Mains Paper 2: Governance
Prelims level: Periodic Labour Force Survey
Mains level: Reason behind declining WPR ratio
If labour force survey data are to be believed, rural India is in the
midst of a gender revolution in which nearly half the women who were in the
workforce in 2004-5 had dropped out in 2017-18.
The 61st round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) recorded
48.5% rural women above the age of 15 as being employed either as their
major activity or as their subsidiary activity but this number dropped to
23.7% in the recently released report of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS).
Before we turn to examining these changes, it is important to note that
the drop in work participation by rural women is not sudden.
The latest data from the PLFS simply continue a trend that was well in
place by 2011-12.
Worker to population ratio (WPR) for rural women aged 15 and above had
dropped from 48.5% in 2004-5 to 35.2% in 2011-12, and then to 23.7% in
In contrast, the WPR for urban women aged 15 and above declined only
mildly, changing from 22.7% in 2004-5 to 19.5% in 2011-12, and to 18.2% in
Review of Worker to population ratio
If the WPR is declining due to rising incomes, we would expect it to be
located in richer households with higher monthly per capita expenditure and
among women with higher education.
A comparison of rural female WPRs between 2004-5 and 2017-18 does not
suggest that the decline is located primarily among the privileged sections
of the rural population.
Between 2004-5 and 2017-18, women’s WPR declined from 30.6% to 16.5% for
the poorest expenditure decile, and from 31.8% to 19.7% for the richest
More importantly, most of the decline in the WPR has taken place among
women with low levels of education.
For illiterate women, the WPR fell from 55% to 29.1% while that for
women with secondary education fell from 30.5% to 15.6%.
This broad-based decline with somewhat higher concentration among the
least educated and the poorest is consistent with the industries and
occupations in which it has occurred.
Decomposing the 24.8 percentage point decline in women’s WPR between
2004-5 and 2011-12, the decline in work on family farms and allied
activities contributed the most (14.8 percentage points), followed by casual
wage labour (8.9 percentage points) and in work on family enterprises in
other industries (2.4 percentage points).
These were counter-balanced by a 0.7 percentage point increase in
regular salaried work and a 0.5 percentage point increase in engagement in
public works programmes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment
Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Most of the decline 23.1 percentage points out of 24.8 came from reduced
participation in agriculture and allied activities.
Men’s participation in agriculture
Among men aged 15 and above, 56.1% participated in agriculture in
2004-5, while only 39.6% did so in 2017-18.
However, men were able to pick up work in other industries whereas women
reduced their participation in other industries as well as agriculture
resulting in a lower WPR.
Therein lies the conundrum for rural women. Mechanisation and land
fragmentation have reduced agricultural work opportunities for both men and
Other work opportunities, except for work in public works programmes,
are not easily open to women.
This challenge is particularly severe for rural women with moderate
levels of education.
A man with class 10 education can be a postal carrier, a truck driver or
a mechanic; these opportunities are not open to women.
Hence, it is not surprising that education is associated with a lower
WPR for women; in 2016-17, 29.1% illiterate women were employed, compared to
only 16% women with at least secondary education.
Raising questions from the survey
The NSSO and PLFS survey design relies on two questions.
First, interviewers assess the primary activity in which respondents
spent a majority of their prior year.
Then they note down the subsidiary activity in which individuals spent
at least 30 days.
If individuals are defined as working by either primary or subsidiary
criteria, they are counted among workers.
This is a categorisation that serves well in cases where agriculture is
the primary activity and various agriculture-related tasks can be grouped
together to comprise the 30-day threshold.
But as demand for agricultural work declines and women engage in diverse
activities, their work tends to become fragmented.
A woman who spends 15 days on her own field during the sowing period, 10
days as a construction labourer and 15 days in MGNREGA work should be
counted as a worker using the subsidiary status criteria, but since none of
the activities exceed the 30 days threshold, it is quite possible that
interviewers do not mark her as being employed.
On-going experimental research at the National Council of Applied
Economic Research’s National Data Innovation Centre (NCAER-NDIC) suggests a
tremendous undercount of women’s work using standard labour force questions,
particularly in rural areas.
This is not to suggest that fixing the problem of undercount in surveys
is the solution to declining WPRs.
The undercount is a symptom of the unfulfilled demand for work.
Although women try to find whatever work they can, they are unable to
gain employment at an intensive level that rises above our labour force
This suggests an enormous untapped pool of female workers that should
not be ignored.
Establishment of the Cabinet Committee on Employment and Skill
Development is a welcome move by the new government.
It is to be hoped that this committee will take the issue of declining
female employment as seriously as it does the issue of rising unemployment
among the youth.
Not all policies need to be gender focussed.
One of the most powerful ways in which public policies affect rural
women’s participation in non-agricultural work is via development of
transportation infrastructure that allows rural women to seek work as sales
clerks, nurses and factory workers in nearby towns.
If the cabinet committee were to focus on multi-sectoral reforms that
have a positive impact on women’s work opportunities, the potential gender
dividend could be far greater than the much celebrated demographic dividend.