Maneka Gandhi’s delusions

The Maternity Leave Amendment Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha, is an instance of tokenism that will be governed by the law of unintended consequences. That is, it will end up hurting the cause of women employment.

The legislation appears to be a boon for working women. It has the provision of a 26-week maternity leave in place of the present 12 weeks. Minister of Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi was jubilant after the Bill was passed: “I am very, very happy [that] we have made history today. This will help thousands of women and produce much healthier children. We have been working on it for a long time.”

This is a typical example of hyperbole and self-admiration. Politicians love to term everything ‘historic,’ including the occasion of laying the foundation stone of a project.

The salutary impact this Bill will have on working women would be minuscule. For it would be confined to the organized sector. Now, it is a well-known fact that this sector employs less than 10 per cent of the workforce. Further, women’s participation in the workforce was 27 per cent in 2014, down from 37 per cent in 2005. Which means that a very small section of working women would be the beneficiaries.

Even that could have been regarded as good had it not been for the ill effects the legislation will have on the employability of women; but that is exactly what is going to happen when the Bill becomes an Act. From the employer’s perspective, it will make women less employable. For instance, if a company has to hire a young executive and, other things being equal, the choice gets restricted to a 22-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman, it becomes financially rewarding to employ the former. For the company knows that, in all likelihood, in the next 10 years the woman would work for nine years but get paid for the entire 10-year tenure.

In short, the proposed law may indeed “help thousands of women,” as Maneka Gandhi claims, but it will also make millions of them less employable.

What Maneka Gandhi and her government suffer from is an old affliction—the socialist mindset. The mindset is the function of the belief that government, with its fiats and laws, can usher in wellbeing and prosperity, that good intentions forced upon people, especially businesspersons, can do wonders with the economy. The belief is deeply flawed, especially in the Indian context. Classical liberal philosophers have regarded government as a ‘necessary evil’; in our country, more often than not, it is an unnecessary evil. Former US president Ronald Reagan once said that government is the problem; it is truer in India than it ever was in America or any other Western country.

This is the reason that the Narendra Modi regime, despite its very good intentions, has not been able to improve India’s ranking in such indices as doing business and economic freedom. You can’t have ministers like Maneka Gandhi breathing down entrepreneurs’ neck to further the agendas of women empowerment and unctuous altruism and expect to improve the business environment.

It is time Prime Minister Modi reined in ministers like Maneka Gandhi and made the lives of businesspersons less miserable.