs are women, this gesture of help will have limited benefit, given women’s many barriers in the labour market. Both state-led and NGO-led micro credit have shown some positive results. But they showed only a marginal change in employment, income or skills. Micro credit has failed to increase non-farm employment. The degree of accountability of NGOs remains vague with banks and NGOs exceeding interest rate fixed by RBI. Besides this many observers have pointed out that regional rural banks can easily undertake rural India’s credit needs, given proper directives.
There is the general belief that just by privatising efficiency will be achieved. There is no such evidence. The developing countries have weak law enforcement, thin capital markets, absence of mechanisms that can spur performance. Without some fundamental rules and safeguards, there is an institutional vacuum. It affects not just fairness and equity but also performance. Under such circumstances, private firms are not interested in maintaining the long term health of assets. A telling example is what happened to the textile industry under protection — failure to modernise led to its virtual demise. The state cannot wash its hands off by just privatising. Its regulatory functions will continue and are necessary for a market economy. Theoretically, the interface between the government and the rest of the economy is governed by an elaborate constitutional and legal framework. Government regulation of the non governmental sector is based on specific powers conferred by law and is exercised on the basis of rules and procedures. They are subject to challenge in courts as to their legitimacy. In reality the specific powers conferred by law are so wide ranging as to cover every aspect of the functioning of the private sector. Private firms that manage are those that set up an understanding (in terms of kick backs?) with the relevant government department or official. Enforcement machinery is yet to become clear and transparent, and effective in safeguarding public interests. We see repeated violations for example of environment standards to oblige builders. The revenue department of Maharashtra is amending the Tenancy Act to allow sale of agricultural land. Hitherto cultivators had to take government permission to sell land and had to give 50 per cent market value to the government. Now the amendment will gift land skirting cities to developers, providing a seal of legitimacy to developers usurping land. Ninety per cent tenants are too poor to have any say. Deregulation is welcome but could have been done more cautiously in some sensitive sectors like drugs, where the effect on prices affect the health sector badly.
Disinvestment of PSUs is another area where decisions have not been on the basis of either economic logic or transparency. In 1999-2000 the net worth of the central PSUs was Rs 1,61,000 crore. The net profit to net worth was 9 per cent in the same year. PSUs contribute one fourth of our GDP and 31 per cent of investment. It is not a matter of disinvestment for disinvestment sake but should be governed by some principles. Till recently, out of Rs 30,000. crore disinvestment already done, two thirds were by selling share to mutual funds, and to the public and workers. This has since been given up for a non transparent and partisan approach [Alagh 2003]. PSUs will have to continue in high tech areas and essential infrastructure. A more pertinent point is what the proceeds were used for — unfortunately most of it went to meet current revenue deficit and not for useful, socially relevant public investment.
Far from curtailing unproductive expenditure of the government as a corner stone of reform, there was no attempt at curbing such expenditure; in fact the opposite happened. The idea that cutting taxes would stimulate investment did not happen — the tax — GDP ratio on the contrary declined to levels lower than in the 1970s. Bureaucracy did not relax its archaic procedures and in fact corruption got more accentuated.
Subsidies continue. For example, subsidy on domestic cooking gas doubled during three years — from Rs 7,480 crore in 1997-98 to Rs 14,200 crore. When oil prices were ruling at $ 25 the subsidy on diesel was Rs 2,000 crore. The subsidy to power sector was Rs 40,000 crore supposedly for the farm sector. Rs 11,000 crore subsidy was offered to middle class consumers of electricity. The real interest rate to provident fund tripled since reforms. To him that hath shall be given? [Rajwade 2003].
The basic duty of the government to provide education, health, water sanitation, has been sidelined with reduced public outlay on these. Alternatives like education guarantee scheme, DPEP, non-formal education, etc, may cut costs but they do not reduce gender, class and caste disparities [Sadagopal 2003, Ramachandran 2002]. Human Development indicators are way below levels for a civilised society [Shariff 1999, Shariff and Ghosh 2000, Dreze and Sen 1996, Probe 1999]. Apart from social development even in terms of ensuring freedom of information to citizens, in a democracy, the government bill on Information is full of loopholes that deny this right [Wagle 2003]. Other regulatory laws like Biodiversity, Prasar Bharati, etc, vest powers in the government, which are discretionary and easily lead to commissions and kick backs. We need independent bodies for such regulation.
To cut the long story short, reforms were ad hoc and had distorted priorities. Bardhan, by no means a neo-liberal says “In India the government has become the largest charitable dispensary for sick firms. That to me does not help the cause of leftism or the cause of social justice because it does gross injustice to large numbers of unemployed” [Bardhan 2003]. One can instead think of wage subsidy. The economy has to be productive to pursue social justice. Bardhan makes this valid point: the opponents of liberalisation idealise the government and ignore the incentive problem in the government sector. We must consider the role of information, incentives, institutions, and political economy of the market. However there is much scope for egalitarian measures at micro level such as in credit, in technology, in health and in education.
The neo-liberals are far from happy that in the second phase of reforms, the government is dragging its feet in three areas held to be important: labour laws reform, disinvestment of PSUs and infrastructure development [Krueger 2003].
Impact of Reforms
Articles and books have appeared regularly on the economic reforms. From the fairly abundant literature that is available, the reforms have been Shown to have adverse effect on employment — firstly in an inability to increase employment and secondly in the deteriorating quality of employment. There is increased casualisation for both male and female workers in both urban and rural areas. Recent observations tell the story [Dev 2000, Sundaram 2001, thadda and Sahoo 2002 and Bhalla and Hazen 2003]. Most disquieting is the Stagnation in the rural sector. The contribution of agriculture to GDP has progressively declined since the late 1970s from about 44.8 per cent; it stands today at just a little over a quarter of GDP but its share of employment is still significant at 60.2 per cent. The annual rate of open unemployment may appear to be small but hides the fact that it fails to clear the backlog let alone take care of new entrants. Even open unemployment has been increasing in the last few years — the incidence of unemployment has risen from 1.6 per cent to 2.25 per nt. Productivity as well as employment in the secondary sector has declined. In other words employment elasticity has declined from 0.49 in 1978-83 to .005 in agriculture; for the same period in manufacturing it fell from 0.037 to [Bhalla and Hazell 2003[. It is only in the tertiary sector that it increased substantially. Of this let us not forget a large part is insecure, low return, unorganised sector. For females in rural areas subsidiary occupations and self-employment have declined while wage labour has increased. This phenomenon of jobless growth is the most serious outcome. Even the GDP growth rate has slowed after an initial spurt in the early years of the reforms [Bhalla and Hazel.l 2003]. The proportion of male workers in the primary sector was declining in the last 25 years but that too has slowed down while most female workers in the rural sector are now more dependent on the primary sector. Increase in employment was noticeable only in transport, storage, communication and construction but this was available predominantly to males. Whatever diversification has taken place is limited and has bypassed women. The increased wage gap between the educated and illiterate workers points further to the failure to reach schooling to all and this leaves women workers more handicapped.
Public sector has accounted for 70 per cent of organised sector employment. After reforms employment here grew only by 2 per cent per annum. The number of job-seekers in urban areas doubled between 1980-1990 — that is even before reforms. Many factories have shut down. Out of 3,000 units in Thane Belapur belt 1,600 have already closed. Many big companies like Proctor and Gamble, Jaycinth, Keasn Fertilisers, Mafatlal Engineering Pharmaceuticals have closed down. These may be due to foreign competition. It is very difficult to get precise data on how many jobs have been lost, how many companies have shut down, how many small scale units have closed, etc. We have no data at all on women workers in these units. Instead of focusing only on N SS data on poverty and employment at such aggregate level, we should assemble systematic data on each industry, collect genderwise data through diverse sources. Neither ASI nor CSO nor the Economic Survey gives these. Likewise we have no reliable data on mergers and acquisitions which increase monopoly power and market control. The idea of liberalisation is to promote internal competition not replace public monopoly by private monopoly.
There have appeared a steady stream of studies on the impact on poverty. To cite just a few: Roy 1997, Nagaraj 2000, Suryanarayana 1996, Sundaram 2001, Sundaram and Tendulkar 2003]. The consensus is that there is a distinct reduction in the absolute size of the poor (head count ratio). From 50 per cent in the 1950s, the weighted average for 15 states is 31.86 per cent, according to Sundaram and Tendulkar 2003 though official figures place it at 26 per cent However in poor states like Orissa, Assam and Madya Pradesh, there is a rise in the number of the poor. Most studies point to increasing inequality.
Poverty trends have been a matter of intense controversy especially about the defects of head count indices. Those on the margin of BPL if lifted will show up as decline in poverty ratio though many real poor are there.
Expenditure alone as a measure of poverty is a poor measure. Authors like Deaton and Dreze (2002) after making adjustments and matching them with independent measures (NSS, CSO, employment data, real wage increases, etc) conclude that sustained poverty decline in most states (10 per cent between 1993-94 and 1999-2000). But they note there is marked increase in inequality among states and between rural and urban areas. The better-off states have grown more rapidly. Where SDP is higher, poverty decline is better. Agricultural wages went up by 2.5 per cent but public sector salaries went up by 50 per cent. There is impoverishment in specific sectors such as the decline in powerlooms; textiles/textile products; edible oil and traditional fishing.
If there is no growth in real consumption in the 1990s and yet real GDP went up by 20 per cent, where did it all go? Wages have risen more than employment Other indicators of well being give a mixed picture. Reduction in infant mortality slowed down in IMR (1981: 110; 1990:80; 1999:70) male child mortality fell from 29.4 per cent to 24.9 per cent; female child mortality fell from 42M per cent to 36.7 per cent; there was slow change in life expectancy and shifts in causes of death from infections to organic diseases. Fertility fell from 3.39 per cent in 1992-98 to 2.85 in 1998-99. Literacy went up from 51.63 in 1991 to 65.38 in 2001 (males 75.96 per cent, females 54.28 per cent). School attendance for rural boys was 83.2 per cent and for rural females 75.1 per cent. In the age group 11-14, 61.6 per cent of girls dropped out of school. If we take the age group from 6-17 the dropout for rural boys was 10 per cent and rural girls 2 per cent. In the age 6-11 years 9 per cent boys and 25.7 per cent girls never went to school [Carsen 2002]. A recent report on CEO salaries makes us sit up — they earn crores of rupees per annum in the top few companies, including some IT companies. India today has more than 50,000 high net worth individuals whose financial assets are more than Its 1 crore. The number is increasing. Over 25,000 households have annual incomes of over Rs 50 lakh. And this is likely to double in the next few years. The rate of growth of rich holds is higher than that of middle income households [Das 2003]. It is said that it does not matter if there is inequality so long as the minimum is enhanced. This is not true. If relative wages are highly distorted, where financial and high tech services earn huge salaries, for the majority the incentive to work diminishes. Yes, it is market determined but it is also a distorted market. Money is power. Widening inequality is not good for democracy because wealth-holders wield more influence than the rest.
Competition has hit the small scale sector very badly through dereservation of many products. Reservation policy never helped the SSE. What was needed is support for strengthening technological upgrading, markets, credit; etc. In a labour surplus economy this is the only rational solution. The Chinese miracle was wrought by extensive support to SSEs. China is nearer to us than southeast Asia in terms of many geographical and demographic features.
In health we only focus on public expenditure. We must look at other things too like the decontrol of drugs. The government has removed 44 drugs from price control reducing the volume of drugs coming under price control from 38 per cent to 20 per cent. Drugs are purchased on the advice of doctors or chemists where market mechanisms are ineffective because companies do not sell directly to consumers but aggressively promote products through doctors. For 270 top drugs the price increase was 20 per cent for 44 per cent of them and for 5 per cent the increase was 40 per cent. This has made many drug prices shoot up. Health is also a matter of water, sanitation, environmental pollution. Here neither the industry that pollutes nor the government bodies have any responsibility. A TERI study shows that the national loss from pollution is 10 per cent of GDP and 2.5 million premature deaths take place every year.
Free movement of goods, services and capital is envisaged. For this purpose various restrictions are to be removed, tariff and non tariff barriers are to be reduced or eliminated. To what extent has India opened its economy to international trade?
Citing figures of imports and exports and reduction of tariffs, it is argued that we have not opened too much. Nayar quotes figures for 1998 [Nayar 2001]. In that year, tariffs were reduced from 47 per cent in 1988 to 24.20 per cent and quantitative restrictions were removed completely; FDI inflow was only 0.61 per cent of GDP; capital movements were relaxed but not completely. Exports had gone up to 11.3 per cent of GDP. Imports were still 13.7 per cent. The Indian economy by these standards is largely domestic oriented. However, the moot point is not the extent of openness but its impact on our economy due to the nature of international trade relations which are less than fair. There is no level playing field between subsidy driven macro enterprises of the first world and our micro enterprises functioning under poor infrastructure, low investment and high risk. More importantly the number of persons affected by free trade in agriculture should be a cause for worry. Some 90 million tons of milk is produced here by 90 million persons most of whom are women. In contrast 70 million tons of milk are produced in the US with barely 200,000 persons. Safeguarding the livelihood of our rural and urban poor cannot be sacrificed in our trade relations. [Technology is measured in the number of patents not in terms of whether they relate to basic human needs [Swaminathan 2001]. Our exports have fallen because of the way the EU and the US have employed rejections on the basis of anti-dumping procedures, special levies, sanitary phyto-sanitary sanctions, import licensing, variable levies, global quotas and seasonal quantitative restrictions. These have been applied against agricultural products, chemicals, footwear and engineering items. Yet markets in sugar, coffee, cotton and other commodities are distorted by subsidies of 300 billion dollars a year in the rich world. President Bush has given away billions of dollars to America’s farmers [Economist 2002]. The special interests of the US work heavily against reform in international trade reforms. Their policies have distorted allocation of resources in favour of private goods. While the US has benefited from the demand for dollars, poor countries pay a heavy price to obtain them. When goods from rich countries flow without restriction to poor countries, poor countries find it difficult to build their economies. This is true especially in agriculture. It is argued that cheap imports of food products will outweigh the benefit from exporting high value products. There are many s nags to this The assumption that supply response is price sensitive is fallacious. Indian farmers face non price constraints — lack of irrigation, poor transport, poor agricultural extension services. It is improvement in these factors that will help Indian agriculture more than liberalisation induced terms of trade. [ We must accept that what trade liberalisation does is removal of tariff / non tariff barriers but in no way does it guarantee perfect competition [Datta and Deodhar 2001]. On the other hand our aggregate support to farmers is much lower than permissible limits, so too on our exports. The problem really is market access clause by which the rich countries can dump cheap agricultural products produced in their countries at highly subsidised prices while our exports to them face all sorts of sanctions. There are serious issues here as to which sector will be affected and who among us will be hit most. If water and energy sector arc opened for EU one has to sec how it will hurt the poor and women. While Intellectual Property Rights are considered fit subject for WTO labour rights and human rights are not included except when it directly affects the rich countries. There is the recent protest in the west against out sourcing in the IT sector.
The crux of the problem is : it is not globalisation per se that we are against — there can be many gains from open trade — but the terms which are available to us. One can conclude this section by a quote from Sores (2002): We must abandon the unthinking pursuit of narrow self interest and give some thought to the future of humanity”.
That social good is best served by self interest is a travesty. Without some basic morality, human social order is not possible. Our staunchest protagonist of free trade, Bhagwati concludes that globalisation has to be governed by planning to unleash the capabilities of people to equip them to face competition. He too emphasises the need for strong institutional mechanisms to correct the deviations induced by haphazard actions. Only appropriate governance can ensure that institutions arc given the backing they require [Bhagwati 2003]. Democracy in the form of electoral politics only sets up pressures from groups that ultimately lead to illiberalism which we have found to our cost in reservation issues, communal accommodations and vote bank populism. There has to be ways to insulate decision-makers from such pressures in order to retain liberal values. Goals can be achieved only if society changes its social relations so that the objectives of democratic causes such as socialist, feminist, anti racist, environmentalist cohere and means and ends interpenetrate to achieve the desirable collective moral outcomes [Sen 1999].
What Can Be Done
If globalisation is no longer an option, areas where intervention is possible are in food policy, social security, productivity improving measures and putting more emphasis on social development, insisting on better governance, installing proper regulatory measures, negotiating better deals in international trade that safeguards national interest of all of which will help to increase growth in the economy.
Food for work has great potential if delivered well and where ‘work’ need not be ad hoc, manual labour only. All kinds of services can be attended to. We have been banking on ‘cheap labour’ but in today’s context it is costly labour, Education and skill upgradation of our labour force and policies that will increase employment are urgently needed. We need a new paradigm where peoples’ organisations can be encouraged and where basic public goods are given attention [Virani 2002]. Minimum support price can no longer serve the interests of the producer and the consumer. Food policy has to be distinguished from agricultural policy. Input subsidies cause distortion in use of resources. Food absorption depends on safe water, sanitation, health care. PDS has inherent costs — of procurement, storage, transport — is centralised, bureaucratic, and incapable of meeting distress situations in localised areas [Rao and Deshpande 2003]. Instead of PDS being totally confined to rice and wheat it should cover coarse cereals, legumes and staples that the poor consume, Grain trade could be liberalised Ramachandran 2002]. Targeted PDS is ineffective to help the poor. Efforts to improve the incomes of the poor will be a better alternative. In short, what affects the poor, what inhibits employment , what distorts .resource allocations, what reduces investment in human development affect women that much more [Ghosh 2003]. Most women are engaged in agriculture; if it stagnates women’s position deteriorates. Likewise in traditional household industry, declines in employment and returns have special impact on women because improvements in education and health are priorities for women. We need much more precise data than just inference. Some years ago efforts were made to reform the data systems to better capture women’s work. That task is ‘not complete — we have to identify our data needs to get more information on `the impact of reforms on women of different classes on men and women.
What we have argued is that it is not helpful for us women to simply `we are against globalisation-liberalisation’. At the moment we have no ‘,on. But we do have the possibility to (a) insist it does at least what under liberalisation the government was supposed to do: (b) ensure better governance better vigilance; (c) keep a careful watch over how regulatory functions are carried out and to see that they safeguard our real interests especially in international trade; and (d) see if alternative solutions even within the present p are possible. There are industries and occupations which can be encouraged to give more opportunities for women — coir, bamboo, food processing, cooking midday meals for school children, nurseries and dairying. We lack data on how women fare in these sectors and what they really need. Our greatest advantage is that we are a functioning democracy and we still have a free media and an active, concerned judiciary. Women can reinvigorate their organisations to make their voices heard. While what has been said about NGOs is true, in some ways today we do have many young persons who are dedicated to public causes and who are working in human rights, in rescue work and in peace activities. These are silver linings. Grass roots women’s petty producer organisations and workers’ associations can be promoted in a big way for gaining their rights as well as for setting up mutual aid, safety net, insurance and similar benefits. We do have some examples. Some years ago socialists were critical of organisations like SEWA and similar ones mobilising women for helping themselves and for not ‘challenging’ structures. These organisations have since moved far in their outreach (membership running into lakhs) and in promoting the welfare and bargaining strength of women, even if one may fault them for not being radical. Our left organisations on the other hand have lost interventionist initiatives. SHQs are another way where there is scope for promoting gender awareness. Politically panchayats despite their limitations are another space for women where, given support, women’s groups can exercise agency. Backing women’s agency should not mean adding only responsibility without increasing their authority and their entitlement, to productive resources especially land. We can encourage local .communities to demand better schools and rather than start alternative schools, assist in improving the quality of our public schools. There are some organisations that are doing this. Such initiatives can be multiplied. Law enforcement is something we should fight for. We can join movements for justice and equality.
Our research agenda must move to studies at greater depth. Debates on public issues must once again find women taking active part. There are pockets where local action has produced results. Somewhere, somehow we have to bring back the idealism that will inspire our young to work for a better -India.
1 The success story of the Bankura project is now decades old, One would like to know how the vibrant samitis are now doing after decades of existence.
2 The review is based mainly on well known journals like EPW and a few others. Newspaper articles often gave useful facts which the learned articles, based mainly on official secondary data, failed to do. As the purpose of this exercise is mainly to quickly map what we know, the paper has made no attempt at any original investigation. One finds the analysis — even in EPW — on the economic reforms very repetitive, asking the same questions and relying on the same data sources. There was hardly any attempt at filling critical gaps in our information on what was happening to different sectors, different social groups.
3 There are cases where the attempt by elected woman sarpanch to launch development work has faced resistance as in the case of for example, Sukhyabai in Amla Block, Betul district in Madhya Pradesh committed suicide. On the other hand, there is the trailblazing story of Ramratibai, a gond tribal and sarpanch of Chaupal Pavai in Sidhi district of MP who not only fought against corruption, but against dowry, alcoholism, child marriage in her village; she contested three times and won [Panchayati Update 2003].
4 Tithe or stipend — a customary payment.
5 The expansion of the state sector, on the other hand, benefited educated women’s employment If it benefited one class of women, by not helping the economy grow, it inhibited the overall well-being, especially of poor women. On the other hand expansion of employment to middle class women increased the need for domestic services which poor women supplied. There were thus contradictory pulls.
6 `The style of macroeconomic management by Indian policy-makers from the end of 1980 has been slap dash, to say the least. The only consistent objective discernible being to line the pockets of wheeler dealers and elements close to the ruling party’ [Bagchi 1999].
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This article was earlier published in the Economic and Political Weekly, October 25, 2003.
MAITHREYI KRISHNARAJ. Former Director, Research Centre For Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai and Professor, Women and Development, Institute of Social Studies, the Hague. One of the founders of the discipline of Women’s Studies in India. She has edited and authored many books on women’s issues and has contributed articles on women and development issues in learned journals. Currently she is Senior Fellow (Honorary) at the research centre for women studies at SNDT University. She is the Series Editor of Theorising Feminism in the Indian Context.