Last month, in its 2023-24 Budget, the Karnataka government announced plans to set up “Koosina mane” across 4,000-gram panchayats for children of working mothers. “Koosina mane” translates to child homes or creches and is aimed at providing healthcare, nutrition, and safety for children whose mothers are employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), as well as for other mothers living in the vicinity. This scheme must be welcomed for several reasons.
First, this initiative exemplifies a demand-side solution to boost women’s labour force participation. The MGNREGA stipulates that at least “one-third of its beneficiaries shall be women who have registered and requested for work”. The Union government’s data show that women comprise a little over 50% of the person-days under MGNREGA in Karnataka, lower than in neighbouring States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala (80% each). In a country where childcare responsibilities are deeply gendered, a reliable childcare infrastructure that provides beyond basic provisions can aid, increase, and sustain this labour force participation. The fact that this initiative aligns with the goals of both the MGNREGA and the Women and Children Development Department is an excellent example of convergence. Perhaps, the ‘koosina mane” can also be built as community assets under the MGNREGA.
Second, it has an explicit mandate to support working mothers through childcare infrastructure. This messaging is vital, as it acknowledges that women are not just mothers but also active contributors to the workforce, an aspect often missed in public programmes. Even though some may consider the vast network of infrastructure created for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) to be a form of childcare infrastructure, its primary focus is improving maternal and child health. The ICDS caters to the needs of children at various stages of early life, starting from six months to six years. However, the working hours of the centres are not designed to support working women. Without maternity protection in the early stages of childbirth, women require care infrastructure before six months, but also until the child is much older, something that is possible in ’koosina mane’.
Third, in Indian households, working women encounter what is rightly termed the “triple burden” of work — paid work, childcare and domestic chores. Building ‘koosina mane’ at scale, spanning more than 60% of the gram panchayats in the State and recognising it as “essential public infrastructure” is a significant step toward redistributing the gendered burden of childcare. This can ameliorate the strain women encounter as they balance childcare and paid work, as well as other young girls who substitute for mother’s care.
The oft-dichotomised relationship between women’s employment and childcare can be eased through childcare provision. While the “motherhood penalty” is considered to be one of the reasons why women drop out of the labour force, the situation is slightly different in poorer households. We have found that women work late into their pregnancy and return to work immediately after childbirth. Motherhood pushes women to take up work that is flexible, part-time, low-paid casual work or self-employment as they are unable to find care support. Public infrastructure like ‘koosina mane’ can reorganise the physical space within which care takes place, moving some of the care work out of the household. This shift could enable women to sustain work, upskill on the job and seek better paying work.
Finally, this initiative could address a critical concern: child safety. In the absence of care support, women must take their children, especially those who are very young, to their place of work so they can breastfeed and care throughout the day. However, this exposes children to heat stress and other harsh weather conditions and puts them at risk of injury and accidents. A childcare infrastructure which is managed by well-trained caregivers can address concerns of safety, nutrition, and overall well-being of the child.
What sets apart ‘koosina mane’ from similar promises in the past is its thrust on implementation at scale, absorption of its building and running expenses within the government Budget, and catering to children as young as six months old. Much like the recently enacted Shakti scheme, which offers complimentary bus rides within the State to women and transgender people, this scheme also moves the needle on women’s participation in the labour force through multiple approaches and may prove to be worthy of imitation.
Divya Ravindranath and Antara Rai Chowdhury work on informal labour and gender at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements