Policy makers and intellectuals in India are well informed about politics and intellectual developments in the United States and Europe. Among this group, for example, one can easily strike up a conversation about say Angus Deaton on RCTs versus structural econometric modelling. The similarity in the conversation extends far beyond the scientific, however, in ways that I sometimes find baffling.
When I gave a lecture at a local university, for example, I apparently shocked the students when I said matter-of-factly:
India would be a better country if it were richer and more unequal.
I think India’s extreme poverty makes this obviously true in a utilitarian sense, i.e. better for Indians, but it wasn’t so obvious to the students some-of-whom discussed inequality in terms that could easily have been duplicated at Berkeley. The inequality conversation has jumped the pond in ways that seem to me to be completely inappropriate.
Writing in the Times of India, Rupa Subramanya gives another example, a bill for paid maternity leave that has just passed the Indian parliament (waiting only on the president’s signature). As I pointed out earlier, by far the majority of Indians are self-employed and in the informal sector. The very idea of paid maternity leave, therefore, is bizarre. Is the right hand to pay the left?
As Subramanya writes, even fewer women than men work in the formal sector:
[W]omen’s labour force participation in India is 25% or less, as variously estimated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and from India’s National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data. What is more, estimates by MLE and ILO suggest that less than 5% of female workers aged 15-49 are in the formal or organized sector. What this implies is that effectively those covered by paid maternity leave whether the old or the new provision are at best a small number of relatively privileged women working in formal sector jobs. The vast number of women working in the informal sector effectively have no social protections at all, forget about paid maternity leave benefits.
Add to this the well-known reality of poor implementation and even poorer monitoring and the truth is relatively few women benefit from paid maternity leave now, and by definition, therefore, very few stand to gain from the benefits being increased.
…Legislating generous benefits in a still poor country is putting the cart before the horse and is sure to fail. All that will happen are more frustrated women unable to find work, employers unwilling to hire women, and more non-compliance and non-enforcement of existing laws for a state that is already stretched thin trying to do far too many things with too few resources.
So why pass a bill which is so at odds with the real issues facing women on the ground? I think Subramanya is correct:
It’s hard to escape the impression that the main purpose of the increased maternity leave benefits is public relations, either aimed at educated urban women or targeted for international consumption where India is approvingly clubbed with rich countries like Norway and Canada as having the highest paid maternity leave in the world.