India’s development story has caught the attention of the world in the past few decades. The global narrative of development economics had the Tiger Economies of the far east and the meteoric rise of the fire-spitting Dragon to write home about. In this backdrop the awakening of the slumberous Elephant in the 1990’s was by itself news. That is quite natural considering the geographic, demographic and governance challenges for a large and diverse nation like ours.
Slowly the unrealised potential of an economy with 1.3 billion people and a massive middle class helped in getting us de-hyphenated from Pakistan, strategically. When I attended an international seminar way back in 1990 in Royal Institute of Public Administration in London, the British Program Coordinator would invariably start the day by at least half a dozen references to India-Pakistan subcontinent. In the English etiquette for dealing with South Asian delegates, it was probably politically correct to mention India only in hyphenation with Pakistan. Much water has flowed down the Ganges (and Thames) since then.
The world saw in emerging India the potential to be an economic success story on the back of a dynamic corporate sector, burgeoning middle class and young workforce. The elephant could indeed dance, the pundits prophesied.
The burgeoning youth in India was desperate for a messiah who would deliver us to the promised path strewn with plentiful jobs, opportunities for skill upgrade, facilitation enterprise and prosperity for all. They caught on to the oratory, sloganeering and political branding that Narendra Modi presented in the run up to 2014 elections. But when the chief sevak preferred politics over economics, the disruption that was expected fizzled out. Economics is a very sensitive creature; when ignored and left to fend for itself, it reacts stubbornly. That brings misery to the masses. The outcome of the failed dream is out there for all to see.
In the recent years, India has eroded its ranking in some of the key economic indicators, not just globally but even in the South Asian neighbourhood. While India’s political leadership was busy fixing the unfinished political agenda of partition, our smaller neighbours in the Region remained focused on more mundane matters of livelihood. Both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have made significant progress in some important social and economic parameters relating to human development.
Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate has plummeted to a five-year low; in 2019, both Bangladesh (8.1%) and Nepal (7.1%) have grown faster than India (6.0%). The projections for 2020 also show Bangladesh and Bhutan set to grow faster than India according to World Bank estimates.
We have a number of global surveys, reports and studies on various aspects of global competitiveness and economic dynamism. The Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR) - 2020 just released by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Switzerland-based think-tank offers insights into one of the critical areas of inclusive economic development - gender equity strategies. For a mix of traditional, cultural, governance and political reasons, India’s story on gender sensitivity and equal opportunities is dismal.
The Global Gender Gap Index was introduced in 2006 as a framework for capturing the magnitude of gender-based disparities and tracking the progress in alleviating them over time. It benchmarks gender gaps in terms of four factors – economic opportunities, education attainment, health and well-being as well as political empowerment. The report published every two years provides multiple dimensions of effective comparisons across regions and income groups.
At the global level, across the four sub-indices, the largest gender disparity exists in political empowerment. Less than 25% of the global political empowerment gap has been closed as of 2020. There are significant nation-to-nation differentials regarding policy support and societal attitudes towards gender sensitivity. The second-largest gap is on economic participation opportunity for women. Progress towards closing the Educational and Health gaps is more creditable - more than 95% of these gaps have been closed as of now at the global level. Against this global picture we need to look at India – as a standalone economy and as a member of the South Asian neighbourhood.
India’s overall ranking on Gender Gap Index is 112 out of 153 nations. We have slipped 4 positions compared to 2018 report. Though our absolute score has improved marginally, others in the Region have progressed more than us pushing our relative rank down by four positions. Among the South Asian countries, Bangladesh is the highest ranked at 50 in terms of overall gender gap index; Nepal and Sri Lanka too are ranked ahead of India; only Maldives, Pakistan and Afghanistan are lower than India in overall gender equity ranking.
Let us now look at each of the four constituent factors of gender gap index a bit more intensely.
Firstly, on economic participation and opportunity for women, India is ranked 149 out of 153 nations – in South Asia, Nepal has a respectable rank of 101; only Pakistan is giving us company at the bottom of the heap.
Secondly, on Educational attainment, India is at 112, with the South Asia regional leader being Maldives, ranked in the top 25 globally.
Thirdly, on Health and Survival of women, India holds on to the bottom of the pack with rank of 150 among 153 nations. What a dubious record! But as is our wont, we might still seek consolation that the last rank among 153 nations is going to China! The thing to remember is that India and China both have an archaic obsession for male child and both societies have a male bias. In South Asia, Sri Lanka with a global rank of being within the top 40, is a clear winner.
Fourthly, on political empowerment of women, India has a respectable rank of 18 globally; here too regionally Bangladesh with global rank of 7 beats India roundly. It should therefore be an eye-opener for our policy makers that India doesn’t stand up to scrutiny even in the regional context of South Asia when it comes to enabling and empowering half of our population to rise up the ladder towards progress and prosperity.
Gender inequity is one of the critical drags on our progress towards an inclusive, empowered and ambitious society. Apart from the gender prejudices, our society is plagued by various social and economic biases against sections of the population like the mentally challenged, differently abled and those with deviant sexual orientation, not to mention the social divide in terms of caste, religion, language, race et al. Effect of all these other biases get accentuated when considering their impact on women due to the glaring gender prejudices. If only India devoted a full decade or two early on in the development journey on health and education of rural women, the economic dividend to the nation would have been remarkable.
In the 2018 Report by NITI Ayog on attainment of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the United Nations as a global agenda with a timeline of 2030, the most depressing performance by all states is on gender equity. Only Kerala has a somewhat respectable score on this factor, though its own record is mundane as per global standards.
When it comes to economic participation of women, just nine countries around the world, including Syria and Iraq, now have a fewer proportion of working women than India. If Bihar were a country, it would have the lowest share of working women in the world. Among urban women, domestic cleaning work is the second most common profession after textile sales job, according to the labour force survey published by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO). We have miles to go in skill migration and economic independence of women.
India’s female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR)—the share of working-age women who report either being employed, or being available for work - has fallen to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18, meaning that over three out of four women over the age of 15 in India are neither working nor seeking work. The labour force participation rate of women even in Kerala, which has by far the best overall human development record, is below 25%, meaning that only one out of four women either work or offer themselves for employment.
Some argue that there is a fallacy in this ratio for Kerala, especially when you compare the LFPR for women in Chhattisgarh at 54% and Andhra Pradesh at 47%. In Kerala, in view of higher educational attainment and better social positioning enjoyed by them, many women do not volunteer for unskilled or labour-intensive jobs. At the same time, they are unable to compete with and gain employment involving medium to high skills in many cases. In most of the advanced nations in Western Europe, North America or Australia, women are technically or professionally skilled and do compete and win employment contracts for jobs involving semi to high skill proficiencies.
But in Kerala, in spite of many social parameters being on par with developed nations, women are not preferred by employers for skilled jobs, especially in manufacturing or skilled services sector roles. There was a well reported case of a woman candidate who was successful in the public service commission selection test for sales assistant in a Public Sector undertaking marketing beverage, but had to seek court intervention in getting employment offer. Just because in the prejudiced social perception, a woman was considered inappropriate for that position.
Many jobs which have been traditionally kept as the preserve of male candidates like truck drivers, electricity technician and motor mechanics should be opened up to female candidates. Not just the administrative hindrances but the social taboo also needs to vanish. Kochi Metro has shown exemplary dynamism in welcoming women to join operational positions. Public Transport, Electricity and other services should provide opportunity to women to partake in operational roles on par with men.
India Incorporated has also been slow in offering equal opportunities to women in technical, operational and strategic roles. Women in CXO level and board positions are still few. The glass ceiling needs to be broken and the benefit of ideas and enterprise of both genders should be available to the corporate sector.
Slogans like ‘Beti Padaao, Beti Bachao’ can’t change much unless the attitude, overhang of exclusionary social traditions and economic marginalisation of women in rural India change for the better. Since we are anyway obsessed with slogans, let me add another one that should define our governance approach in the 2020’s – “Less politics, more economics”.
*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach and mentor based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at