Livelihood – A macro level intervention

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The term ‘sustainable livelihood’ was used as a development concept in the early 1990s for the first time. As per Chambers and Conway (1991), a livelihood is environmentally sustainable if it maintains or enhances the local and global assets in which livelihoods depend, and has net beneficial effects on other livelihoods. A livelihood is socially sustainable provided it can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, and provide for future generations. Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches (SLAs) which are followed by various donors (like HIVOS, the World Bank, DFID etc.), NGOs and civil society organisations are centered on people and their livelihoods. Livelihood security is very much related to poverty reduction and gainful employment generation. For the corporate sector including commercial banks who are engaged in the area of livelihood security, sustainability means economic viability, profitability as well as social and environmental sustainability.

In the following paragraphs, I would try to see how much India has performed in terms of employment-generation at a macro-level (economic sector-wise) vis-a-vis other South Asian nations, both during the 1980s and the 1990s. The  present write-up would also look at various interventions undertaken by the Central and the State governments in order to attain the objective of livelihood security. However, there are arguments and counter-arguments provided by various economists, social scientists et al, regarding the approaches undertaken by the successive governments regarding generation of livelihood security. Due to unavailability of space, the present article cannot provide a literature review on the debates surrounding the size of budget expenditure and revenue generation, made  by successive governments on gainful employment generation. Some have said that livelihood generation is nothing but providing a ‘safety net’ to the poor in the face of economic reforms and financial stabilisation, which is very much related to the much discussed and debated Washington Consensus (a term coined by John Williamson).

From the ‘Technical Report on Linkages between International Trade and Employment in Asia and the Pacific’, UNDP, Asia Pacific Regional Centre, Colombo, Poverty Reduction in South Asia, through Productive Employment, one finds that employment growth rates increased in between 1980s and 1990s in the case of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. However, in the case of India, and South Asia as a whole, employment growth rate declined in between 1980s and 1990s. Growth rate in GDP went up for Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, the growth rates declined for India, Pakistan, and South Asia as a whole. The employment elasticities increased in the case of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Asia as a whole between 1980s and 1990s. However, employment elasticities declined in the case of India.

From the table 1, one gets the idea that employment elasticity in agriculture  in the case of Bangladesh was 0.16 in 1980/ 90, 0.84 in 1990/ 00 and 2.02 in 2000/ 04. Employment elasticity (in percentage) in agriculture  in the case of India was 0.52 in 1980/ 90, 0.01 in 1990/ 00 and 0.003 in 2000/ 04.  This particular phenomenon in India has been termed by many as jobless growth , which is due to the deflationary economic policies. Employment elasticity in agriculture in the case of Sri Lanka was 0.1 in 1980/ 90, -0.01 in 1990/ 00 and 0.1 in 2000/ 04.

In India, the incidence of poverty (expressed as a percentage of people below the poverty line) declined from 54.9 per cent in 1973-74 to ‘supposedly’ 26 per cent in 1999-2000. This is to mention that there exists an entire body of literature surrounding the methodology on how to measure poverty. However, the pace of reduction in poverty varied considerably during this period with a large decline in the percentage of the population below the poverty line throughout the 1980s, a slowdown in the pace of poverty reduction in the early 1990s, and a reported but contested sharp 10% decline in poverty in the second half of the 1990s. However, no such secular decline occurred in the absolute numbers of poor.

Gender-discrimination aggravates the impact of poverty on women due to unequal allocation of food (within the household), lower wage rates, and lack of inheritance rights. Even in households that are above the poverty line on an average, women may suffer severe deprivation of various forms. Economic dependence is extremely high especially among elderly women and a large proportion of older persons suffer chronic illness and some form of disability. In rural areas of India, women have more chances of being poor. Mobility across various occupations by women is limited. Women may be hired as agricultural workers, but are commonly paid only a half to two-thirds of the wage received by men performing the same work.

The bargaining capability among women workers is quite low, except for few cases where they have formed unions such as Self Employed Women’s Assoociation (SEWA) etc. The combination of low entitlements, dependency and societal limitations that prevent realisation of their capabilities due to denial of access to, for example, literacy and education combined with ‘market-discrimination’ result in their being concentrated in the low-paid end of the market. Women, are thus employed more in the informal sector and get lower wages and remunerations. Due to lack of training and skills, women cannot move up to better valued and technical jobs. Even those who are employed in the better-skilled jobs face the problem of ‘glass-ceiling’. It has been found and said that activities, which are in the male domain such as ploughing, irrigation, levelling etc. are paid more. Those which are considered to be in the female domain, e.g. weeding, transplanting, winnowing etc. are paid less. Operations, which use machinery and draught animals are performed more by men.

Those occupations which demand direct manual-labour are performed by women. In rice cultivation for example, seeding, transplanting, weeding and threshing are considered as women’s jobs. Ploughing is done by men. In mining and quarrying, women are engaged as irregular casual workers. In the household-based industries women work as helpers. In construction work, men do the skilled work of brick laying while women mix mortar and carry head-loads. Some may point that this is due to the fact that women are biologically suited to such works. However, one should also need to consider the element of economics and gender-ideology behind such reasoning.

Present challenges

Available data suggests increased feminisation of poverty over the last decade. The increasing feminization of poverty has translated into indebtedness, especially in the rural areas; decrease in food intake thus creating vulnerability along with gender-discrimination. In fact, one can see that migration and displacement of families have resulted in human trafficking and prostitution; single-motherhood. The burden of providing for the family and care of the old and disabled have increased many fold for the poor women. Rising food insecurity, limited access to natural resources like water as a result of increasing privatisation, alienation from lands, forest resources and usurpation of property rights have adversely affected the lives of poor women. One can see increased presence of women in unprotected, sub-contracted labour.  A large number of programmes have been initiated by the Government of India for generating livelihood opportunities and creating infrastructure in the rural areas in India during the 10th Plan and the 11th Plan (based on the approach paper). (Even various state government have their own schemes for creating livelihood opportunities). They are as follows:  a. Bharat Nirman Project;  b. Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM); c. IT Mission 2007; d. National Rural Employment Guaranty Project; e. Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY); f. National Rural Health Mission; g. National Social Assistant Programme.


Livelihood security has been considered to be important not only for reduction in the levels of poverty and inequality but also for internal and external security. A central theme of Dr. Sanjaya Baru’s book ‘Strategic Consequences of India’s Economic Performance’ is that, “it is not economic growth in itself that holds the key to India’s global profile and power, its strategic role and relevance and its national security, but the nature of that growth process and the manner in which the economic challenges it faces today are addressed”. Countries from East Asia, Africa and Latin America got devastated due to poor governance and lack of maturity on the part of the governments. Hence, for a pragmatic government the main objectives to be attained are: clear out social and economic evils and all forms of discriminations embedded in the society, economic and social empowerment of the vulnerable sections of the society, ensuring transparency and accountability in the services provided by both public and private sectors, providing basic services and amenities in the area of education, health, water supply and sanitation, effective evaluation and monitoring of the public and private funded programmes and projects  etc. Last but not the least while speaking about livelihood security one should bear in mind the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) which are prepared by the member countries through a participatory process involving domestic stakeholders as well as external development partners, including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

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