Did you know that the number of girls going to school in India has been steadily growing over the years? Or that because of one public policy of replacing wood-fired stoves with gas-powered ones, millions of women are saved from indoor air pollution?
Or that less infants and new mothers die in India at childbirth than almost ever before? Or that more girls seek not only primary but secondary education in the country than ever? These transformations have been part of a ‘silent revolution’, to borrow a phrase used by the economists Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi. They use it to explain the growing numbers of women voters in India.
They have written, “There is a steady and a sharp decline in the gender bias in voting over time. In particular, we find that the sex ratio of voters (the number of women voters to every 1,000 men voters) increased very impressively from 715 in the 1960s to 883 in the 2000s. This phenomenon of declining gender bias in voting is across all the states, including the traditionally backward ‘BIMARU’ states … This decline is solely driven by the dramatic increase in women participation in the elections since the 1990s, while men participation has remained unchanged. We also find evidence that women voters are agents of change – they vote differently from men and affect re-election prospects.”
I want to use this phrase to suggest that a greater silent revolution is going on in the country as we transition, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said, from women’s development to women-led development.
In essence, what is happening is that a combination of public policy – from sanitation to supply of tapped water to the ubiquitous spread of grid electricity – is empowering women across the country, especially in smaller towns and rural areas.
But such change is unflashy and quiet; it does not make social media noise or dramatic television visuals. Therefore, not enough attention is paid to it.
If you really want to understand how this empowerment unfolds, you must consider this in terms of time. What is the one thing that all research shows? That women – often burdened with work and duties outside the home, and inside too – have less time than men.
This is why so much sociological research focuses on the missing economic evaluation of ‘domestic work’, the unpaid labour that keeps many women from pursuing their passions in their spare time.
This is why it is so important to note that the UNICEF study on ‘Access to Toilets and Safety, Convenience and Self-respect of Women in Rural India’ (February 2020) states 91 per cent of the women reported that they have been able to save up to an hour and do not have to travel up to a kilometre for defecation after the construction of toilets.
The safety and security brought about by the simple construction of toilets, and the time, so precious, saved because of the building of toilets and access to tapped water at home, these are the fundamental pillars of women-led development that is unfolding in India.
When you think of the parallel growth of digital technology and access of digitally powered information in the hands of women – who might now be safer, with more spare time – then you start to connect the dots of where growth and transformation are likely to come from in the future.
Therefore, this essay seeks to throw light upon these myriad grassroots changes that are leading to vast societal transformations in places where ‘breaking news’ does not usually come from. But for the lives of countless Indian women, for their creative energies and interests, for their dreams and ambitions, nothing could be more important than putting these building blocks in place.
India traditionally led the world in providing leaders among women, and even today, at the highest levels of politics or business, or in the world of start-ups, there are no dearth of women. I am personally privileged to work in an organisation that is heavily powered by women, and I learn constantly from my own team where most members are women.
I believe that women-led development is indeed the future for India, a nation that is civilisationally attuned to the idea of nari shakti – and the future of women-led development is going to be immensely enriching and more sustainable than the past world led predominantly by men.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])