Kamal Hassan’s recent announcement to pay housewives for their work at home sparked a nationwide debate. It became an even bigger issue when Sashi Tharoor, a tall leader of the Indian National Congress, welcomed the same, saying it would “…recognize & monetize the services of women homemakers in society, enhance their power & autonomy & create near-universal basic income.”(sic)
What was considered as a hare-brained idea being endorsed by two men who clearly know nothing about feminism, women empowerment and employment, became controversial when Karuna Nundy, an advocate, put her weight behind this idea, and added that women should also have claimed on 50% of their husband’s salaries, in addition to direct cash transfers by state.
Surprisingly, this series of events didn’t quite enrage young Indian feminists the way I expected it to. While I simply laughed at Kamal Hassan’s idea, the fact that prominent members of the society were agreeing with this was disturbing.
This is not to say that I don’t attach any value to a homemaker’s work.
My own mother is a homemaker. She chose not to work because she wanted to devote her time to raising her children, especially her daughter who received educational opportunities that she herself had been deprived of. Despite being eligible for many employment opportunities, and the constant urging from her children and husband, she chose to stay at home. And this is the story of most women of her generation.
Ask my mother if she’d like to be paid for things she did purely out of love? She’ll laugh, call it an insult and then go on a long rant about how any amount of money given to her will not compare because her work was done selflessly.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of India recognized the value of a housewife’s work. The case involved compensation to be paid to a deceased man’s father. The man and his wife lost their lives in a road accident in April 2014. The Court increased the amount of compensation to be paid by the insurance company, by Rs. 11.20 lakh. Relying on the Lata Wadhwa case of 2001, the Court enunciated the principle that compensation must be granted to the housewives based on their services in the home. Justice Ramana also referred to the NSO report titled ‘Time Use in India-2019’, wherein it was stated that women spend an average of 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic work, in contrast to 97 minutes by men.
To quote Justice Ramana “The sheer amount of time & effort that is dedicated to household work by individuals, who are more likely to be women than men, is not surprising when one considers the plethora of activities a homemaker undertakes. A homemaker often prepares food for the entire family, manages the procurement of groceries & other household shopping needs, cleans & manages the house & its surroundings, undertakes decoration, repairs & maintenance work, looks after the needs of the children & any aged member of the household, manages budgets & so much more”.
Now my law school friends, and I hailed this judgement because it recognized the value added by housewives to the society. No amount of money will make up for a housewife’s work, but recognizing its significance is definitely progressive.
Yet, as an equal-rights champion, I continue to sneer at what the likes of Hassan and Nundy espouse.
Firstly, Indian women still struggle to get the freedom to work. We have come a long way in women empowerment, but we have an even longer way to go. Most societies, even today, are largely patriarchal, and Indian society is no different. If a family does not wish for their daughter to work, they shall marry her off with the words, “work if your in-laws and husband allow you to.” This becomes problematic if the in-laws want to keep her at home. While in an ideal world, the woman would not need anybody’s permission to work, the fact is that many still have to beg for it. In such a situation, if the State offers them money to stay at home, it will discourage the family members from seeing logic in their precious daughter-in-law stepping out, when she should be at home, serving them.
Secondly, the fiscal impact. India currently runs a massive deficit, as our expenditure exceeds our revenues. Where will the State get the money from to pay homemakers? The State gets money from taxes, primarily, income tax. Now India’s income tax structure has been designed in a way that only a small percentage of the population pays income tax- 3%, to be precise. The reality is that a significantly lesser number actually pays, owing to evasion, rebate for some, etc. The burden always falls disproportionately on the salaried class. These imprudent schemes will only increase the burden of taxes on the few individuals who pay; do we want the salaried class paying over 50% income tax now?
Lastly, coming to Nundy’s idea of a wife having claimed to 50% of all that is her husband’s. A marriage structure where one spouse earns whereas the other stays at home to discharge domestic duties is supposed to be such that while one takes care of the home, the other takes care of the finances. Irrespective of who the homemaker is – man or woman – it falls upon the breadwinner to take care of all the economic needs of the family members. A marriage which is transactional will only destroy its sanctity.
Additionally, why isn’t anyone talking about men? Will Hassan also pay men who stay at home while their wives earn? Will Nundy also endorse husbands having claimed on 50% of their wives’ salaries and assets?
While women friendly laws with regard to alimony, domestic violence, etc. exist to help the victims of a deeply patriarchal society, we cannot overlook the fact that many times men have fallen victim to exploitation and false cases. This only makes it worse.
A true socialist always wants real economic equilibrium in the society. A true feminist always wants equality of all sexes. Ideas like these, aim to attain neither. These are simply vote-bank gimmicks and liberalism-socialism gone berserk, which sadly, the innocent Janata will buy, and will then disturb the real fight for equality that goes on in the society today.
Homemakers deserve applause for all that they do. My class 12th economics textbook talked about externalities and how their impact on national income was never calculated. “Work Done by Housewives” was at the top of the list of Positive Externalities. And I agree. The contribution made by homemakers to the economy and society today is unparalleled. I am not glorifying staying at home. Everyone should have the right to step outside their homes, do jobs they absolutely love and bring home fruits of their labor with pride. But if someone, anyone, irrespective of their gender, chooses to run the household and raise their children, the repayment for the same should be appreciation, respect and a life of dignity.