Articles and Commentaries |
November 12, 2018

Close Encounters of Another Kind: Women and Development Economics

AuthorDevaki Jain

Publisher: SAGE Publications Pvt. Ltd.,

2018, pp. 432

Price: Rs.876/-

Book Review by: B. Shruti Rao

To me, this domestic slavery of women is a remnant of our barbarism. It is high time that womankind was freed from this incubus. Woman has rightly been called the mother of the race. We owe it to her and to ourselves to undo the great wrong that we have done to her.

-Mahatma Gandhi

It is now globally recognized that the GDP numbers that define national economic
progress, measure only monetary transactions, unfairly excluding all essential unpaid household work and family care, which have always fallen disproportionately on female shoulders. In light of this, the recent announcement that the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in India would be conducting a year-long household survey starting from early next year using the “time-use method”, comes as a correction long overdue. Professor Devaki Jain, the first economist to use time-use study in India more than three decades ago might well say it is about time. Through her pioneering work over the decades, she has eloquently veered out of a parochial approach of understanding economic development by successfully putting a gender lens on public policy issues in India and the Global South.

As per the Census 2011, contributions of nearly 70 crore Indians, majorly women — who perform household duties are not recorded in the national income as they are technically a ‘ghost’ workforce who find no place in the data. Over the years, data gaps of such whopping scale have led not only to poor designing of employment and welfare programs but also have resulted in a neglect of the understanding of the intrinsic value of such work in comparison to their market value.

Devaki Jain’s latest book, Close Encounters of Another Kind, has no such narrowness in its approach and appositely underscores the vitality of feminist economics. The book is a collection of her essays and speeches on gender dimensions of poverty, and political and social power. It examines the ideas, facts and questions on deprivation, development and gender norms raised in major global development documents like the Human Development Reports, World Bank Report on ‘Gender and Poverty in India’ among others. Through her writings Professor Jain seeks to answer the central question of feminist economics, calling to attention the social constructions of traditional economics, questioning the extent to which it is positive and objective, and shows how its models and methods are biased by an exclusive attention to masculine-associated work, assumptions and methods.

Perhaps the most original view from the book is her Gandhian emphasis on evolving solutions for the Global South based on localised implementation of ideas, and generating opportunities for women empowerment organically. Refreshingly, Professor Jain comes clean on the environmental issues; as opposed to the neglect of environmental concerns that economists are usually blamed of, she gives ample attention to ecological and social costs of modern development. The Gandhian in her is apparent when she passionately makes a case for introducing a philosophical backdrop to the content of education and labor. She insists on educating the younger generations about the mistakes of older generations, and bats for an education that does not alienate children from their environment, their creative intelligence or their past. Professor Jain highlights Gandhi’s efforts to ‘masculinise’ housework by elaborating his radical ideas on the issue. In her book, she points an instance when Gandhi had even suggested that women should resist the male order by refusing to marry, to have sex, by refusing jewelry and even refusing to cook. She brings attention to the practices of Gandhi’s ashrams where men were expected to cook, sew, clean, and knit alongside women.

The book serves as a great start to understand the foundations of gender prejudice in terms of measuring production work in an economy. In the year 1982, to bring to fore this lopsidedness in figures of work participation rate in the national statistics, her organisation the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) conducted a time use survey in India, a first in a developing country. The study provided crucial insights, especially because it not only measured activities considered ‘economically valuable’ but also other auxiliary activities performed by women to support a household or a trade. When ‘time’ became the evaluator, women always came on top of men in terms of work as they spent more hours working. In cases across the length and breadth of our country, women and girl children were found to be working for almost 18 hours out of 24 hours in poverty households.

The difference in time use survey and earlier statistics and surveys lies in the method of soliciting information as well as in the coding. The problem was in women’s self-perception of their daily labor. When enquired about the work done by women in the informal sector, both men and women would reply saying the women in the house ‘did nothing’. This idea of discrediting non-wage earning labor (picking firewood from the forest, fetching water) and considering only wage-earning labor as legitimate work, stemmed from the dominant economic values ingrained in our society.

Questioning these economic values, Professor Jain has called for an overhaul of existing body of literature, which classifies the main areas of production and trade undertaken by the majority of India as informal. According to her, these activities must be correctly classified as central activities rather than marginalised activities, from the employment and production viewpoint.

Among other themes, her book emphasises on upturning the societal power pyramid by inducting women into designing area development plans, fiscal policies, and their participation in macroeconomic decision making. For this Devaki Jain points at various government initiatives such as the Panchayati Raj Amendment Bill, and NGOs (SEWA in Gujarat) which opportunely incorporated non monetised statistics of labor participation to streamline the productive work done by women into the so-called ‘formal sector’.

While she lauds the scientific rigor in the presentation of facts in various global reports on gender issues in India (for instance the World Bank report on Gender and Poverty, 1991) she offers constructive ideas to support such studies. Her ideas are rooted in practicality, traditional knowledge and lived experiences, and contrary to most academicians they do not seem to be aping western academic theories. Her book is replete with edifying instances from her extensive study of women groups in India and her experiences at various networks and forums in countries spread across Asia and Africa.

Although a proponent of feminist economics, Professor Jain is critical of some aspects of the movement; the subject received attention on the international stage after the creation of the International Association for Feminist Economics which was dominated by gender issues specifically of the advanced Global North, reflecting ignorance on the state of women in the Global South. However, after the financial crisis of 2008, the global markets witnessed economies from Asia and Africa emerging far more successful in surviving the recession and found them soon catching up with the advanced economies. To maintain and stabilise this growth trajectory, she urges policy makers of these countries to reach out to their women, and make them a companion in the journey of development.

The exigency to focus on assimilating women into the mainstream economy becomes even more acute in India as according to an International Monetary Fund survey, India’s GDP can grow by 27% if women’s participation in the economy is raised to the same level as that of men. Feminists and public policy enthusiasts alike, will find an enriching roadmap towards this goal in the works of Professor Jain. Richly detailed, and abounding in ideas on inclusive, redistributive, and environmentally sustainable development, Close Encounters of another Kind, therefore, makes for a great start for those striving to understand feminist economics in today’s age.

*B. Shruti Rao is a Research Fellow at India Foundation.

(This Book Review is carried in the print edition of November-December 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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