🇮🇳 India's Severe 'Shecession' + Billionaire Raj

🇮🇳 India's Severe 'Shecession' + Billionaire Raj

Hi everyone,

I’ve long been fascinated by India. As a child and teenager in the 1990s, I went 7 times to India with my parents, notably to Rajasthan. My father had launched a company to import antiques from India to Europe, and so, once (or twice) a year, we’d go with him and stay in old, run down (albeit beautiful) Maharaja palaces (for example, in Jaipur). I have vivid memories of intoxicating smells and colours. Still today I tend to find anything India-related immediately alluring. I like Indian cuisine (I sooo regret the amazing Indian restaurants we used to enjoy in London). Last but not least, as a practitioner of yoga, I’m all the more ensnared in India’s soft power.

So it is with great excitement that I interviewed James Crabtree for my Building Bridges podcast a few weeks ago. James Crabtree was the Financial Times Mumbai chief between 2011 and 2016. In 2018, he published a fascinating book titled The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age which is about inequality, corruption and the new class of ‘Robber Baron’-style billionaires who exert power over India today.

woman in brown and red dress standing near brown brick wall

In this podcast we talked about his job as an FT correspondent in India (every journalist’s dream job!), India’s billionaires, the comparison with the American Gilded Age, the new Netflix documentary in which he’s featured (Bad Boy Billionaires: India), the impact of the pandemic, and his present life in Singapore. I can’t encourage you enough to have a listen!

In this newsletter, I won’t add (much) to the discussion about India’s Billionaire Raj, but will instead focus on the particular plight of India’s women. To put it very simply, India’s not a country where it is good to be a woman in “normal” times. But it’s gotten much worse with the pandemic. Decades of (relative) progress towards more equality may have been wiped out this year 😱👇

Before the pandemic: 127th out of 160 in gender equality!

According to the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index (introduced in 2010), India ranked 127th out of 160. Not great, right? The countries that do worse include Afghanistan, Yemen, Sierra Leone or Mali. (The index looks at reproductive health, empowerment, and labour market participation.)

The plight of women in India is nothing new. As a child I remember being told about selective abortions, female infanticides, and child marriage. I remember being told about the dowry tradition, and thinking, “What? A girl’s parents have to pay for her to be enslaved?”. In later years, I’d read more about dowries in 19th-century England in all of Jane Austen’s novels.

I also remember hearing stories of widows setting themselves on fire upon the death of their husband: not only is it completely taboo for a widow to remarry but it is even somewhat frowned upon for her to merely continue living. There were also these terrible stories of acid attacks on women who refused some man’s marriage proposal (morality: “Just say no” is fraught with danger). Acid is a cheap way to destroy a woman’s life.

For a few years there’s been more awareness on sexual violence and rape in India. I remember reading recently about the appalling reality of sexual and domestic violence in India. The National Crime Records Bureau reveal that“a crime against a woman is committed every three minutes, a woman is raped every 29 minutes, a dowry death occurs every 77 minutes, and one case of cruelty committed by either the husband or relative of the husband occurs every nine minutes.” Domestic violence is so endemic in India that you can’t wish for any woman to be stuck at home (as women were during lockdown).

What rape statistics really reflect is a vicious cultural agreement that women have little value. Which means in turn that girls must be trained to act as if they do not exist, to minimise their presence to survive, to serve men and not inconvenience them. This sounds archaic in this day and age, but it is true in India and to a greater or lesser degree across many cultures, irrespective of wealth or education. (Guardian)

Female literacy is significantly lower than men’s: the literacy rate is 60.6% for women, while for men it is 81.3%. And last but not least, women have little access to land and property (again, like in Jane Austen’s novels). There are laws meant to improve their situation, of course, but they aren’t really enforced. And women’s property rights depend on religion and tribe. They’re a weird, complex mix of law and custom.

A land of contrasts and slow progress towards gender equality

The perplexing thing about women in India is that the situation is so contrasted. In this country of 3.287 million km² and 1.35 billion inhabitants, there are old, contradictory traditions, strong economic inequalities, a caste system that won’t completely disappear, and lots of geographic and linguistic differences. So as a woman, depending on where you are born, your prospects may be very different. In that regard many other countries where the situation is bad for women offer a more consistently unfortunate experience to its women.

The paradox is that I have come across so many powerful, influential and brilliant Indian women, both in India and throughout the world. Without thinking long and hard I can name several famous and powerful Indian women in the diaspora, like Indra Nooyi (the CEO of PepsiCo) or Ruchi Sanghvi (Facebook’s very first female engineer) in the business world, writer Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), filmmaker Mira Nair, actress Freida Pinto, or even US Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris! When you read about environmentalism and feminism, you also come across Vandana Shiva (I wrote this previous newsletter about ecofeminism in which she played a big part). By no means is this meant to be a comprehensive list…

In India, there are many visibly powerful women in the business world. And the country has a high number of female politicians. In fact many more women have held high offices in India than they have in France! These contrasts make it all the more confusing to people like me. Also a lot of the traditions (related to the caste system or to dowries) that make the situation so terrible for the least privileged women (those who “intersect” with other problems) have theoretically been fought by the government for decades, but are really still there.

Child marriage for example was first outlawed in 1860! In 1929 they passed another law, the Child Marriage Restraint Act, to stop it. But it is still prevalent in modern India today. In rural areas, more than 50% of married women are married before the legal age of 18. A big chunk of the world’s child marriages occur in India today. But all in all a lot of legislation was passed to no avail.

India may be developing, but for a vast majority of women progress towards equality is very slow. Indeed we tend to exaggerate the size of India’s urban middle class where women are much more educated and emancipated. There aren’t that many of them as James Crabtree said in our podcast:

You've got to keep India in your head as the India that is, as opposed to the India that people might want it to be. So you hear all sorts of grand predictions about the size of the Indian middle class. They will tell you to bet on an Indian middle class of 200 or 300 million people, which sounds extraordinary, that's almost all the population of Europe. But actually, the Indian middle class of the sort that you would recognise in Europe is probably about 10 or 20 million people. 

Recently economists [like Banerjee and Duflo] did the work of digging down into how big the Indian middle class really is, as you would recognise it as a Western country, and discovering it's much smaller than you think. If you think about the proportion of the population that has a credit card, owns a car, and travels internationally, these are very small numbers of people compared to the nation as a whole. 

One of the main problems may be that so many of women’s gains are precarious because they are informal. Officially women’s participation in the workforce is very low: they make up less roughly 20% of the country’s workforce. What this means, of course, is that almost all their work—both paid and unpaid—is part of the informal economy. It goes unrecorded, unprotected, unseen. There’s more exploitation, harassment, and precariousness. Alas, it’s the informal economy that was hit the hardest this year.

India’s ‘Shecession’ could well be the worst

All over the world the current economic crisis hits women hardest (I wrote a newsletter about this), but it is worse in places and sectors where the informal economy is bigger. In the informal economy, workers have no official protection: they receive no unemployment benefits, no stimulus checks, and have no healthcare coverage. It is no surprise that India’s (informal) female workers were hit particularly hard. For example, a lot of domestic workers lost their jobs during the lockdown. More women were forced into marriage (were it not for the lockdown, some may have been able to go away). And many more suffered from domestic violence.

At least four out of 10 women in India lost their jobs in April and May, and 39 per cent of women reported a loss of employment compared with 29 percent of men, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. Oxfam India estimates the economic loss from women becoming unemployed during the pandemic at about US$216-billion, which makes the country’s GDP 8 per cent poorer.

“Women are losing more jobs because they were anyway more vulnerable. They are at a lower level in the hierarchy with precarious conditions of work and poor social security,” said Neetha N., a gender and labour expert and director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. (She goes by one name and an initial, a common practice in some parts of India.) (Globe and Mail)

2020 may come with a huge setback for Indian women’s empowerment, which will jeopardise the country’s future prospects and GDP growth:

Oxfam India estimates the financial loss from girls shedding their jobs through the pandemic at about $216 billion, knocking off 8% from the nation’s gross home product. This clouds girls’s already poor financial outlook. (...) Even skilled girls in India have had setbacks. The virus outbreak has led many to earn a living from home… (RedHeart)

Last but not least, a lot of the policies implemented during this crisis to alleviate the burden of (male) unemployment will have deleterious long term effects on gender equality, in particular policies designed to encourage women to stay at home rather than seek work outside. For example, women’s maternity leave was extended, thus reinforcing their role as primary caregivers and making employer discrimination more likely.

It would be wrong to seek comfort in the fact that things are not quite as bad for women in Europe as they are for Indian women. The trends that are more visible there should help us understand what’s slightly less visible here. The share of women in the informal economy is high in Europe too (even if the said informal economy is not as big as it is in India). The harmful effects of the lockdown on domestic violence and the distribution of unpaid domestic work exist in Europe too. It is vital that we Europeans take more of an interest in what’s going on in India 🇮🇳

🥨 🍻 🇩🇪 I’ve found a new home near Munich, Bavaria!! It is spacious and comfortable, it even has a garden… and it is located in a suburban area (a town called Ottobrunn). If I were to tell my 20 or 30-year-old self that she would end up leading some kind of suburban life, far from the vibrancy of a large city’s centre, she wouldn’t believe it. She may even see it as betrayal. I could reassure her by telling her that politically I have no intention of turning conservative ☺️ I might also add that Ottobrunn is closer to the mountains (Bavarian Alps) ⛰️ and that a new hiking era is about to begin!

Seriously, I think I might write a piece about the irresistible lure of suburban life in middle age (and its ambivalence). Suburbia is not supposed to be a place for feminists, but the way I see it: feminists are infiltrating suburbia as I write! And the pandemic may have a profound effect on the transformation of suburban sociology.

Anyway, the rest of the family (husband and son) joined us (my daughter and me) after a separation of 6 weeks! And it felt fantastic to be reunited. Of course such a move comes with a mountain of extra work and chores, and I feel overwhelmed. That’s why I’ve woefully neglected my Laetitia@Work newsletter.

💌 Our media Nouveau départ is growing and growing (I mean its subscribers as well as our now abundant archives). We recorded many new podcasts, among which: 🛒 Commerce de détail et différences culturelles, 🤷‍♂️ La gauche et la droite : que signifient-elles aujourd'hui ?, 🇫🇷 Pourquoi la France résiste tant au télétravail, 🎥 007 : crise du cinéma et changement de société, 🤔 Immobilier : faut-il louer ou acheter ?… If you haven’t subscribed, do give it a try! If you’re student and want a discount, send me an email…

💻 I think I’ve made a new friend! I met Chloé Hermary on Zoom and was so impressed. She founded a feminist coding school called Ada Tech School. She invited me to do a webinar about what it means for a company to be feminist (in French), and I interviewed her for Nouveau Départ (also in French) 🤗

👩‍💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote many new articles. Here are the last two: 🦍 La crise profite-t-elle aux leaders « gorilles » ? and 🙈 Quelle politique de cooptation pour favoriser la diversité ? 🇫🇷

🎙️ As far as my new podcast Building Bridges is concerned, three interviews have already been published: Leslie Kern, James Crabtree, and Bruno MaçãesSubscribe to Building Bridges if you want to receive the new podcast in your mailbox as soon as it’s published. The next one will be Mariana Mazzucato! 🎧


  • 📺 What Companies Who Want More Diversity Can Learn From the BBC, Siri Chilazi & Aneeta Rattan, Behavioral Scientist, November 2020: “To be sure, there was some resistance to the 50:50 Project when it began. Some on the outside questioned whether the BBC had gone too far with its gender equality efforts, while others on the inside viewed 50:50 as “political correctness gone mad” or an initiative to make men “an endangered species” (…) But with strong executive support and data to disprove people’s incorrect assumptions, the project leaders were able to prove naysayers wrong. “50:50 is not about keeping excellent men out of our programs—it’s about finding many more excellent women contributors.”

  • ⚕️job lock and the debt plot, Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study, November 2020: “The Health Insurance Plot is a cousin to the Marriage Plot, which refers to a story that concludes in a marriage. The Marriage Plot is still prevalent today, but in 19th-century England it was especially popular. All of Jane Austen’s novels, for example, end with weddings. At the time, marriage was essentially permanent and offered Austenian heroines domestic and financial security—a kind of happy ending. Today this happy ending is instead achieved by acquiring a job, one with great health benefits. The Health Insurance Plot may have a deadline (…) in which the protagonist anxiously seeks a job with insurance before her 26th birthday. Or the plot can follow a character through her uneven access to health care and into how this uncertainty feel.”

  • 💅🏾 Nail Salons, Lifeline for Immigrants, Have Lost Half Their Business, Juliana Kim, The New York Times, November 2020: “The beauty industry in the city seemed well positioned to bounce back after restrictions ended. After all, many customers had spent months without professional grooming. But now, many of these businesses are on the verge of collapse — a drastic hit for an industry that is an economic engine for immigrant women. Some nail salons have had a difficult time persuading customers that it is safe to come in. Others, especially those in Manhattan business districts, have yet to see regular customers come back because many of them had left the city or are working from home.”

Until next time, namaste 🙏

The future of work, with a feminist perspective
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Laëtitia Vitaud