Politics

Rahul Gandhi’s 33 Per Cent Jobs Quota For Women In Government Is The Wrong Remedy 

Workers at watch factory in Hosur. (Hemant Mishra/Mint via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Women need better workplaces, and a supportive environment, and not necessarily quotas.

    Rahul Gandhi is addressing the right problem with the wrong remedies.

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections seem to be providing lots of scope for gender politics. After Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik promised 33 per cent of his party’s Lok Sabha tickets to women, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee promised 41 per cent of her party’s tickets to women. Not to be left out, Rahul Gandhi has announced a post-election jobs bonanza for women by legislating 33 per cent job reservations for women in government and public sector jobs.

While one must applaud the Biju Janata Dal and Trinamool efforts to bring more women into politics, the promise of job reservations for women in the public sector may not go down very well with an electorate that is already being told by the Congress dynast that there is jobless growth. So, reservations for women that could edge out others from good government jobs may not be the vote-winner it seems to be.

First, Rahul Gandhi needs to clarify whether the quotas will be only for incremental public sector employment or intended to steadily change the overall female-male ratio to 33 per cent. If it is only incremental, barely a few thousand women will get public sector and government jobs each year, as government has not been a big recruiter in recent years. Public sector companies, especially banks, are hardly going to be big recruiters in the digital age. Manufacturing companies like steel plants are automating in a big way, and services companies (like Air India, BSNL, and ITDC), already have a large component of women, and they are hardly going to recruit more. So, the promise of 33 per cent reservation is an empty one, unless the idea is to induct more women into the armed forces, including the police.

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If, on the other hand, Rahul Gandhi’s idea is to increase the representation of women steadily in all government and public sector entities, it will mean annual quotas of more than 33 per cent in order to raise the share of women to reasonable levels in government jobs. An already overmanned and underproductive public sector will be burdened even more.

It is instructive to note that government has not been able to fill 2.4 million job vacancies in the public sector partly because a large chunk of budgets, of both Centre and states, has been frittered away in voter freebies, including farm loan waivers. The 33 per cent reservations for women may be a joke when you cannot even find the resources to fill existing job vacancies.

Second, the promise of reservations is problematic even on ethical grounds, for unlike socially- and economically-backward classes and castes, there is no shortage of qualified women for public sector or private sector jobs. Quotas for women are thus an offer of crutches for those who don’t need them. The reason why women have such low representation in public sector jobs has nothing to do with merit or qualifications, but patriarchy and the non-congenial atmosphere for women workers in almost any workplace, public or private. It is this that needs fixing, and not the quota system.

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Thirdly, given that we already have 49 per cent reservations for the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and Other Backward Class (OBC), and an additional 10 per cent non-caste quota for the 'economically backward' classes, introducing 33 per cent reservation for women means building quotas within quotas. The quota system will thus become totally unwieldy and complicated in future. And one can’t be sure that the SC/STs and OBCs will want the available jobs to be shared with their womenfolk when cushy jobs in government are anyway so tough to get.

Fourth, ill-advised legislation, like the offer of six months of paid leave for pregnancy, is making even private sector companies reluctant to recruit fresh women. While this reluctance is presently confined to smaller companies and start-ups that can’t afford this additional cost, overall women will not gain if government expands and the more productive parts of the private sector start discriminating against women. At the end of the day, it is private sector employment that must provide new jobs for men and women, and not just government.

In my book on The Jobs Crisis in India (Pan Macmillan), I have quoted from two studies, one by NITI Aayog, and another by the International Labour Organization, on the steady reduction of women in the labour force. Here are the relevant excerpts.

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“A NITI Aayog discussion paper on the ‘Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India: Implications for Employment and Growth’, by Ramesh Chand, S K Srivastava and Jaspal Singh, points to this trend of ‘defeminisation of the rural workforce between 2004-05 and 2011-12.’ ”

“The paper also hints that the kind of work available to women in the rural workforce is either not suitable or simply unavailable to them….Clearly, females (in) agricultural labour households do not prefer to go for farm work. Some evidence indicates non-availability of non-farm employment opportunities rather than lack of willingness for outside work as the reason for de-feminisation of rural workforce. There is evidence that the female labour participation rate further declined after 2011-12. It is necessary to formulate attractive avenues for female workers to bring them out of domestic boundaries and engage in productive activities.”

An International Labour Organization (ILO) update by Sher Verick and Ruchika Chaudhary noted that female work participation was low (around 27 per cent in 2016) in India even when compared to other south Asian countries like Bangladesh (43 per cent), Nepal (80 per cent) and Sri Lanka (30 per cent).

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The authors suggest that women may be staying out of the workforce not just due to the general lack of opportunities, but the specific lack of employment opportunities that are appealing to women. Says the report: “Of the total women usually engaged in domestic duties, 34 per cent in rural areas and about 28 per cent in urban areas reported their willingness to accept work and tailoring was the most preferred work in both rural and urban areas.”

To put it simply: women are not staying out of the workforce because they don’t qualify, or don’t want to do paid work. They are losing out because of workplace factors that have nothing to do with their inability to find a job. They need better workplaces, and a supportive environment, and not necessarily quotas.

Rahul Gandhi is addressing the right problem with the wrong remedies.

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