Housewives listed with prostitutes in Census

As the headcount to determine the country’s population is on, the Supreme Court, in a stinging ruling, questioned the government’s Census parameters which place housewives and women engaged in domestic work in the same economic bracket as "prostitutes, beggars and prisoners".

Referring to the 2001 census report, in which women engaged in domestic work were equated with "prostitutes, beggars and prisoners" so far as their economic status was concerned, the court said: "This bias is shockingly prevalent in the work of the census."

"Such categorisation of about 36 crore women in India by the authorities betrays a totally insensitive and callous approach towards the dignity of labour … and also indicative of a strong gender bias."

Reminding the government that women make a "significant" contribution to national life, the court referred to a report by the "Evangelical Social Action Forum and Health Brigade" which estimated the economic value of services by women in India $612.8 billion annually.

"One has to admit that in the long run, the services rendered by women in households sustain a supply of labour to the economy and keep human societies going by weaving the social fabric and keeping it in good repair. If we take these services for granted and do not attach any value to them, this may escalate the unforeseen cost in terms of deterioration of both human capabilities and the social fabric," Justice A.K. Ganguly wrote.

The ruling came in a case of "undervaluation" of the income of a housewife from Uttar Pradesh who died in a road accident, to fix compensation for her minor son and husband by the accident claims tribunal and the Allahabad High Court.

Under the rules, a housewife’s income is valued at one-third that of the husband for the purpose of calculating compensation if she does not have any independent income. By applying this formula, the compensation for the death of Renu Agrawal, 39, was calculated by the tribunal as Rs 2.5 lakhs and it was justified by the High Court, while her husband Arun Agrawal, a government employee with a monthly salary of Rs 15,000, claimed Rs 6 lakhs from the insurance company.

A two-member Supreme Court bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly, however, enhanced the award to Rs 6 lakhs, with six per cent interest, and Rs 50,000 in litigation cost to the husband. But Justice Ganguly, in a separate order, also highlighted the government’s "apathy" in continuing with the practice of bracketing women doing household work with prostitutes, beggars and prisoners to determine their economic status.

Justice Ganguly also recommended that Parliament take steps to amend the provision in the Motor Vehicle Act determining a housewife’s income as one-third of her husband’s income. In addition, he said, Parliament should also consider amending all matrimonial laws regarding evaluation of a housewife’s income as near-identical parameters are now being applied to calculate her income to fix maintenance in marital dispute cases.

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