Honey, I blew up the GDP

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Will the new Supreme Court ruling finally make us value housework — in cash?

By Urvashi Butalia

FOR MANY decades now, women activists all over India have been demanding one major change in how women’s work is seen: look at the economic value of this work, find a way to evaluate it, put a figure to it. Without counting this work, all other economic indicators become meaningless. In 2001, their efforts paid off somewhat when the Census authorities agreed to put questions about the nature of women’s work to women themselves and not to their husbands. But the definition of ‘work’ remained somewhat limited and home-makers did not count as productive workers.

Recently, the Supreme Court delivered a judgment that could change all this and have radical and far-reaching consequences for women’s lives. The tragedy is, it took a woman’s death to begin the process of changing women’s lives. Home-maker Renu Agarwal died in an accident in Allahabad several years ago. Her family was awarded a compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh by a tribunal, which took as its legal basis the legal provision that an unemployed person’s income should be calculated as a third of the spouse’s income. Renu’s husband sought an increase in this amount, approached the High Court and then took his appeal to the Supreme Court.

In a radical step, the Supreme Court cited a report by an NGO that values Indian women’s home-based work at $612.8 billion per year

Justices AK Ganguly and GS Singhvi not only increased the compensation amount to Rs 6 lakh, with an additional 6 percent interest for the years of pending in court, but also pronounced on how women who worked in the home were looked at in law and policy. They went a step further and spoke of how women’s contribution to society was rendered invisible and not calculated, pointing particularly to the Census where women’s household work is seen as non-productive and where its economic worth remains uncalculated.

Illustration: Anand Naorem

Seeing women’s home-based work as without economic value, the judges said, was tantamount to gender bias, and they suggested that not only the particular law in question (the Motor Vehicles Act) but also others should be changed, and the question of the value of women’s work should be taken up by Parliament. In a further radical step, they cited a report by an NGO that values Indian women’s homebased work at $612.8 billion per year!

Whether this figure is correct is not the issue right now — more important is the principle that there can be a figure. A figure that’ll allow women to think of themselves as economic beings, recognise their overall contribution to the economy, and potentially transform gender relations — by equalising their economic base to impact property and inheritance by enabling women to assert their contribution. A figure that’ll impact not only women who are homemakers by virtue of being housewives, but those who do domestic work for a living — once a value is put on such work, they, too, will benefit from this. And there’s much much more.

RADICAL CHANGE has strange ways of entering our lives. Sometimes it comes with a bang and much fanfare and at other times it creeps in by the backdoor. There’s not been much noise about this Supreme Court judgment. And yet, just as the sexual harassment guidelines were brought in and the Domestic Violence Act introduced, this judgment has the potential to set a precedent for bringing in what is perhaps the most radical change women’s groups have been seeking, not only in India, but worldwide. Economically valuing women’s home-based work has been one of the longest standing demands of women’s movements and activists worldwide. Can it be possible that India will actually show the way to the rest of the world by bringing in this startling change?

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