The last elections in a few States sparked a new political and social debate by promising salaries for women’s household work. Some courts also awarded compensation to families of homemakers. Although isolated, these events accentuate a widening fault-line — the lack of a policy framework that acknowledges the contribution of caregiving to the country’s economy.

Whether childcare, caring for the elderly or doing domestic work, caregiving is the invisible engine that has silently fuelled the economy. The work that makes all other work possible.

Indian women disproportionately shoulder the burden of unpaid care work, spending more than five hours per day on it as compared to only 1.37 hours by men. This disproportionate burden is an issue of equality — and economic growth.

Considering unpaid care work as a quintessentially feminine activity, is one of the key reasons behind women’s falling participation in paid work in India, currently at 16.1 per cent.

Institutionalising equity in caregiving has become urgent. Systemic measures like workplaces more actively supporting men’s roles as fathers and caregivers and men sharing a more significant burden of caregiving at home are essential. Similarly, the ubiquitous availability of quality and affordable paid care is essential to reduce the burden of caregiving on women.

Quality and affordable care is required at both ends of life in all societies. However, the provisioning of care in India remains a frayed patchwork of state, market, and familial care. As a result, women end up being the primary caregivers. The US recently unveiled the American Families Plan that classified “care” as essential infrastructure, marking a major shift in perception.

Most people cannot work unless they are confident that their child or elderly parent in need of care is being looked after. A single caregiver who provides safe and quality care might provide all other family members a chance to earn money, creating a multiplier effect. However, India cannot rely on women to do the bulk of unpaid care work and keep pushing them out of the workforce. Anyone who has ever looked for reliable paid care for their family knows that finding such care in India remains an arduous task. The demand far outstrips supply.

Example for early childhood care, most households where both parents work have to rely on family-based circles of support. The few who can afford help, opt for home-based untrained nannies. The constraints are severe for low-income households. Poverty necessitates both parents to work, and they cannot afford market substitutes for their unpaid labour.

Govt support inadequate

Central and State government programmes remain inadequate in catering to the growing demand for early childhood care. Studies estimate that given the rapid shift toward nuclear families, the demand for childcare could be as high as five million facilities in cities alone.

Similarly, with India’s rising life expectancy, the demand for long-term elderly care, preventive and supportive care services has continued to rise.

The government has played a crucial role in facilitating innovation and market development for critical sectors. Encouraging innovation in the care sector will be critical to turning the unfair burden of unpaid work into an economic opportunity.

The WEF estimates 40 per cent of emerging job opportunities will be located in the care sector, given the global shift in demographics, changing social norms that have led to greater social acceptance of paid care, and the uptick in demand for trained caregivers.

Studies show that rich countries with a higher tax base have larger paid care sectors. However, some middle-income countries also have paid care sectors that make up more than 15 per cent of their employed population. Deliberate creation of policy and care infrastructure by governments can go a long way in providing universal affordable and quality care.

First step in this journey should start with better enforcement of existing government provisions.

Second step would be to experiment with different types of decentralised provisioning, understanding the pros and cons of different models of care, and subsidising care for certain groups as essential. Some models of care could include encouraging childcare entrepreneurs, co-locating childcare and elderly care programmes, cooperative- and community-based models for low-income households, vouchers, and care credits.

Three solutions

Market development and innovation to encourage the growth of a paid care sector offers three solutions.

First, paid care workers provide professional skills that differ from the knowledge and skills of family caregivers. They include certified early childhood care and geriatric care professionals.

Second, availability of quality and affordable care creates choices for families, particularly women, to share some of the labor of care with paid workers and make a choice to enter the paid workforce.

Third, it creates more employment opportunities for women represented disproportionately in the care sector. It also encourages change in social norms by de-stigmatising men in caregiving roles at home and as care work professionals.

India is poised for creating a policy framework that allows the government to explore, experiment and take risks on behalf of the public to create an ecosystem for a robust “paid care” sector. But first, we need a paradigm shift in how we treat, value, and invest in care work.

The Hindu BusinessLine first published this article on 31st March, 2022.