Unveiling hidden divides: caste, gender and the myth of Indian growth

Existing data examining the status of women and marginalised castes in the economy points to a disturbing reality, which contradicts, deeply, the notion of India as a rising, globally charged economy.
Image Courtesy: Yes Magazine

As debates on caste census take a furious turn in Indian politics this year, we witnessed the Bihar government recently complete a caste survey in two phases, resuming the process after it was discontinued in May due to a set of Public Interest Litigations (PILs). The green light for this crucial initiative finally came in August and the results were for all to see: the Bihar caste census report highlighted that economic mobility was lower amongst the marginalised castes.

Similarly, the demand for a caste census has also been raised by former INC President, Rahul Gandhi, who vowed to press the BJP-led Centre to conduct a caste census. The INC leader spoke about the importance of such a census during campaign rallies in Chhattisgarh and has promised a caste census within “two hours” of the formation of the Congress government. The debates on the caste census thus are largely based on the idea that the marginalised in India are still bereft of their rights and equal opportunities. Their situation is dire, and the COVID-19 has undeniably had a profound impact. In 2020, the global GDP experienced a significant contraction of 5.2%, and India, in particular, faced a harsh economic downturn with a staggering 9.4% reduction in its GDP.

Thus while India continues to make its way up in a post-pandemic environment that has left its economy deeply shaken, as has been the case worldwide. However, reports attest that the pandemic’s impact has not been uniform. Marginalised communities have been disproportionately affected, whereas businessmen like Adani have seen their stocks rise about 3000% in the last two years according to a report by Economic Times.

This piece by SabrangIndia thereby tries to share a glimpse on the position of caste and gender occupy with relation to the economy and employability in India.

Caste and economy:

A recent report released by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at the Azim Premji University has highlighted the dire situation of marginalised castes in the economy.

One of the key observations of the report titled State of Working India: Social Identities and Labour Market Outcomes is that in 2004, over 80% of the sons of casual wage workers were themselves engaged in casual employment, highlighting a lack of upward economic mobility. This pattern persisted largely among Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe workers and other castes. However, by 2018, this trend started to change. For non-SC/ST castes, the percentage of casual employment fell from 83% to 53%, with an increase in the availability of better quality work, including regular salaried jobs. For SC and ST castes, although there was a reduction (from 86% to 76%), the change was less pronounced and quite marginal in that. Therefore, while caste-based occupational segregation has also seen significant changes over the years, the shift towards change has been slow. In the early 1980s, SC workers were over five times more likely to be overrepresented in waste-related work and over four times in leather-related work. Although progress has been made, this overrepresentation has not been completely eliminated as of 2021-22. In the leather industry, the representation index decreased sharply to 1.4 in 2021, while in waste management and sewerage, overrepresentation of SCs decreased to 1.6 times in 2011 before a slight increase.

The report highlights a critical point namely that the correlation between non-agrarian GDP growth and non-agrarian employment growth has been weak since the 1990s. This suggests that policies promoting faster economic growth do not necessarily lead to faster job creation. However, between 2004 and 2019, there was a notable connection between economic growth and decent employment, which was disrupted by the pandemic.

Thus, unemployment remains a concern, with post-Covid unemployment rates higher for graduates, particularly those under 25, reaching a staggering 42%. In the corporate sector even in small firms, SC and ST owners and employers are underrepresented compared to their share in the overall workforce. An interesting point to note is that as firm size increases, the number of upper castes tends to increase in proportion. Interestingly and alarmingly, the report also reveals a disparity in earnings among different caste groups. Occupations with lower average earnings tend to have a higher representation of Scheduled Caste workers whereas in stark contrast, upper-caste workers are more strongly represented in higher-paying roles. Furthermore, the research indicates that intergenerational mobility has increased over the past 15 years, with more sons of casual wage workers transitioning to regular wage employment. However, marginalised castes have experienced less mobility in this regard in comparison to upper castes.

Therefore, according to the report, while there have been positive changes, significant disparities still exist which highlights and underscores the urgent need for policies and initiatives that promote equality and inclusive economic growth. The demand for a caste census, as voiced by Rahul Gandhi and supported by many including the Bihar government, remains a crucial step toward acknowledging and addressing these disparities.

Gender, economy and “shecession”

Little attention has been given to gender as an axis to enquire in the economy. Women have reportedly borne the brunt of the economic crises in the post-pandemic era; increasing distance from employment, induction in vulnerable work, and a general burden of additional household responsibilities have ensures that instead of any improvement in the status of women in the economy, there has been a catastrophic downslide.

The APU survey report highlights that while caste segregation has reduced, gender based segregation has only further increased and worsened since the onslaught of the pandemic.  India’s female labour force participation is one of the lowest in the world at about 27%. Furthermore if we look back we see that these trends have been long in formation, for between 2004-05 and 2011-12, about 19.6 million women decided to leave their paid employment, as reported in a 2012 World Bank study. This decision was influenced by multiple factors, according to IndiaSpend, including unpaid domestic responsibilities, insufficient public transportation options, and the ingrained idea that a woman’s primary responsibility was in the home.

The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated this issue. It triggered widespread job losses across various sectors, and in terms of percentage, according to the report by APU, women were more adversely affected on a much larger scale than men.

Thus in labour markets worldwide, gender disparities remain a persistent issue, with women facing much greater challenges and structural barriers in accessing employment and achieving economic equality. This concern is especially underlined by international agencies which highlight that a staggering 24.9 percent of women are unable to secure employment in low-income countries, in contrast to a rate of 16.6 percent for men in the same category according to the International Labour Organisation. This discrepancy highlights a pressing global concern and sheds light on the double burden women face due to gender roles as women are the ones who have to bear the brunt of personal and family responsibilities, including unpaid care work. In many developing nations, including India, these responsibilities are noted to be a huge deterrence for women not only from obtaining jobs but also from actively seeking employment or making themselves available for work on short notice.

Vulnerable work describes a condition where workers have insufficient wages, low productivity and difficult working conditions. While vulnerable employment is a serious issue for both genders, women tend to be disproportionately represented in specific types of work which is highly precarious in nature, and women are more likely to be found contributing to household activities or assisting in family businesses. Thus women are found to be overrepresented in vulnerable work, which is a factor reportedly further coupled with lower employment rates ends up having serious implications for women’s earnings and their overall share of global labour income which contributes to a significant amount of disparity between incomes between genders, which is often termed ats the “wage gap”. Thus, on a global scale, for every dollar of labour income earned by men, women earn a mere 51 cents, underlining the stark income divide.

India, in particular, grapples with a significant gender gap in employability. According to the ILO this gap stands at 50.9 percent, with only 19.2 percent of women actively participating in the labour force, compared to 70.1 percent of men. Furthermore, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report for 2022 placed India at an alarming rank with 135th out of 146 countries, trailing behind smaller neighbours such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. What’s more, India is among five nations, including China, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Qatar, with gender disparities exceeding five percent. The World Economic Forum has underscored that progress toward gender equality has been hindered and even reversed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic disproportionately impacted women, contributing to what is commonly referred to as the “shecession.” This setback was worsened by the pandemic’s effects on sectors like retail and hospitality, where women constitute a significant portion of the workforce. The global struggle for gender equality in labour markets remains an ongoing challenge, with particular urgency in developing countries like India. As nations strive for inclusive economic growth, addressing these disparities is not only a matter of social justice but also crucial for unlocking the full potential of their economies.

When one delves deeper into actual figures related to gender parity, one is encountered with surprises and shocks. For instance, if we take the case study of Kerala, which is known for its robust social indicators, numbers have unveiled a shocking reality regarding female unemployment. According to the Economics and Statistics Department of Kerala, the state now grapples with the highest female unemployment rate in the entire country both in urban and rural sectors. This revelation stems from the department’s report for the year 2017-18, which indicates that female job seekers constitute a substantial 63.2 percent of the total workforce aspirants within the state. What’s more, the recently released Kerala State Economic Review for 2022 delves into the worrying occurrence of a notable gender wage disparity across the state. This wage gap isn’t confined solely to the informal or unorganised sector but is extended into the regular, salaried employment. These numbers contrast starkly with the general assumption of Kerala having stellar welfare indicators.

As almost eight decades have passed since India became independent and over this time, India has asserted its independence and evolved into a fast growing cultural and economic power regionally, and aims to become a global power. Although the days of a predominantly agrarian economy are now a distant reality. However, when ‘social identities’ that the Indian constitution has tried to alleviate over the years continue to be submerged in hierarchy and economic servitude, India as a land of opportunity and equality remains a distant dream.



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