There are serious inaccuracies in recording women’s contribution to economic activity and estimating the proportion of women who are workers. While the Census estimates male workers to be above 50 per cent of the male population over several decades, the estimates of the proportion of female workers in the female population are unrealistically low.

It was 14 per cent in 1971, 19.8 per cent in 1981, 22.3 per cent in 1991 and around 25 per cent in 2001 and 2011.

Census 2011 estimates the workforce participation rate for females to be 25.52 per cent for the country, 30.3 per cent for rural areas and 15.44 per cent for urban areas. Similarly, according to data collected by the NSS, an estimated 54.3 per cent and 54.6 per cent of males were in the work force in both rural and urban areas in 2011-12. The corresponding percentages for females were 24.8 per cent and 14.7 per cent in rural and urban areas, respectively.

The official statistics create the perception that the female work participation rate is very low in India — far lower than in most countries of the world. The fact is that women participate in the work force to a far greater extent than is measured by the data. However, a lot of the work they do is unrecognised, invisible, uncounted and either unremunerated or poorly remunerated.

Golgappa-Samosa example

It is also argued that India’s GDP would increase significantly if only the female work participation rate would increase and more women would work. The case of the golgappas or samosa vendor described below shows why this argument is flawed.

When a male vendor sells golgappas or samosas or other snacks, he is able to do so because his wife wakes up early in the morning and spends six hours rolling out the golgappas or samosas and frying them or making all the other ingredients that get loaded onto the cart that the vendor takes to different localities to sell. The value of the golgappas or samosas gets counted in the GDP. This value includes the labour contributed by both husband and wife.

However, the problem is that while he gets counted as a worker, his wife does not.

The tragedy is that neither she herself, nor her husband, see her as a worker or consider her contribution as valuable.

Another woman who lives in a village in Phagi block in Jaipur district works eight hours a day as a beldar (construction labour). Her day starts as early as 4 a.m. She first cleans the house and after a bath makes tea. Then she cooks for the family, washes dishes and clothes and sends her children to school. After completing other tasks, she leaves for work/duty as a beldar at 8 a.m. She returns home from work at 6 p.m. and then buys vegetables and cooks food.

In addition to her full time eight hours work as a construction labourer, she spends four-and-a-half hours on household tasks, along with taking care of children.

The woman beldar is more likely to get counted as a worker. However, even in her case this depends on whether the head of her household informs the data enumerator that his wife is also a worker or whether he takes the time to ask her if she works and whether she chooses to answer in the affirmative. However, the woman who makes golgappas or samosas is less likely to get reported as a worker because her contribution is made within the home, is “joint work with her husband”.

If her husband says she only does housework and she says “kuch nahin karti” (I do nothing), she will not get counted as a worker in the official statistics.

This applies equally to women’s contribution to agriculture, animal husbandry, collection and processing of non timber forest produce and other products that are “jointly” produced within the family. It took hours of discussions with men and women in a village in Rajasthan, during which I recounted activity wise contributions by women to agriculture, before the men accepted that their spouse was also a worker and contributed at least 50 per cent of the value of the output produced on the farm.

Detailed interviews conducted with women in a few villages and slums in Karnataka, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tripura, for a project for the National Commission for Women, showed that women contribute to GDP as farmers and cultivators in agriculture. They are the main producers in the animal husbandry sector.

While some are unskilled agricultural and non-agricultural casual labour/coolie labour or work as head loaders and construction workers, others are skilled and work as beldars and raj mistries .

They work as domestic workers. They also cook in hotels and clean gyms.

They make and sell products such as phenyl, paper plates, cups, jewellery, dolls, chains, anklets, rudraksh necklaces and pens, cloth flowers, ayurvedic medicines, vadis, papads, pickles and snacks, agarbattis, kathputlis, torans, roll bidis and make baskets. They contribute to manufacturing by tailoring garments, work in printing presses, offices and hotels.

They deliver government programmes as anganwadi workers and helpers, teachers, workers who cook mid-day-meals in schools, village coordinators, SHG facilitators and members of income generating projects. They work at MGNREGA and other public worksites.

Data underestimation

Census and NSS estimates of women workers are extremely low compared to what is reported through detailed interviews during micro studies and field work.

Several publications show the gross inaccuracies in the official statistics. In a 1982 publication, Devaki Jain and Malini Chand showed that 20 out of 104 females reported as non-workers in a West Bengal village in the Census, were actually winnowing, threshing, parboiling or working as domestic servants for 8-10 hours/day.

In a 1992 publication, Gail Omvedt found 239 women workers in one area where the Census counted 38 and 444 women workers in another area where the Census listed nine.

Yet the problem of invisibility of women’s work continues to persist.

The writer is Visiting Professor, Institute for Human Development, New Delhi