The Indian state has approached the women’s issue in a myriad of ways. If we briefly try to create a trajectory of it from pre-independence till now, significant insights are brought out that can help in creating better policies for women. The idea is to specifically highlight these insights because creating policies based on them would require more in-depth field work and knowledge. The intention behind creating a trajectory is to assess the contexts and trends of addressing women’s issues over the years from a policy lens.
But an approach that involves bringing out patriarchal conditioning of institutions and policies is often labelled as ‘radical’ by decision makers and government officials. It is because changes in the status of women are seen as a threat to the social order.
Women’s Role in Planned Economy, 1938
Radicality brings us to the starting point of the trajectory, which is a sub-committee created under the National Planning Committee of 1938, namely the Women’s Role in Planned Economy sub-committee (WRPE). This was a document extremely contemporary in nature. Maitrayee Chaudhari, a sociologist, has done extensive research on this document and points its inclusivity of facets of women’s issues that disappeared from the policy space after independence. It was also completely based on primary data.
A recurring theme in feminist theory is of the lack of due acknowledgement to the woman’s role in the household. The WRPE acknowledged this head-on way back in 1938. Out of its stated points of focus as goals, the following three are telling of the avant-garde nature of the WRPE:
- The family life and organisation, and women’s employment in the house and the changes therein in recent years.
- Social customs and institutions which preclude women from taking her full share in India’s planned economy
- The types and methods of appropriate education to play her due role in household work, in the profession and social and national services.
The significant attention given to women in the private sphere was due to the fact that the ‘individual status’ was seen as separate from the ‘social status’. The assumption was that the social status (marriage, family, caste, religion) impinges upon the individuality of the woman. This separation reflects an understanding of women as independent economic individuals which is missing from the discourse now. A statement from the WRPE which further contributes to this understanding:
“…homework, though not recognised in terms of money value, is an essential contribution to the social wealth of the State and should be recognised as such. The aggregate of social wealth under planned economy will include all kinds of work, whether rewarded in money value or not.”
Chaudhari has also pointed in her research that the WRPE was influenced by western narratives which had a strong impact on the English-educated middle class of that time, but these narratives were interpreted in the specific context of colonialism. It is the contextualisation that worked heavily in our favour. The colonial period and the anti-imperialist nationalism that emerged out of it allowed questions of political participation and development of women enter the limelight.
Also, the pressure at that time was to define the nature of the soon to be ‘born’ India and a ‘new social order’. The idea was to break away from the past and have new traditions and customs to define this new nation, but this did not mean belittling the past or condemning it; a factor which made sure we contextualised any model, thought, etc. to our society’s needs. This is exemplified in the WRPE’s stress on changing the perspective of marriage from a sanctified institution to seeing it as a voluntary association between two persons. It is the very pursuit to break away that contributed to making the WRPE so ahead of its time.
But it is not perfect at the same time because at several instances it refutes itself. But one cannot deny that it opened a much-needed space for women’s question which disappeared post-independence.
Distorted approaches to women’s issues post-1947
Mary E John, a gender specialist, has written many papers on the changing approach of the state towards women. As per her, post-independence period saw a containment of pre-independence initiatives and a ‘quietism’ that lasted at least three decades. The issue of women and development is completely missing from the first Five Year Plans. With pressure from women’s organisations, it was only in the 6th Five Year Plan (1980-1985) that a chapter on Women and Development was included for the first time.
However, it was the structural adjustment in 1991 that resulted in an approach to women’s issues firmly rooted in the patriarchal mindset. The underlying understanding of the newly liberalised state was to use the skills and experiences of ‘women’ as produced by their location within the patriarchal society. In her book, ‘Seeing Like a Feminist’, Niveditha Menon has highlighted the intrinsic patriarchal values in the aid-based programmes being implemented in developing countries. Women in development programmes were considered, and continue to, by the idea of women as altruistic, self-sacrificing and apolitical centres of the patriarchal family. This became a global rhetoric of development that could not have escaped India.
For example, Self Help Groups have been criticised by feminists for not being effective for its approach towards women, who are seen as being more responsible with money. This notion comes from women being considered more docile than men, thus, their vulnerability makes them attractive loan-takers. Kavita Krishnan, in her book ‘Fearless Freedom’, mentions explanations of senior district bureaucrats in Gujarat. These men believe that women make good debtors because unlike men who ‘can disappear for days’, ‘women can’t go anywhere and can be located easily’, they will not leave their homes easily, can be persuaded to repay easily as ‘they feel shame more quickly and consider non-repayment as a betrayal of family honour’. Menon also conveyed how NGOs that work with government officials have made it clear that they prefer the word stri sashaktikaran (women’s empowerment) to narivad (feminism).
Government efforts in vain
There have been several attempts by governmental bodies to correct the wrongs but have not been instrumental enough to bring a change in the patriarchal mindset. Radicality is missing. For example, the Committee on the Status of Women in India in 1974 did raise the matter of invisibility of women workers. Even the 1993 Census made a concerted attempt to redefine women’s work and also convey to people a more comprehensive understanding of ‘work’. The crucial Shramshaktii Report of 1988 on self-employed women and women in the informal sector made attempts to have a wider definition of ‘work’ by including all women engaged in production and reproduction. None of these efforts created any ground-level changes or even any trickle-down effects in the long-run.
However, an important judgement of 2010 by the Supreme Court managed to at least set a standard in the legal sphere when it comes to passing judgements. For the first time, in Arun Kumar Agrawal & Anr vs National Insurance Co. Ltd. & Ors, an attempt to put a money value to a woman’s household work was done. On the death of his wife in a motor accident, Mr Kumar approached the Supreme Court because a tribunal set compensation for the accident after calculating a homemaker’s income as a third of the husband’s income. His appeal resulted in the SC considerably increasing the amount of compensation. The judgement states that homework as devoid of economic value amounts to gender bias and not just the law in question (Motor Vehicles Act) but also other laws should be changed. It recommended that the question of value of homework should be taken up by the Parliament. A remarkable judgement, but in vain, due to no simultaneous effort by the legislature and the executive.
Where do we go from here?
The policies of 1991 pushed us further back in constructively approaching the women’s question, considering we were almost there in 1938 itself. We went from a systemic analysis in WRPE to seeing women as restricted by social customs and values and hence, creating only social welfare services to ‘rehabilitate’ them.
At the same time, government programmes do hold spaces to create solidarities among women for gender-centric change. We know how well government-funded initiatives for HIV/AIDS helped start political activity on sexuality. It is legitimate and active participation in the public sphere by women that can be a strong force in countering the developmental state’s idea of women empowerment, an idea that solidifies the hold of patriarchal structures, both cultural and mental.
In fact, the challenges of liberalisation on women were addressed in The Country Report 1995, which has an entire section on the macro-economic policies and their impact on women. It mentions the disproportionate burden that women face as employment increased with new economic policies. But the discourse continues to fail to become powerful enough in a way that removes this ‘docile’ woman aspect completely despite good attempts. An example of a good attempt that failed is the 73rd and 74th Amendment which gave reservation to women in panchayats but in the present, we are dealing with a crisis of the large-scale illegal prevalence of the Sarpanch-Pati. Women, due to reservation, get appointed to posts in panchayats or local municipal bodies but remain as nominal heads. Their husbands carry out day-to-day operations and the women have the sole role of only signing official documents. The wards with these Sarpanch-Patis accept this system with no backlash, contributing to the trend only growing further as of now.
Lack of data on women combined with a dearth of retrospective analyses of failed policies continues to contribute to meagre improvements in the Indian woman’s situation. The benefit of hindsight is a powerful tool and its potential is massively untapped by governments in coming up with better policies. Governments need a fundamental shift in priorities and the existence of the WRPE shows that history is testimony to the fact that such shifts are humanly possible. Even simply bringing back what we managed to include in the WRPE can go a long way in creating a better policy space for women’s issues.
Chaudhuri, Maitrayee. 1995. ‘Citizens, workers and emblems of culture: An analysis of the First Plan document on women’. Contributions to Indian Sociology 29 (2): 211-235
Chaudhuri, Maitrayee. 1999. ‘Gender in the Making of the Indian Nation-State’. Sociological Bulletin 40 (1/2): 113-133
Government of India. 1947. Women’s Role in Planned Economy (Report of the Sub-Committee). National Planning Committee Series, (http://220.127.116.11/bitstream/123456789/8963/1/0038_Woman%27s%20Role%20In%20Planned%20Economy.pdf) (accessed on 7 January 2020)
John, Mary E. 1996. ‘Gender and Development in India, 1970s-1990s. Some Reflections on the Constitutive Role of Contexts’. Economic and Political Weekly 31 (47).
Krishnan, Kavitha. 2020. Fearless Freedom. Delhi: Penguin Random House
Menon, Niveditha. 2012. Seeing Like a Feminist. Delhi: Penguin Random House
Mehak Sidhu is currently pursuing her master’s in public policy from NLSIU, Bangalore. She is interested in how policies affect the private lives of people and is in a constant struggle to match with the pace of the world. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Featured image source: CHS Alliance