Women Workers in India: Informality, Survival, and Resilience

Simi Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Anshula Mehta

The current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic prevailing in the country has created a drastic change in labor relations and labor processes. Only six percent of the workforce in the world economy is in the organized sector who have relatively better social security and society standards, leaving the rest of the workforce in the economy to face harsh labor conditions. In this context, historically, women have been discriminated against on multiple aspects such as pay, opportunities of social upliftment, and lack of promotion opportunities. This practice is restricted to the developing or under-developed parts of the world and the women working in informal sectors in the developed economy.

To discuss the role of women workers in a neoliberal and neoconservative system, the Gender Impact Studies Centre (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute invited Prof. Shruti Tambe to speak on Women Workers in India: Informality, Survival, and Resilience for #WebPolicyTalk as part of the series The State of Gender Equality #GenderGaps.


As the discussion started, Ritika Gupta, Assistant Director IMPRI, introduced the guest speaker Professor Shruti Tambe and the chair for the discussion with Professor Vibhuti Patel. Prof Vibhuti Patel opened the discussion by discussing how the topic has relevance on a broader spectrum and emphasized the significance of hearing from a renowned sociologist such as Prof. Shruti Tambe. Prof. Patel then invited Prof. Shruti Tambe to give her views on the topic at hand.

Vibhuti patel

Women are always at work

Prof. Shruti Tambe began her talk by mentioning the importance of discussing the issues faced by women workers in the post-pandemic period.

“women in India have been working anyway; however, this work has not been calculated.”

Shruti tambe

The sociological and economic definition of work was re-defined by the feminist intervention that has allowed the work done by women in households to be categorized as work, contrary to the traditional definition of work which only identifies gainful employment to be work. Unfortunately, this has left the work done by women across the country to be invisible and never has been quantified. In addition, caste, patriarchy, gender, and neo-liberal policies have contributed towards making the work done by women invisibilize.

Women in informal Economy

The women in the informal sector are resilient, and Prof. Tambe feels that scholars are being limited by their respective theoretical, conceptual concerns to understand the issue faced by women in the informal sector.

The cutting-edge research in the field preached that there is no movement of workers to be non-existent. Prof Tambe stated that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused the classification of laborers to be “porous and almost interchangeable”. Due to COVID-19, informality is expanding across sectors with the two categories of workers sub proletariat and lumpenproletariat on the ground is seen to be interchangeable.

The statistics on female employment in the country drawn from the census do not give the women a complete picture in employment, commanding us to be vigilant about how female workers are calculated. Most women are employed in the informal sector, attracting most female employment and being involved in manual jobs.

In their publications and works, female economists such as Nirmala Banerjee and Ila Bhat had shown a negative connotation attached towards the informal sector. Prof. Tambe mentions that the lack of industrialization was the primary cause for people to move into occupations in the primary sector. The informal sector in the urban areas was “shoved under the carpet” as the state saw it as their failure to industrialize. The 1991 reforms were the turning point as there was a labor market segmentation based on gender and the beginning of a positive narrative about the informal sector, and it becomes an approved and preferred path for employment. In 1989, for the first time, Dr. Ila Bhat’s report focused on the role of women in the informal sector. The report also indulged in understanding the employment patterns and trends among women in the informal sector.

Strategies for Survival

As one of the strategies for survival, Prof. Tambe refers to the movement in Maharashtra where common grazing land was captured and tilled. This movement was led by the renowned social worker Dadasaheb Gaikwad. Women were at the forefront of this movement and had gone through brutal treatment from the state. However, this has paved the way for their survival. The PDS (Public Distribution System) was one of the survival strategies; however, that was affected due to privatization creating consequences for the informal sector.

Empowering women working in the informal economy

While talking about tradition and modernity in the Indian context that poses constraints on women in the informal sector, Prof Shruti Tambe explains that when the macro-level controlling factors fail, it forces the informal sector participants to rely on caste communities, village communities, and religious institutions. This being a case of modernity causing constraints.

 Both tradition and modernity pose these constraints on the resilience of women involved in the informal sector. These two factors pose the constraint on resilience, and the loss of livelihood, threat to local ecological systems, privatization of essential services, and militarization ( emphasizing on the militarization of forests in India by fencing forests boundaries) limited the resilience of the women workers.

“The retreat of democratic socialist ideology that guides the state leaves women with no clear and constant state support”.

Prof Tambe further elaborated on the different sources of resilience for women workers. The following were mentioned as sources of resilience: 

  1. Civil Society 
  2. Collective Memories (Example: Narmada Bachao Andolan)
  3. Collective Goals
  4. New Communities

In conclusion to the talk by Prof. Shruti Tambe, she revisited the questions and themes covered in the talk and spoke extensively only about how to promote and improve the resilience of women in the informal sector. 

Professor Vibhuti Patel gave her remarks on the talk by Prof. Shruti Tambe and wanted to bring attention to the Dr Arjun Sengupta Committee, which focused on addressing social security and social protection issues workers in the informal sector. Prof. Patel notes the lack of discourse around the non-implementation of the suggestions by the committee in 2008. She also adds that the challenge faced by laborers in India is tough as twelve states in the country have abandoned labor protection legislatures that were formed from years of collective bargaining.

We survive as we not as I 

Dr. Nandini Mondal talked about each of the themes; informality, survival, and resilience, and gave her observations on the thoughts shared by Prof. Shruti Tambe. Dr. Nandini also shares her own experience in Shanti Niketan, where she was introduced to the idea of community resource management and has witnessed women being the best users of community resources. 


After providing her extensive remarks, Dr. Nandini raised a question regarding the dignity in labor for women in the Informal sector.

Prof. Vibhuti Patel further focuses on the “tug of war” between mainstream economics and gender economics as mainstream economics only treats marketed activities as work. She also mentions the drawback of the statistics provided by the census, which follows the principles of mainstream economics. 

Pertinent Questions

Soma K Parthasarathy raised a question regarding how women could acquire common property resources to acquire land for agriculture. Professor Tambe explained how women were able to achieve this through the multiple campaigns, and also, the pressure from the existing progressive movements finally led to “patta” being redistributed. The redistribution of these lands was achieved by raising campaigns against the state and fighting cases in the court of law. Prof Tambe also points out the brutal treatment of Dalit women who fought for these rights.

Dr. Nandini Mondal answering on how to quantify the work done by women at home said that usually goes unnoticed and how to remove the patriarchal notion that women alone are responsible for the household said that “ we need to bring out the qualitative results more and create a voice to be heard at the policy level where we can push these agendas and saying that we need the recognition”.

Prof. Vibhuti further adds that even the Court of Law has recognized housework in cases where compensation is determined, especially in divorce cases. The work put in by women at home is quantified using time-use analysis. Prof Tambe also draws attention to the difference in ideology among women who look after their households differently depending on their status quo or caste.

Prof. Tambe, on a question about how the state machinery can be accountable and responsible for the resilience of women informal sector She replied that “ the state is not ready to take responsibility and be accountable”. She further explains the need for the labor codes to acknowledge the role of women in GDP contribution.

Towards the end of the question and answer session Prof. Shruti Tambe, Prof. Vibhuti Patel, and Soma Parthasarathy talked about the dire need to change how the census considers the work done by women at home. Prof. Vibhuti adds that in the census of 1991 that the census questions asked what all the women did in the household.

Concluding Remarks

Dr. Vibhuti Patel concluded the discussion by thanking Prof. Shruti Tambe and Dr Nandini Mondal for their insights and observations during the discussion.  Prof. Vibhuti again reiterated the need for the state to take the right actions, implement the right policies, and include women more in current policies that can improve their state in the informal sector. She mentions the need to first recognize women’s work at home or outside so that they can be helped to come out of the negative aftermath of the pandemic. The fact that the state has not taken the initiative to recognize workers in their system is a failure, where Anganwadi workers and Asha workers who receive remunerations from the state are still identified as volunteers.

Prof Shruti Tambe further clarified her points on resilience in her final remarks, as she says “resilience is by compulsion”, as participants in the system such as the state and the patriarchal society that exists pose constraints that cause women to stand with resilience to move forward.

Acknowledgment: Arjun Sujit Varma is a Research Intern at IMPRI

Youtube Video : Women Workers in India: Informality, Survival and Resilience



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