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Stronger State Intervention for women won’t work. Here’s why


The creation of a system that allows women the same set of opportunities cannot be achieved by state intervention. Why do I say that? Because state intervention has already failed in India, and conclusively so. A variety of measures – maternity benefit, equal remuneration, protection against discrimination, dowry prohibition, pre-natal diagnostic act and have had no considerable effect. This is because India has no ‘state capacity’, many would argue. It is however not a question of state capacity, but rather of societal attitudes. The law, no matter strict will only be mere words in the statute book without accompanying social resolve to enforce the law. The law cannot negatively coerce society to change attitudes and behavior. The opposite  – incentivizing certain attitudes may have pay-offs.[1]

The problem is societal behaviour

The lack of societal pressure to stamp out a practice – dowry, sex determination and so on, can explain the failure of accompanying statues prohibiting them. These can ostensibly be changed if attitudes and values change. The Union government seems to be doing just that through the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP) programme. A quick overview of the material of the scheme seems to display a certain amount of awareness on how to change attitudes to women. [Report of Awareness Programmes in 75 critical districts | Report of NAVADISHA Programme | BBBP Master Module]. How far awareness programmes will be successful can only be shown by time. The Economic Survey – 2017 also indicates that attitudes to women are changing, especially with increasing economic growth [2]. I will deal with this proposition extensively later.

While social practices can change, the laws meant to promote women in the economic sector have a fundamental flaw. Namely, they cannot be enforced, and that they become a deterrent for women to be hired at all. The implementation of these legislations some suggest, can be improved by reforming the state’s enforcement mechanism. However, these sort of interventions will inevitably be counteracted by the market. Furthermore, the legislations have a more fundamental flaw: Who judges whether ‘equal pay’ is being given for ‘equal work’? Who evaluates whether there is ‘equal work’ by two persons?

The prohibition  of discrimination while hiring will also unfortunately fail since there is no ground for prosecution without any outward/public statement of bias. Looking at the hiring patterns of companies to determine instances of discrimination (i.e., looking at the outcomes) will also fail, since there are a variety of factors that determine hiring. The law therefore only serves as a tool to harass entrepreneurs by the state. The provisions of the act create an environment that allows for harassment of the employer by a spurned former employee.

The maternity benefits act, while desirable to an extent, creates an unfair burden on the employer. It harms the ability of women to re-enter the workplace after giving birth, and also serves as a disincentive to hire women [3]. A question may be raised at this instant if stricter penalties and an enforcement mechanism can counteract this. Most certainly, to a certain extent, yes.  The cost to the market however would be quite significant, and therefore it would be undesirable. The inability to police such behavior, as illustrated earlier is because there is no parameter to judge whether there has been any discrimination.

The Question of Reservation

A consistent point raised against my arguments on feminism was on reservation. I argued against reservation, and the counter argument was that the reservation system is a ‘set of training wheels’ meant to ‘bridge the gap’ between men and women. The argument is that a systematic inequality exists with respect to women’s ability to participate in the political process.

It makes sense in a superficial sense, but not when you apply real world mechanics to it, the idea will inevitably fail. Take for example reservation in Lok Sabha Constituencies for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. Why have they failed? The problem is that mandating outcomes does not solve the problems of marginalized communities. The barriers that exist do not disappear the day reservation is promulgated, and they do not resolve itself with time, as the Indian experience has shown. A further problem is that reservation once put in place will never be ‘repealed’ so to speak. Doing so would endanger votes from the constituency which is at the far end of the stick. American Economist Thomas Sowell has shown in Affirmative Action around the World (2004) that they have little to no effect on preference groups while imposing huge costs [4].

There is also a proven example of political reservation does not work – take Local Self Government Institutions (LSGIs) in Kerala. LSGIs have a certain proportion (1/3rd) of seats reserved for women. However, one can see that more often than not, women are kept away from political power in Kerala [5] – the only exceptions in the modern history being K.R. Gowariamma and Susheela Gopalan, who came the closest to becoming the first women chief minister [6]. Experiences at the ground level at Bihar also indicate that the reservation is ineffective, since men still remote control their wives [7].


State intervention in ‘favour’ of women have not worked, and nor will they work. In certain circumstances, they have worked against the interests of women as in the case of Maternity Benefit. The question that must be posed is ‘How do women overcome this barriers?’ if not through state – imposed mandates?

The way forward for the women’s movement is to first set certain rational objectives, which itself is lacking within the movement. Right now, it only seeks to extend certain (undesirable) privileges to a group, which will neither benefit society nor the preferred group.

It is time for a self-evaluation.


[1] Behavioral economics, for example, can be utilized to this end. This article in Livemint on using Nobel winner Thaler’s work for Swacch Bharat Abhiyan has an important argument to be made.

[2] Economic Survey Chapter 07, 7.47 : ‘Encouragingly, gender outcomes exhibit a convergence pattern, improving with wealth to a greater extent in India than in similar countries so that even where it is lagging it can expect to catch up over time.’

[3] Given under ‘Brief remarks on feminsm‘ : ” Imagine that you own a manufacturing business and there’s a managerial post that needs to be filled. There are two candidates – A and B. A and B are both young, recently married, and have fairly similar academic and work experiences. However, A is a man and B is a woman. Who will I hire? The logical and rational choice is A. Why? The Maternal Benefits Act. I will have to comply in all probability with it, providing B with six months of paid leave and a creche facility if my unit qualifies. In short, I will have to go out of my way if I want to employ B. Which is untenable. A similar argument is made in this Business Line article. The same problem exists with the idea of menstrual leave.

[4] Dr. Sowell has some interesting observations on India’s affirmative action policies – to quote from Page 49 of the book – “ is hard to escape the conclusion that affirmative action in India has produced minimal benefits to those most in need of them and maximum resentments and hostility toward them on the part of others. The need for supplementary contributions—whether financial or cultural—from members of the designated beneficiary groups themselves, in order to make preferences and quotas effective, has all but ensured that the benefits would go disproportionately to those individuals and subgroups who are already most fortunate, rather than those most in need.

[5] Looking at outcomes is a bad move, as I have suggested before in this article. But there is a very clear case of bias in this instance. Read this HT report for a perspective.

[7] Business Today ground report in 2014.

The final question in the Panel on contemporary feminism was on why I think the intervention by the women’s empowerment movement should be independent of the state. The questioner argued that in a democratic system such as ours, we ourselves are the state, and argued for further state intervention. I was not able to answer as well as I would have liked to. This article is to answer a part of that question: Specifically why stronger state intervention  will not work.

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