On August 15, while houses hoisted flags, Malti rushed at the crack of dawn to the public tap 500 metres away before residents swarmed the place. Water supply lasts only two hours, twice a day, for a village shy of 10,000 residents. Even if Malti gets ahead in line, there is no guaranteed supply. She makes four-five trips home, carrying 10-12 vessels of water in less than an hour. She repeats the process in the evening to sufficiently provide for her low-income household comprising her husband, two sons, and in-laws. Like Malti, 75% of women across India undertake such time-consuming efforts every day to ensure their families have water (NFHS-5). But drudgery does not end here. The remaining hours are spent securing fuel and caregiving — gendered responsibilities that shackle them further to their homes. For these women, freedom is relief from domestic drudgery, from doing repetitive tasks out of no choice owing to socio-cultural norms and limited access to resources like water, fuel and household appliances.
Shackled to their homes
Malti’s daily drill was no different when India turned 50. As a pre-teen on the cusp of getting married, she queued up for an hour with her mother before it was their turn at the hand pump. If the hand pump was broken/empty, they walked 2.5 kilometres to the public well that promised longer queues and worse quality, losing four-five hours to collect water (National Commission for Women Report, 2005). The private wells of upper-caste neighbours, though nearby, continue to be out of reach. Purchasing water or waiting for the unreliable tanker, though costly, are the only alternatives.
After securing water, Malti’s chores at home, primarily cooking, begin. Unlike her mother’s reliance on firewood and/or agricultural residue, Malti uses a cleaner LPG cylinder received under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. But with difficulties in refilling gas and increasing prices, she still searches for firewood, like 52% of rural India (Council on Energy, Environment and Water Report 2021). But Malti only gathers such fuel once or twice a week, unlike her mother who spent an hour each day (NITI Aayog). The absence of a refrigerator at home means daily shopping and cooking three fresh meals for her family, which takes three hours. Add serving food, doing the dishes, laundry, and looking after her boys, and Malti’s day is full. With rising inflation, Malti wants to add to her family earnings. She hopes to secure a sewing machine under the new government scheme. But this is not relief from drudgery; it is a few hours of work, though paid, after the family goes to bed.
Domestic drudgery has severe consequences: exhaustion, musculoskeletal disorders, lower immunity, and higher mental stress. It threatens women’s physical safety. Drudgery also affects women from an early age. Though universal education is promised, median years of schooling for girls is still 4.9 compared to 7.3 for boys. It is telling that Malti, like her mother and grandmother, had to forgo her school bag and shoulder water vessels. Though women bear these burdens for their family, drudgery also means less time devoted to childcare. Pallavi Choudhuri and Sonalde Desai (National Council of Applied Economic Research) find this can impact cognitive development and education levels among children.
The broader issue
It is tempting to think that specific government interventions for water/fuel will save women from domestic drudgery. For instance, in Banaskantha, Gujarat, researchers found that when indoor piped water supply is coupled with job opportunities through micro-enterprises, time released from water collection is converted into income earned. But such opportunities are out of reach for millions. Ashoka University’s Ashwini Deshpande and Jitendra Singh argue that the decline in the female labour force participation rate to 17% from 35% in the mid-2000s is because of demand-side problems in the employment market. The broader issue is India’s economic growth and the sluggish growth in employment opportunities.
India has come a long way in 75 years, now with its second woman President and accomplished women in every field. Yet, women are often paraded as brand ambassadors for household appliances. Even their hard-won struggles against domestic work are usually because of other women supplementing their efforts. There is no silver bullet to freeing women from drudgery. While restructuring household roles and responsibilities would be ideal such that men contribute equally at home, a more systematic investment, driven by sustained economic growth and better state capacity, in delivery of quasi-public goods is also essential.
Kadambari Shah and Shreyas Narla are research associates in the Indian Political Economy Program at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University