Affordable childcare can propel the economy
For women to succeed outside their homes, there is a need to provide affordable and quality childcare facilities, which reduces the time spent on childcare
The female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in India is at 24.8%, as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2021-22 estimates — one of the lowest in the region. One of the reasons cited for such a low rate is the disproportionate amount of time women spend on unpaid and care work, especially in the hinterland and among poorer sections. A 2019 survey showed that around the world, women spend 10 times more on unpaid work as compared to men. The time spent by women on child and other care work was found to be almost double that of men. This is part of a global trend — a recent report by the Center for Global Development found that women spent 173 additional hours of unpaid labour caring for children, while men only did 59 hours; the gap was wider for middle- and low-income countries.
So, for women to succeed outside their homes, there is a need to reduce the time spent on childcare, which is possible only if there are affordable and quality childcare facilities. The non-negotiable components of quality childcare facilities should include nutritious meals for children, well-kept facilities for nurturing and developing their growth, and accommodating the working hours of women or mothers.
For low-income families, the anganwadi centre was envisioned as a solution to this problem. However, these centres, which cater to children between zero and three, remain open only for three hours. The other facilities available for women workers in low-income households are either paid or don’t provide quality service. So, there is a dire requirement for quality childcare facilities that are affordable.
The Union government has run the National Creche Scheme since 2006 for children between six months to six years for low-income mothers who go to work at least 15 days a month. The programme, renamed and launched as Palna last year, offers a safe environment for children and has the provision to remain open for 7.5 hours per day. This is in keeping with the working hours of women who can use this time to earn a dignified income.
The other important programme is the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY), which compensates for the loss of wages due to pregnancy and childbirth, and induces health-seeking behaviour among women.
Both Palna and PMMVY are designed to help women enter and stay in the workforce, and both are resource intensive. In the Union Budget 2023-24, the Samarthya sub-scheme of Mission Shakti, which aims to empower women and has the two programmes as sub-components, was allocated ₹ 2581.96 crore. Within Samarthya, the Palna scheme received ₹ 104 crore, and PMMVY received ₹ 2,630 crore. The projected investment in the programmes from 2022-26 was also provided as ₹ 526 crore and ₹ 1,31,50 crore, respectively.
While this is a welcome start, the schemes will need much greater mobilisation of resources to remain operational with quality facilities. PMMVY also needs to be inflation-indexed as it is a compensation for the wage loss provided to women in maternity. Nevertheless, the two government schemes have shown the way forward.
India officially becomes the world’s most populous country this year. Exploiting this demographic dividend requires creating conditions that allow all of its workforce — especially poorer women — to earn an income. As the population increases, the demand for nominally paid but quality childcare services will only rise.
Grassroots workers have made the case that eventually, 1% of the Gross Domestic Product should be spent on meeting the needs of women informal workers from low-income households. If this is done, women who are unable to outsource childcare work or afford to pay for privately run facilities will finally be able to stand on their feet, enter factories and offices, and contribute more robustly to the economy. The country will only benefit in such a scenario.
Sona Mitra is principal economist, IWWAGE, and Divya Singh is research manager, IWWAGE. The views expressed are personal.