On her arrival in India recently, the words of Gloria Steinem, American feminist and leader of the women’s liberation movement, sounded like bells tolling for all women in today’s modern Indian society. “I came [to India] and what was here a half-a-century ago is still here… and yet there is everything else.” Studying data on the sex ratio in India over 60 years supports her grim observation. In this essay we provide a political economy explanation for the persistence of gender inequality in Indian society over the long run.
The much debated Women’s Reservation Bill proposes to reserve a third of all legislature seats for women, at national and State levels in India. If passed, this Bill would uplift the general mood of the nation which has been engulfed by a heightened sense of gender inequality over the last year. Following the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old student of physiotherapy in Delhi last year, there was massive and prolonged outpouring of public anger across the nation. India has never looked more unsafe for women. The Bill is going to assuage a hurt population. It is, however, unlikely to solve the fundamental problem that Indian women suffer from.
Within a democratic system, policies are implemented by a government that is formed “by the consent of the governed.” In India, even though fair elections are held at regular intervals for State Assemblies and the National Parliament, they do not reflect the true consent of the people because a large number of women voters are “missing” from the electorate. We estimate that more than 65 million women (approximately 20 per cent of the female electorate) are missing and, therefore, these elections reveal the preferences (or the will) of a population that is artificially skewed against women.
Worsening sex ratio
The phrase “missing women” was coined by Amartya Sen when he showed that in parts of the developing world, the ratio of women to men in the population is suspiciously low. The worsening sex ratio (number of females per 1,000 males) in countries such as India and China reflected the gross neglect of women. He estimated that more than 100 million women were missing due to gender discrimination. It was commonly believed that “boy preference” at birth and the mistreatment of young girls were the main reasons. Some careful and subsequent data work by Anderson and Ray showed that excess female mortality is a more universal phenomenon which holds for all age groups in these countries. They provided detailed decomposition of the missing women by age and cause of death and a particularly sinister observation was that the number of excess female deaths from “intentional injuries” or reported violence was disturbingly high in India.
There is unanimous agreement among experts that this phenomenon is one of the most momentous problems faced by the developing world in modern times. The general sense is that it can be corrected by political action and public policy. It is in that regard that we explore the role of democracy in solving the missing women’s problem. We analyse Indian electorate data over 50 years and study whether solutions to this dangerous trend can emerge from within such a political system.
Using Dr. Sen’s methodology, we compute the sex ratio in the electorate across all the States in India over 50 years. The electorate includes all the people who are registered to vote in elections. In the next step, we use Kerala, the State with the best sex ratio in the electorate, as a reference for all the States to compute the number of missing women. This simple analysis throws up three shocking facts.
First, in the last 50 years of Indian democracy, the absolute number of missing women has increased fourfold from 15 million to 68 million. This is not merely a reflection of the growth in the overall population, but, rather, of the fact that this dangerous trend has worsened with time. As a percentage of the female electorate, missing women have gone up significantly — from 13 per cent to approximately 20 per cent.
Second, the adverse sex ratio of the electorate in India has not changed significantly over the last 50 years. In fact, when we look at different States, we see that it has become worse for most of the large backward States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. This disappointing trend means that there are many more missing women voters in the population. Hence, fewer female voters will voice their opinions through elections. Political decisions which are based on election outcomes therefore underrepresent the female population. They are not a true reflection of the female policy preferences.
Third, with the exception of a very few States such as Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the sex ratio in the electorate is far worse than the general sex ratio in the population. This means that not all the women who are eligible to vote in Indian elections are registered to vote and, therefore, they are missing from the electoral list. In backward States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, this difference is as high as 9.3 and 5.7 percentage points which translated into millions in absolute numbers.
The worsening sex ratio of the Indian electorate has deep and long lasting consequences given the democratic system of governance. Within a democracy, politicians compete to get elected and though it is well recognised that men and women differ in their policy preferences, the adverse sex ratio of the electorate will make it unlikely that the preferences of women get significant attention.
Competitive electoral politics
In fact, because of the missing women, the competitive electoral process will perpetuate gender-biased policies in India. The problem here is that the politicians respond to the preferences of the existing electorate in the population and not to the counterfactual.
If the 65 million missing women were present within the electorate, they would have an important influence in shaping government policies. What is troubling in a democratic system of governance is that even if a politician is not biased against women in his policy preferences, the electoral competition will ensure that he chooses policies in favour of his average electorate which is increasingly male-dominated in India. This is why gender-biased practices and policies will be perpetuated over the long run in a democratic system like India’s unless there is an exogenous shock to this system.
This problem is akin to a market failure for democracy. Indeed, this could potentially explain why the existing political framework is inadequately equipped to address this pressing concern and why gender bias has persisted in Indian society. It is also not surprising that even though India has had a very good track record of holding regular elections and a democratic form of government, it remains one of worst performers in the Gender Inequality Index (GII) of the World Bank. The GII captures the loss in achievement within a country due to gender inequality and is based on measures of health, labour force participation and empowerment. In the Human Development Report, 2012, India performs more poorly than neighbouring Pakistan in the GII despite having a higher per capita income and a democratic government. More strikingly, it is ranked 133rd out of 146 countries and even lags behind war-torn countries such as Iraq and Sudan.
To what extent, then, can women’s reservation in Parliament and the State Assemblies address the gender bias problem in India? In our opinion, this will have a very limited impact. The underlying assumption with the Women’s Reservation Bill is that women as policymakers are more sensitive to women-related issues. However, it is crucial to note that India has experimented with women’s reservation at the level of the panchayat or village councils since the mid-1990s. This has generated very interesting research on whether women’s reservation has had any impact on the allocation of resources towards women. So far, the evidence from this experiment is mixed — some find evidence in favour of a positive impact while others do not find any impact of this reservation.
The impact of the reservation, I believe, will depend on the exact nature of the reservation policy. For example, if seats are reserved on a quick rotation basis then there might be no long-term policies favouring women and thereby having minimal impact. On the other hand, if seats are reserved for a certain number of election rounds then the impact would depend on the basis of the reservation at the constituency level. Here, we are inclined to propose a reservation policy based on the gender ratio in the constituency — reserve those seats where the gender ratio of women to men is the worst. The fundamental reason for this is that an adverse gender ratio is a measure of neglect of women in that society. So, if the objective of women’s reservation is “compensatory justice” then it should start with those constituencies where the neglect is the highest.
The competitive electoral process, however, is likely to undo the impact of any women’s reservation policy. The logic of this is that if both men and women have equal rights to vote, then even in reserved constituencies where there are fewer women compared to men, women political candidates who compete with each other to get themselves elected might choose policies which favour men. Once again, the competitive electoral process even in the presence of women’s reservation, might perpetuate gender-biased policies.
In a nutshell, the competitive electoral process in Indian democracy with or without women’s reservation will fail to deliver policies that are not gender-biased. In the presence of missing women, whose consent cannot be taken into account in the electoral process, democracy will fail to deliver policies that promote women’s welfare (especially in those situations where there is a divergence in opinion between men and women). India can begin to address this disaster by first recognising that an adverse gender ratio is a human rights problem which is an outcome of the sustained, gross neglect of women. And the solution for this lies outside the competitive democratic system.
(The writers are professors at the Indian School of Business. Shamika Ravi is also a Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution, India Center, New Delhi.)