Measuring women’s work

Print edition : March 01, 2019

In Mewat region, Rajasthan, a woman and her two daughters carry fodder for their cattle. Photo: Kamal Narang

In this book of collected essays, Professor Devaki Jain constructs an alternative theory of economic life that values work for what it is and moves towards human well-being and dignity.

IF the title of the book is somewhat enigmatic, the subtitle immediately reveals its contents as a contribution to the growing body of literature on women’s studies. The author is widely known among those who are engaged in women’s studies. She is also a high-profile academic, respected for her scholarship as an economist, as one of the founding members of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a member of the South Commission of the 1980s chaired by Julius Nyerere, a leading figure of the United Nations’ committees on women’s issues, and a participant in all the world conferences on women. She has worked closely with the Planning Commission and was a member of the Karnataka Planning Board.

A constant theme in women’s studies is that women’s work is not reckoned in calculations of gross domestic product (GDP). Women put in, on a day-to-day basis, much effort at home, in the fields, in gathering firewood and carrying water, but this is totally left out of calculating “output”, while work of similar kind that men do and for which they get paid forms their income and enters the GDP. The unfairness of this procedure forms the basis for many to take up the cause of women. Devaki Jain also fights this injustice, but she walks many more miles. The 15 pieces brought together in the volume (papers and lectures) deal with those extra miles, of evidence, analysis, interpretation and a new approach. At the end of the book, there is a bibliography of works consulted and an even more impressive “Bibliography of Selected Works” by the author that runs into almost 20 pages.

One of the early chapters provides the running theme of the book. “I found that while women were engaged in what in economics is called ‘free collection of goods’, namely gathering berries and leaves, etc., it was actually a great source of employment and in many ways a contribution to the GDP. But because these goods were called ‘minor forest produce’ and had no particular status in so-called ‘production’ and ‘employment’ concerns, this activity does not get the attention that in fact it deserved.” This is because values are determined not by effort but are based on money and markets. The arbitrariness and injustice of this procedure forms the basis for Devaki Jain to champion the cause of women, especially because what men do and get paid for is based on the unrecognised and time-consuming work that women do.

Critique of GDP

That leads to a critique of GDP, which is a measurement of work largely of what men do and is valued by the market. Consequently, women usually get excluded in discussions of development of which the main component is the increase in the GDP identified as “growth”. The basis of the injustice to women is this customary, and perhaps unconscious, systemic exclusion that they are subjected to. Each specific instance of injustice must be exposed and fought against, and that is what women’s movements usually do. However, it is more important to go beneath the surface and provide an alternative approach that values work for what it is and moves towards human well-being and dignity. It is in this sphere that Devaki Jain has made her most significant contributions, although much of it remains seminal. When a new frame of analysis of human well-being is perfected and becomes widely accepted, she will be remembered as one of its early pioneers.

This volume provides its crucial ingredients. From that perspective, the significant chapters are 9, 10 and 14, that, not surprisingly, are quite autobiographical as well.

Early in her professional career as an economist, particularly through the work of the South Commission and the membership of DAWN, Devaki Jain noticed that “women were bearing the greater share of the burden of poverty, whether measured in terms of scarce resources, food, clothing, shelter, medical care and education, or social hierarchy”. It led her to the conviction that time (and not money) should become the measure of value “which would entail a reversal of the values ascribed to men’s and women’s work”.

It is not surprising that her new understanding of “work” led Devaki Jain closer to Mahatma Gandhi. For Gandhi, the poverty of the many was the obverse of the prosperity of the few, and he maintained that there was enough for everybody’s need but not for everybody’s greed.

On the other hand, modern economics maintains that wants are unlimited and follows it up with the perpetual quest for more and more production. If that is the justification for “growth”, increasing inequalities will invariably accompany it as is being witnessed today all over the world. Inequalities result also from the bulging of the “services” sector in the economy, while agriculture and manufacturing, the real productive activities, lag behind.

Gandhi, therefore, exhorted the people of India to undertake constructive work and set an example by his own use of the charkha to produce thread for handwoven cloth. Once set in motion, it would lead to more productive activity meeting other needs.

Devaki Jain coins the expression “the bubbling up” theory of growth and claims that this alternative theory would argue that putting incomes and political power in the hands of the poor could generate the demand and the voice that would direct productive activity and political mobilisation. Contrasting it with GDP, she quotes another writer who said: “GDP is simply a gross measure of market activity, of money changing hands. It makes no distinction whatsoever between the desirable and undesirable, or costs and gain.… The crucial economic functions performed in the household and volunteer sectors go entirely unreckoned. As a result, GDP not only masks the breakdown of social structure and the natural habitat upon which the economy—and life itself—ultimately depend; worse, it actually portrays such breakdown as economic gain.”

Constructing an alternative theory of economic life to replace, or at least seriously challenge, what has now been accepted as conventional wisdom is not an easy task. It is much more than a mental exercise too. If it is to reflect the realities of life, it must arise from life, its struggles, joys and agonies. To Devaki Jain the women’s movement is symbolic of the commitment to that calling. While joining hands with women in the fight against the built-in injustice, Devaki Jain also urges them to go to the root of the problem.