|ONE of the key issues in the elections to the Lok Sabha held in April-May 2004 was that of mass unemployment, which was greatly exacerbated by the savagely neoliberal policies of the NDA government from 1998 to 20004. In all the pre-poll surveys, this came across as the problem that the electorate was most concerned about. The people delivered a remarkable electoral verdict against neoliberal policies as well as against the politics of communalism.
The UPA government that came into being as a result of the people's verdict had to recognise this reality, at least partially, and include the enactment of legislation to provide a limited employment guarantee in its common minimum programme. Given the continuing dominance of the neoliberal mindset within the UPA leadership, it was clear that the struggle for employment would have to be waged through mass movements as well. It is well known that neoliberal policies have particularly affected female and youth employment severely. It is against this background that both the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) have taken up the issue in a big way.
The Tamil Nadu unit of the AIDWA held an impressive state-level convention on the right of women to gainful employment at Dindigul on September 12. Considerable preparation had gone into the convention. A carefully researched draft report on women and employment in the specific context of Tamil Nadu was prepared for discussion at the convention. Important material for the report came from extensive discussions with field level activists from various parts of the state, especially the districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam which account for a significant proportion of the agrarian economy of the state, and are also strongholds of the Left-led kisan movements. Discussions in the AIDWA sub-committees for kisan and for home-based women workers also provided useful inputs. A study of the relevant literature was also part of the inputs that went into the preparation of the draft report.
A total of 440 delegates from all parts of the state participated in the convention. The venue of the convention was named after the late Comrade Kasthuri, a leader and office bearer of AIDWA-TN for many years. The convention began with Pappa Umanath, veteran leader of the communist and the women's movements in the state, currently a member of the central committee of the CPI(M) and also the patron of AIDWA-TN, hoisting the AIDWA flag amidst rousing slogans. Following the homage to martyrs, Dr V Vasanthi Devi, chairperson of the State Women's Commission, a former vice-chancellor and a well-known progressive educationist, inaugurated the convention. In her address, she highlighted the fact that neoliberal policies had led to widening and deepening of rural poverty. The absence of rural livelihood opportunities had led to large-scale distress migration. Sizeable male migration had also led to a sharp increase in the proportion of female-headed households. Dr Vasanthi Devi noted that women's unemployment acquires a special significance in this context.
U Vasuki, general secretary of AIDWA-TN unit, presented the part of the draft report dealing with female employment in the organized sector. She pointed out that neoliberal policies in force since 1991 had meant ban on recruitment to government services, privatisation of PSUs, indiscriminate automation, non-filling up of vacancies, casualisation, contract appointments against permanent posts, withdrawal of the State from several key segments of the service sector and pampering of capital accompanied by indifference to employment as a policy objective. All these had contributed to greater unemployment as well as poorer quality of employment for women. In the one-year period from December 2002 to December 2003, the number of women in Tamil Nadu in government employment including the central and state governments as well as all quasi-government bodies and local bodies-had declined by 20,000 from 4.4 lakhs to 4.2 lakh. Considering that the government sector accounts for two-thirds of all organised sector employment, this means essentially that employment opportunities in the organised sector for women are practically non-existent. Given the relatively higher proportion of women with some amount of formal education in Tamil Nadu as compared with many other states, there is also significant unemployment among educated women in the state. Of the 48.76 lakh persons on the live registers of employment exchanges in the state as on 31-12-2003, 16.83 lakh are women. Most of them would have completed high school or higher secondary school, and many would have been graduates. While some women have been able to find jobs in the IT and other sunrise industries, the numbers are quite small. Even in the much sought after IT sector, women face a very difficult situation, with very long working hours, sexual harassment and unsafe transport to and from the place of work at night as well as multiple work burdens at home and workplace.
R Chandra, joint secretary of AIDWA-TN, presented the portions of the draft report pertaining to the rural and the unorganised sectors. Since only 5.2 per cent of women in the rural workforce of the state are in regular employment, the rural and the unorganised sectors account for the overwhelming proportion of women in the labour force. While female workforce participation in the state is higher than in many other states, this is not always a sign of empowerment, given the quality of female employment. The ILO's goal of decent employment remains a far-away dream for the women of rural Tamil Nadu, and the same is the case with the unorganised sector. Neoliberal policies have led to unprecedented levels of rural distress and collapse of agriculture. Employment opportunities for women have shrunk sharply as a result. Spread of the labour contract system, mechanisation, changes in cropping pattern favouring less labour-intensive cash crops in place of paddy, conversion of agricultural land to other uses, attempts at corporatisation of agriculture and cutbacks in rural development expenditure and rural employment programmes -- all these aspects and consequences of neoliberal policies have further marginalised women in the labour market. Migration - especially male migration - brought about by the acute shortage of livelihood opportunities in rural Tamil Nadu has caused havoc in the lives of rural working women. The promise made in the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA government of providing 100 days of guaranteed employment for one person from every poor rural/urban household at the minimum wage is yet to be implemented, and rural distress remains acute, impacting especially on working women.
The empirically rich reports presented by Chandra and Vasuki were further enriched by the 24 delegates who took part in the discussion on the reports. The delegates brought out a number of concrete ways in which the policies of the central and state governments had affected the employment and livelihood opportunities of women, and the harassments and modes of exploitation that women had to suffer over the last decade or so.
Balabharathi, MLA from Dindigul constituency and member of the central executive committee of AIDWA, presented the charter of demands of AIDWA-TN on the issue of employment for women. The convention resolved to launch a movement for greater employment opportunities for women, the starting of which was a week-long statewide campaign from October10 to explain the charter of demands among the public.
Malathy Chittibabu, convenor of the Working Women's Coordination Committee of Tamil Nadu, greeted the delegates. Balabharathi honoured the student activist Venmathi with a shawl. Sudha Sundaaraman, president of AIDWA-TN state unit, presided over the convention while Susai Mary proposed a vote of thanks.
In the evening, a well-attended public seminar was held to explain the decisions of the convention. Powerful cultural performances by the Shakthi troupe (consisting entirely of women) and songs and dances by other young artistes attracted wide public attention.
Dr Pankajam, Vice Chancellor, Gandhigram University, who spoke in the seminar on "Women and Education", stressed the need to bring up the girl child in an ambience of gender equality and called upon the people to carry forward the struggle for education for all and for women's education and uplift. Subha, a journalist, spoke on the media view of women. Salma, a poet, spoke on the portrayal of women in poetry, and said many more women poets must and can emerge. Sudha Sundaraman presided over the seminar while Vasuki greeted the seminar. Women activists Shakila and Venmathi were felicitated and honoured.
The convention, held as a part of the run-up to the all-India conference of AIDWA to be held at Bhubaneswar in November, was very successful. It had brought out a number of concrete issues facing women in Tamil Nadu in terms of access to and quality of employment against the background of more than a decade of disastrous economic policies. It strengthened the resolve of AIDWA activists in the state to wage a relentless struggle for alternative, pro-poor and pro-women economic and social policies, together with other democratic movements. The convention was a fine learning experience.