Gender, Development, and the State in India
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Gender, Development, and the State in India

Carole Spary

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Gender, Development, and the State in India

Carole Spary

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About This Book

This book explores the relationship between the state, development policy, and gender (in)equality in India. It discusses the formation of state policy on gender and development in India in the post-1990 period through three key organising concepts of institutions, discourse, and agency. The book pays particular attention to whether the international policy language of gender mainstreaming has been adopted by the Indian state, and if so, to what extent and with what results. The author examines how these issues play out at multiple levels of governance – at both the national and the subnational (state) level in federal India. This comparative aspect is particularly important in the context of increasing autonomy in development policymaking in India in the 1990s, divergent development policy approaches and outcomes among states, and the emerging importance of subnational state development policies and programmes for women in this period.

The author argues that the state is not a monolith but a heterogeneous, internally differentiated collection of institutions, which offers complex and varying opportunities and consequences for feminists engaging the state. Demonstrating that the Indian empirical case is illuminating for studies of the gendered politics of development, and international debates on gender mainstreaming, the book highlights the politics of negotiating gender equality strategies in the contemporary context of neo-liberal development and brings together complex issues of modernity, postcolonialism, identity politics, federalism, and equality within the broader context of the world's largest democracy.

This book will be of interest to scholars interested in the politics of gender equality, state feminism, and gender mainstreaming; federalism and multi-level governance; and development studies and gender in South Asia.

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1 Introduction

This book explores the relationship between the state, development policy, and gender (in)equality in India. It asks what development policies in India say, implicitly or explicitly, about gender relations and to what extent state-led development initiatives recognise and seek to address gendered inequalities. It explores whether the international policy language of gender mainstreaming has been adopted by the Indian state, and if so, how and with what results? It investigates whether efforts by governmental and non-governmental actors to make the state more gender-responsive have been effective. It asks these questions at both national and subnational levels of government, in two states of India, to understand how the federal context shapes gender, development, and the state in India. A key argument of the book is that there has been an identifiable shift towards the language of gender mainstreaming in national planning and policy discourse, but this has been partial with limited success. The concept of women’s empowerment and strategies of affirmative action are more influential. Evidence of a gender mainstreaming approach is even more limited at subnational levels. This introductory chapter outlines this puzzle in more detail; situates it within Indian and international debates on gender, development, and multilevel governance; summarises the book’s main arguments and findings; discusses the approach to the research; and outlines the structure of the book.

Gender mainstreaming and development in India

Gender mainstreaming, broadly speaking, is the notion that mainstream institutions, such as governments, must transform their own norms, policies, processes, and thinking across the whole policy spectrum to produce more gender-responsive policies in pursuit of gender equality.1 Rather than expecting national machineries for women or women’s policy agencies – isolated, overburdened, under-resourced, or elite-captured agencies – to act as sole champions of equality in government, gender mainstreaming implores all institutional actors to consider the gendered impact of their policies and practices. Gender-blind state institutions produce gender-blind policies, on a scale and scope beyond which national machineries alone could resolve. So to produce more gender-equitable policy, institutions themselves need to change. Such transformation would, at the very least, help to limit gender-inequitable development and hopefully generate prospects for a more gender-equitable future.
There is a vast amount of literature on gender and development and women’s empowerment in India, but little has been said about the concept of gender mainstreaming in India, despite the global emergence of this concept in the mid-1990s, consolidated by the UN Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. The original aim of this research was to understand to what extent gender mainstreaming had been attempted in India, under what conditions, whether it had been successful, and if so/not, why/why not. Feminist scholars, practitioners, and activists in India possess vast knowledge on gender and development, with many leading this international field. Increasingly since the 1970s, the Government of India has formulated and enacted policy initiatives recognising the gendered character of national development, with significant victories for feminist scholars and activists, though not without challenges and setbacks along the way. But when at the beginning of the 1990s, the Indian state’s development policy ostensibly shifted towards a neo-liberal economic discourse, feminist scholars and activists raised concern about the anticipated adverse effects of these policies (discussed in Chapter 2). With the international growth of gender mainstreaming strategies since the mid-1990s, the puzzle was whether, and if so, how had the Indian government adopted this new approach, and how did this interact with the changing macroeconomic development policy discourse and existing approaches to gender and development. Had international global gender equality norms of gender mainstreaming diffused into Indian planning discourse, at both national and subnational levels, or did domestic policy and practice prioritise other approaches?
It seemed a rather optimistic place to start when my research began in 2004. International scholarly literature had already narrated cautionary tales of gender mainstreaming, highlighting its limitations (Mukhopadhyay, 2004; discussed in Chapter 2). Should states abandon ‘national machineries for women’ – the specific institutions they had built only recently to address gender equality – in favour of gender mainstreaming approaches? Or should these machineries remain as inside advocates and coordinators encouraging gender-responsive policies in other government sectors? Concerns about gender mainstreaming included the deradicalising of gender equality demands in the process of convincing more mainstream agencies of the ‘business case’ for gender equality (Chant and Sweetman, 2012; Roberts and Soederberg, 2012). Advocates had either inadvertently reproduced or been co-opted into efficiency-oriented economic discourses that could subordinate and undermine gender equality goals (Verloo, 2001; Calkin, 2015). Gender mainstreaming became seen as disappointing and unchallenging; feminist demands and agendas had adapted to mainstream development discourse, institutions, and actors, rather than transforming the same towards equality (Bacchi and Eveline, 2003). Simultaneously, Third World feminists and transnational feminists lamented the deradicalisation of the concept of women’s empowerment as it became more ubiquitous and co-opted in development policy and practice, including in India and in microcredit programmes (Batliwala, 2007; discussed below and in Chapter 2).
In pursuit of understanding gender mainstreaming in India, my prior question was, What were the dominant discourses of gender and development articulated by the Indian state? To adapt a phrase from Eveline and Bacchi (2005), what were they mainstreaming if they were mainstreaming gender? Did particular ways of understanding gender enable or inhibit gender mainstreaming for gender-equitable development? And was there any domestic drive to introduce gender mainstreaming? If so, which institutional actors were involved, and were these new strategies combined with existing strategies or did they replace them? Before the journey of gender mainstreaming could be analysed, key state institutions, discourses, and actors involved in gender and development policy had to be identified and mapped. Surveying the paucity of literature on gender mainstreaming in India suggested that (a) gender mainstreaming’s appeal was subordinate to other concepts such as ‘women’s empowerment’ and/or (b) analyses of gender mainstreaming in India were few or less accessible in academic scholarship. Perhaps knowledge and experience of gender mainstreaming efforts were confined to bureaucratic circles and activist experience, officially undocumented, unrecorded, or not widely available. Indian feminist economist Bina Agarwal noted in the early 1990s that ‘[r]eports…have a tendency to gather dust, their contents forgotten…’ (1994: 6), but she observed ‘the incorporation of women’s concerns in planning and policy…[was] not as yet a characteristic feature of government programmes in India…’ (ibid: 499). Almost 20 years later, Agarwal would chair a working group on Disadvantaged Farmers Including Women as an advisory group to India’s Planning Commission, in preparation for the government’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012–2017), reflecting her extensive work on this issue and the Indian government’s incorporation of gender expertise in its planning process over time (discussed in Chapter 4).
This book offers an analysis of the discourse of national development policy in India in selected Five-Year Plans and selected national initiatives since the 1990s to produce more gender-responsive development policy and outcomes. It traces dominant and subordinate-gendered discourses of development in government policy, changes in institutional structures and mechanisms to influence policy, and the different development subjectivities produced by policy discourse and institutional openings, which have afforded different levels of agency to different actors, including women, positioning them in development in varying ways across time and space.

Gender, development, and multilevel governance

National-level policy on gender and development comprises only part of the picture. This book also examines the subnational context for gender and development, comparing two southern states within India – Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – and their initiatives related to gender and development. When my research began in 2004, studies expressed growing interest in analysing national-subnational (or centre-state) relationships and comparing subnational state government policies (e.g. Wyatt and Zavos, 2003; Jenkins, 2004b), interest which has increased over time (e.g. Tillin et al., 2015). India’s federal system in the post-1990 context of economic liberalisation was associated with increasing subnational autonomy of state governments to determine policy (Jenkins, 2004a: 6) and the increasing influence of regional parties at the subnational level and in national coalition politics.
What did this changing federal context mean for gender and development policy? More than two decades ago, Indian feminist scholars K. Lalitha and Mary John suggested in the post-1991 policy environment, where states have more autonomy in formulating development policy, ‘there may be new opportunities at the [subnational] state level to demand more comprehensive policies on gender and funding commitments for women’ (IDS Bridge, 1995: 4–5). Did these new opportunities materialise? How, if at all, have new regional political elites articulated a view on gender relations? If so, do subnational state governments adopt similar or different approaches to gender equality to the national government and each other? If not, what determines the difference? Where do gender equality initiatives emerge from at the national and subnational levels and are these similar across states? If not, how does institutional location matter? Do subnational governments articulate the same kinds of gendered development discourse? Are diverse actors, such as political leaders, bureaucrats, and women’s movement actors, afforded similar kinds of agency? If not, what explains these differences and what are their effects? Inherent in Lalitha and John’s observation is the important question of whether increasing subnational autonomy for Indian states mean more opportunities for feminist activists to influence the state. Conversely, does multilevel governance create multiple obstacles, more actors to persuade, and thus greater likelihood of advocacy fatigue and failure? Does India’s strong centrist state still offer the best opportunity for the women’s movement to advocate for gender-equitable development? Understanding the opportunities and challenges faced by the women’s movement to engage with national and subnational governments can enable us to understand the relationship between gender, development, and the state in India and the prospects for positive change.
At the subnational level, this book focuses on state-led women’s self-help group (SHG) programmes, increasingly popular in the 1990s as a policy instrument of the national government and some subnational governments, having been adopted faster in some Indian states than others. The SHG model has been adopted either to increase access to financial credit (microcredit/microfinance – the focus of this study) or as a means for organising and mobilising women for literacy and social empowerment (as in the national government’s Mahila Samakhya scheme). The proportion of women’s SHGs in India promoted by government agencies as opposed to civil society organisations increased substantially since the 1990s, with one study estimating government-promoted SHGs in 2005 constituted approximately half of all SHGs in India, compared to only 11 percent in 2000 (EDA/APMAS, 2006: 20). But what do these state-sponsored SHG programmes say about gender equality? Are they effective in empowering women? Has the popularity of the SHG model prevented adoption of gender mainstreaming or are they compatible approaches?
These questions are explored in the second half of the book through a focused comparison of two states (case selection discussed below). A more extensive study across more states was beyond the scope of this book but is an opportunity for future research (see Conclusion chapter). I argue these two states’ flagship programmes for gender and development are not, on the whole, consistent with a gender mainstreaming approach, though Andhra Pradesh appears closer to this approach than Tamil Nadu in some respects. The state SHG programmes reflect, rather, an attempt to integrate women into existing structures with constrained ideas about gender equality. Particularly in Tamil Nadu, there is little evidence state governments, beyond the selected few departments and parastatal agencies involved with the SHG programmes, are willing to broadly reflect internally on their own practices and policies to make them more gender-responsive.
The Indian state’s approach to gender and development, particularly the shifting discursive and institutional context after 1990, has multiple implications for how feminist activists engage the state. This question has motivated scholars beyond India. Globally, feminist political scientists have asked questions about how multilevel governance affects gender equality policies and outcomes, and the women’s movement’s effective engagement with multiple levels of ...

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