Prajnya Gender Talks, June 2022 || Pandemic, Policy and Patriarchy: Process of Gender De-equalisation by Prof. Ritu Dewan


June 2022

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the Speaker

Dr Ritu Dewan is the Vice President of the Indian Society of Labour Economics, Vice President of the Indian Society of Agricultural Economics, Visiting Professor at the Institute of Human Development, Co-Founder-Co-convenor of the Feminist Policy Collective, Trustee of The India Forum, Director of The Leaflet, President of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (2014-17). She was the first-ever woman Director of the Department of Economics, University of Mumbai, and the founder-member of the first Centre for Gender Economics in Asia.

Locating Pandemic Policy

Dr Dewan dives into the first part of her presentation “Locating Pandemic Policy” to highlight the degree to which previously existing inequalities were exacerbated during the pandemic due to the state’s conscious callousness. 

The pandemic began at a time when growth was already decreasing significantly in the country, especially at the low capacity utilisation levels. The development indicators of MSMEs had gone through demonetisation and the introduction of a convoluted GST, which was both anti-people and anti-women. At a time when MSMEs were battling to stay alive, they had to deal with rigid and highly bureaucratic procedures. India’s famous income inequality had been modestly improving before the pandemic. During the pandemic, this trend reversed: for the first time in 42 years, the percentage of people below the BPL increased. 

India’s work participation rates are one of the lowest in South Asia, but post-pandemic they became one of the lowest in the world, both for rural and urban areas, of which marginalities and vulnerable sections were of course worst affected. The gender wage gap increased for the first time and India witnessed the lowest minimum wage ever. There were also of course fewer salaried jobs due to the unpredictability of the pandemic. Reserve Bank reports have shed light on how people could not afford basic resources after demonetisation and even more so after the pandemic.

GDP was recorded to have fallen by 23% during the pandemic but if the informal sector were to be included, it fell by 50%. People around the country closed their PF accounts and the greatest driver of growth – household savings – also took a huge hit.  Every single global indicator fell during COVID, with even the health spending shockingly declining. India registered lower ranks of the hunger index and the democracy index. It also had the highest proportion of stunted children, as evidenced by both international and NFHS reports. Even at this time of global disaster, religion and caste were reinforced strongly, with women with these markers one of the biggest segments affected. Dr Dewan predicts that the damage on these marginalities is irreversible unless huge structural and systemic change is undertaken.

Gendered Impacts on Livelihood

Dr Dewan consciously uses the term “livelihoods” since “work” doesn’t cover unpaid work. Demonetisation hit the construction industry terribly affecting construction workers both before and after the pandemic. Handlooms, which had provided one of the largest revenues to the government for decades, were shut down during the pandemic – on Handloom Day.

Job losses were high all across but gender played a role here too, with 3/4th of men but 4/5th of women losing their jobs (it is to be noted that there is no macro data available so these conclusions are dependent on micro studies). Domestic workers are considered “regularly salaried,” and part of the only increasing area of employment for women since 2012 across India; but 85% of the domestic workers in India lost their jobs during the pandemic. They had to sell their clothes, jewellery, and utensils, and finally became indebted through consumption loans from informal banking, which will act as severe liabilities to future work due to predictable low repayment rates.

The monthly wage, which had already been the lowest in South Asia. fell even more, particularly during the brutal lockdowns. People did not receive wages even for work they had already done or if they did, they got paid in old notes which they had to sell at half-price. In Gujarat and Bihar, women worked 10 hours a day for 15 INR and sex workers charged 7-10 INR for each encounter. Sex workers have always been socially distanced but since physical distancing became the norm, their work suffered. NGOs and individual volunteers could not fill the vacuum left by state callousness at migration camps. The relief work they performed was willfully denied to transgender people by other religious relief groups. Migrants were without shelter and merely wanted to be with their families during the crisis, thus deciding to go back home despite all odds. But this natural human tendency was criticised by elites and the government. The migrants were to depend on MGNREGA for work and many begged for any work even if it was underpaid; only 23% of the demand was met and although MGNREGA had committed to 100 days of work for each labourer, it delivered on a measly 25 days. 

MSMEs are the biggest contributor to employment in the country. The country is touted to have a large women participation rate in MSMEs but we must note that women constitute a significant percentage only at the micro level, with only 5% of medium and 2% of small enterprises led by women. Despite the harrowing circumstances of the pandemic, the state provided no allowances or leniency to MSMEs. It did not reduce the GST or postpone taxes or arrear payments. Demand fell and the value-supply chain was disrupted. The conflict with China occurred and all Chinese imports – particularly the cheap ones – were banned. Since these were a mainstay for MSMEs, they went through a production shock. A credit link scheme had been announced in the previous budget but 85% of the MSMEs could not access it due to deterrant regulations and rules. On the other hand, many startups deemed themselves as MSMEs and accessed the credit. Thus, Dr Dewan states that data shouldn’t be taken at face value but examined for hidden meaning.  

The desperation levels of poverty rates hit the roof. People in extreme poverty live on 12-14 INR a day, and these is absolutely no data about gendered differences of this kind of poverty. Since frontlike workers like nurses and medical workers tend to primarily be women, 72% of the medical workers who died during the pandemic were women. Anganwadi workers were not paid and nurses were appointed on contractual level, without PF or pension. Jan Dhan accounts were created but remained in zero balance since people had no money to put in them. Sex wokers and sexual minorities had neither ration cards or shelters.

Gender-Specific Impacts: Women, Sexual Minorities, Sex Workers

The pandemic brought on a transition to digital education, causing massive dropouts from schools. However, even prior to the pandemic, the dropout rate for girls was at 40% which increased even further since only 11% of school-going girls own mobile phones due to social restraints. At a time when the state should have done all that was possible to make education reach even the farthest sections of society, it decided to stop scholarships for SC and ST students; this was in fact one of its first actions when the pandemic started. 

Consumption of staples like rice and wheat fell by 50% and dhal by 63%. The state also stopped school children’s midday meals. There is no financial transparency about what it did with the money that would have been pumped into these meals. ICDS was closed and immunisation stopped. These are fundamental needs especially at this time of hysteria. There was an increase in infant and child mortality rates, and due to natal services being limited from physical distancing, an increase in maternal mortality rates as well. 

Unsafe abortions rose to an all-time high of 60 million just between 2019-2020 and unplanned pregnancies to 26 million. One of the collateral results and biggest fallouts from any form of displacement, especially disaster, is the rise of child marriages. 30-40K child marriages occurred in Maharashtra (and we must keep in mind that child marriage is not just marriage but a transfer of labour from one house to another).

Domestic violence rose by such a large extent that it began to be referred to as the shadow pandemic. But even at this time, the government did not spend Nirbhaya funds; in fact three-fourth of the funds were transferred from the Ministry of Women and Children’s Development to the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

The increase in violence against women was unprecedented at a record 171%. This is not a surprise what with the state’s refusal to criticise violence and lynching, and the increasing internalisation of violence. Convicted prisoners began to be released to prevent overcrowding during the pandemic. But the first to be released were convicted rapists such as from the Hathra case. On the other hand, political prisoners are still in prison. 

When we speak about unpaid work, we need to particularly focus on women and single male migrants. Due to the Work From Home culture that arose, the number of hours women worked at home increased. The state increased cooking fuel and cylinder prices (the somewhat beneficial Ujwala scheme was stopped), adding to the burden on women from lower-middle class households. 

How can one conclude pain, Dr Dewan asks. So, in lieu of a conclusion, she talks about the Ordinance of Farm Acts, which clamped down on agriculturists, the only sector to have shown an increase in growth at 3%. This led to the most prolonged and historical agitation in the history of the world. 

Labour codes were modified, removing definitions of work, worker, and workplace; and taking away social security and the right to unionise. The circus of Atmanirbhar took away foreign-direct investments and public assets were sold at hugely discounted rates. In contrast, the reduction in corporate taxes were extended to 2025, where they pay a reduced 15% tax instead of 30%. 

The GST share of states was withheld from states that don’t adhere to the centre. With the state having to spend on COVID management, funding was taken out of development initiatives, causing development indicators to decline further. 

To sum up, all those who were not a part of the patriarchal slot were taken out of the relief equation. The state has become an anti-enabler and anti-equaliser, and is rooted in patriarchal structures and rigidities.

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