Loss of female workforce in rural India

According to the recently released Periodic Labor Force Survey (PLFS) report, nearly half of rural women aged 15+ who were employed in some form back in 2004-05 have dropped out of the workforce in 2017-18. The 61st round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) registered 48.5% of rural women above 15 as being employed – either in primary or subsidiary capacity. The PLFS report puts this number at 23.7% for 2017-18!!

Interestingly, this drop is not sudden or recent. The same number had fallen to 35.2% in 2011-12 and has only continued to dwindle further since then. There are two ways that the above phenomenon can be looked at:

(i) Rising income levels may lead to households deciding that the woman of the house is better off being at home, taking care of family & children

(ii) However, the other possibility is that women in villages are looking for work but unable to find enough employable opportunities, essentially reflecting disguised unemployment

Yet, a further deep dive into the data rules out the possibility of the former occurring. Worker to population ratio (WPR) for rural 15+ females declined by almost similar extent in households in the poorest decile (-14.1) as it did in households in the richest decile (-12.1) – thus disproving probable outcome (i) above. Unsurprisingly, the sharpest drop is observed among illiterate women (-25.9).

Interestingly, employment in agriculture has declined for both genders – and by similar extent: 14.8 percentage points for women vs 16.5 percentage points for men (2004-05 to 2017-18). Yet, men have been able to secure employment in other sectors/industries while the same didn’t happen for the rural female workforce thus depleting the female WPR starkly. While land fragmentation and increasing mechanization has diminished agricultural employment opportunities for both genders, certain work streams like truck/bus driver, mechanic, even post office messenger is next to impossible for a rural female, remaining essentially a 100% male domain. Squeezed from both sides, their contribution to rural workforce is thus drying up.

A welcome move has been initiated by India’s new government in the form of creation of the Cabinet Committee on Employment and Skill Development. IPD sincerely hopes that this committee considers and tackles the grim employment scenario for rural women in a satisfactory manner, thus restoring the balance in the present gender skew built up in rural employment.

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