This paper is a contribution towards understanding reasons behind declining female employment in India as indicated by recent rounds of large-sample Employment and Unemployment Surveys conducted by the National Sample Survey (NSS) Organisation.

Following points emerge from the analysis presented in the paper.

There was a sharp decline in female workforce participation rate from 41 per cent in 1999-2000 to 32 per cent in 2011-12. This decline was sharper in rural areas (from 48 per cent in 1999-2000 to 37 per cent in 2011-12), and can be primarily attributed to massive contraction of employment opportunities in agriculture, which was not compensated by rising employment opportunities in rural non-farm sector. In contrast, among men, decline in the availability of employment in agriculture was compensated in part by the expansion of employment in construction. Looking at rural and urban areas together, employment for men declined by 11 percentage points in agriculture and increased by about 6 percentage points in construction between 1999-2000 and 2011-12.

The paper identifies three important factors that are likely to have contributed to a decline in the levels of employment of women.

  • Proportion of households that did not have any land to cultivate increased from about 41 per cent in 1999-2000 to about 49 per cent in 2011-12. Women are primarily employed in agriculture. Decline in proportion of households that cultivated land directed resulted in a decline in proportion of women who were self-employed in agriculture. With a clear cost advantage in mechanisation over use of animals for draught power, there has been an increasing adoption of labour displacing technology in agriculture. Increased concentration of operational holdings is also likely to have contributed to a greater adoption of labour displacing technologies in agriculture as large cultivators deploy labour displacing technology to a greater extent. Adoption of labour displacing technology results in a decline in overall labour absorption in agriculture.
  • Lack of access to basic amenities and serious problems of safety for women impede physical mobility of women. Very few rural women migrate or commute to urban areas to take advantage of whatever non-agricultural employment is available in the towns and cities. Proportion of rural women who did some work in urban areas is minuscule, and increased only marginally from about 0.22 per cent in 1999-2000 to only about 0.46 per cent in 2011-12. Although small in magnitude, the direction of change in the proportion of urban women working in rural areas is noteworthy. Mainly driven by a small increase in absorption of women in manufacturing enterprises located in rural areas, the proportion of urban women doing some work in rural areas increased from 2.57 per cent in 1999-2000 to 4.02 per cent in 2011-12.
  • Finally, with dismal levels of education and technical training, women are marginalised from the limited opportunities for more remunerative skilled work. In 2011-12, only 0.66 per cent of rural working-age women workers and only 7.6 per cent of urban working-age women workers had received secondary-level education and some technical training. Even among women employed in education and health care services, a vast majority did not have secondary-level education and technical training.

As per the UN System of National Accounts, persons engaged in activities that result in production of different commodities for household use should be considered a part of the labour force. However, in the NSSO Surveys of Employment and Unemployment, women engaged only in housework are considered out of labour force even if the housework involves regular participation in activities for producing/acquiring food, fuel, fodder, clothing and other commodities. With contraction of employment opportunities for women, proportion of rural working-age women who were principally engaged in housework increased from about 55 per cent in 1999-2000 to about 62 per cent in 2011-12. A substantial proportion of women who were reported to be principally engaged in housework were also engaged in activities for obtaining different commodities for household use in addition to doing care-work for the household. This was particularly important for rural women. In 2011-12, about 58 per cent of rural working-age houseworker women regularly worked to obtain fuel or fodder for household use. Similarly, about 45 per cent of rural houseworker women regularly worked to obtain food for the household. Abour 31 per cent of rural houseworkers had to regularly fetch water from outside, and about 30 per cent had to regularly work to prepare clothing for household use. Among urban working-age women who were principally engaged in housework, about 25 per cent worked to make clothing for household use, and about 13 per cent worked to obtain food for household use.

We argue that women engaged in these specified activities for home use should be considered a part of the labour force. We show that by doing this, the size of labour force in the age group 15 to 59 years increases by 28 per cent. Further, we argue that, because these activities are unremunerated and minimally productive, women engaged in only these activities other than care-work for their own households should be treated as unemployed. By accounting for this, the paper shows that, in 2011-12, the open unemployment rate among working age persons was 23.8 per cent. Unemployment rates were particularly high among women and had increased from about 47 per cent in 1999-2000 to over 51 per cent in 2011-12.

See the full paper here.

Recommended citation:

Rawal, Vikas and Saha, Partha (2015), “Women’s Employment in India: What do Recent NSS Surveys of Employment and Unemployment Show?”, Statistics on Indian Economy and Society, Jan 28, url:

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