In the article ‘More women in workforce means better security (BusinessLine, August 18), Nikita Sangwan and Shalander Kumar, based on NSS survey data, showed that more women in the paid workforce means better food security.

They argued that income in the hands of women, independent of men’s income, leads to increased diet diversity and improved health indicators of women. Income empowers women to give preference to expenditures which are more welfare enhancing for themselves and their children.

Whereas women’s unpaid work can also lead to diet diversity, it does not have the same impact as women paid for their work who are more able to exercise their preferences. This should not be a surprising finding, but it has profound implications for policy. Given the high level of under-nutrition among women and children and high infant mortality in India, understanding the pathways to reduce both are important.

The scourge of malnutrition

Lancet study had noted that malnutrition could have been responsible for 706,000 out of the 1,040,000 under-5 deaths in India in 2017. It projected increased numbers after Covid-19.

A Unicef report similarly noted an increase in the number of children who are hungry, isolated, abused, anxious, living in poverty and forced into marriage. Being a large country, the report had projected that India will have the highest number of Covid-related deaths among children under five, and the highest number of maternal deaths in South Asia in 2020; 290,000 such mortalities have already occurred in the region.

Evidence, however, shows that even when India experiences strong economic growth (economy growing at around 8 per cent per year sustained over many years, during the early 2000s), it created few jobs (Verick 2018). Besides, India has one of lowest levels of female labour force in paid employment in the world. According to ILO data, the share stands at less than 30 per cent and has been declining over time. India’s record contrasts with other developing countries in Asia where both the levels of female paid employment are higher and steadier and, in some cases, increasing sharply, most notably in Bangladesh.

Additionally, changes in employment across sectors over time inform us about the progress countries are making in achieving structural transformation. A sectoral breakdown of employment shows that India’s paid female employment in the agricultural sector has declined whereas it has increased in other countries — for example, in China and Bangladesh.

Most striking is the increased employment in the manufacturing sector in Bangladesh, whereas the share remained stable or declined in other countries. The share of female employment also increased in the services sector steadily in other countries, but once again, it increased most dramatically in Bangladesh.

Therefore, the argument often made in India that the low and declining female employment is a result of social norm and the lack of appropriate job opportunities in the vicinity of where women live is not very convincing. Other Asian countries with similar social norms have been able to overcome them by increased investment in education and health of women.

The challenges ahead

The long-term challenge in India is to increase opportunities for women to work outside the home in decent and productive employment, as well as increase investment in education, health, and training to create more opportunities for women to be employed productively.

The low female labour force employment could be because India currently underperforms relative to comparable developing countries in terms of public spending as well as outcomes. Out-of-pocket spending by households on health and education is high in India, and a leading cause of indebtedness.

Recently, there have been calls to increase the health budget from around 1 per cent to 3 per cent of India’s GDP, and the education budget from 4 per cent to 6 per cent of GDP. This will create decent jobs and improve the quality of growth.

For example, India established 1.2 million Child Development Centres (Anganwadis) in 1972. But they are underfunded and staffed with poorly trained and poorly incentivised staff. The Supreme Court recently called for greater support for the staff of Anganwadis and this is seen creating more productive employment for women while improving the quality of life of children.

Lele is President, International Association of Agricultural Economists, and Goswami is an independent researcher