With 75% of women workers in rural India employed in agriculture, there was a need to upskill and create employment for them in related sectors like food processing, and Self Help Groups (SHG) can play a pivotal role in this, the Economic Survey 2023 has said.
The survey said that the transformative potential of SHGs has been exemplified by the key roles played by them during COVID-19 pandemic. SHGs led from the front in producing masks, sanitisers and protective gear. They also created awareness about the pandemic, for example the ‘Patrakar Didis’ of Jharkhand delivered essential goods like floating supermarkets in Kerala, ran community kitchens like the Prerna canteens in Uttar Pradesh, and supported farm livelihoods.
It noted that SHGs have had a positive effect on women economically, socially and politically, empowering them through various pathways such as familiarity with handling money, financial decision-making, improved social networks, asset ownership, and livelihood diversification.
The survey said that demonstration of their resilience and flexibility during crises, including the pandemic, needs to be thus regularised for long-run rural transformation.
India has around 1.2 crore SHGs, 88% of them all-women. SHG success stories include Kudumbashree in Kerala, Jeevika in Bihar, Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal in Maharashtra and recently, Looms of Ladakh.
The SHG Bank Linkage Project (SHG-BLP), launched in 1992, has become the world’s largest microfinance project. With the active collaboration of stakeholders, SHG-BLP covers 14.2 crore families through 119 lakh SHGs with savings deposits of ₹47,240.5 crore, and 67 lakh groups with collateral-free loans outstanding of ₹1,51,051.3 crore, as on March 31, 2022.
The Economic Survey also noted that there was a noticeable rise in Rural Female Labour Force Participation Rate (FLFPR) from 19.7% in 2018-19 to 27.7% in 2020-21. This could be attributed to rising rural amenities freeing up women’s time, and high agricultural growth over the years.
However, it noted that India’s female LFPR is likely to be underestimated, with reforms in survey design and content required to capture the reality of working females more accurately.
“There is a need to broaden the horizon of measuring work, which constitutes the whole universe of productive activities alongside employment,” the survey said.
According to the latest International Labour Organization (ILO) standards, limiting productive work to labour force participation is narrow and only measures work as a market product. It does not include the value of women’s unpaid domestic work, which can be seen as expenditure-saving work such as collecting firewood, cooking, tutoring children, etc., and contributes significantly to the household’s standard of living.
That said, there is further significant scope to nullify gender-based disadvantages to enable free choice for women to join the labour market, the survey said.