Category: Human Rights and Social Justice

The anthropogenic forcing of greenhouse gases has turned out to be a dominant force propelling sea level rise. Sea levels in the 20th century have been rising at an average rate of 0.06m per decade.¹ The Indian subcontinent is highly vulnerable to threats arising from sea level rise given its demography. The country has a coastline that runs for 7,500 square kilometres. These coastal regions are home to about 170 million people.² Between 1996 and 2016, approximately 236 square kilometres of land was lost to coastal erosion placing people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Based on a government report published in 2016, around 45.5% of India’s coastline has been affected by erosion of varying magnitudes.³ The coastal erosion problem is a complex effect of various natural processes working in the coastal zone and sometimes beyond it. According to recent scientific predictions, 36 million Indians are likely to be living in areas experiencing chronic flooding by 2100.⁴ Increasing climate-induced calamities and accelerating levels of erosion have called for intervention and support from the government in securing the livelihoods of coastal communities.  Existing policies in the country address displacement from rapid-onset disasters such as monsoons and cyclones under disaster reduction and rehabilitation policies. However, displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion are yet to find a place at the policy level. With the intensity and frequency of disasters increasing in the future, we require a foresighted national-level policy on managed retreat and adaptation in India. This paper analyses existing policies and suggests possible adaptation interventions that will help the nation deal better with the problem of coastal displacement. 

We realize that coastal erosion is an extensive and multi-dimensional problem for a vast country like ours. The Indian government has put in place policies, laws and committees to tackle climate change and climate-induced disasters. The main policy measures concerning coastal protection and management in India include the Disaster Management Act of 2005 that has a section dedicated to coastal protection and disaster management and the west coast policies to tackle coastal erosion. The Act provides for the establishment of several statutory bodies such as the National Disaster Management Authority, State Disaster Management Authorities and District Disaster Management Authorities. It also includes advisory committees, executive committees and sub-committees under the government. The Act lists out the action plan for governments during or post a rapid-onset disaster. It also puts together provisions that allow for the creation of relief funds and their usage during emergencies. The act is inadequate along several lines. The presence of numerous committees and the overlap of duties among authorities mentioned in the Act greatly reduces accountability. Further, the coordination among these bodies appears to be very cumbersome. Disasters cannot be effectively dealt with only through the government’s administrative setup. Even then the role of local authorities and communities in coastal management and protection has been greatly overlooked. The Indian Act also fails to recognize the need for identifying and using traditional knowledge and working together with NGOs.

Efforts are being made to counter the menace of coastal erosion and protect our coasts using both traditional approaches ( hard structures like Seawall, etc.) and the new, innovative soft measures like dune rehabilitation. Policies to curb coastal erosion on the west coast of the country have dealt with structural or hard measures such as the construction of seawalls, revetment, offshore breakwater, groynes/spurs and soft measures like offshore reefs and artificial headlands. Soft measures are usually more effective in the long run when compared to hard measures. Seawalls and other coastal engineering structures end up obstructing the littoral drift of sand and sediment, thus, causing erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structure. In the end, they do not prevent erosion as they only transfer the problem further north of the east coast.⁵ The impact of these hard options on neighbouring coastlines create a situation where hard structures are then required in these new areas creating a vicious cycle. An example of such a spiralling effect is the seawall construction in Kerala  (a state government initiative to curb coastal erosion) and its impact on Karnataka’s coastline. The Kerala government has spent around 310 crores building seawalls along its coast.6 Of the 560 km coastline of Kerala, the state has constructed a seawall for 386 km. The government had sought funding assistance to wall the remaining 92 km and demanded INR 2.16 billion from the Centre. Seawalls along the coast of Kerala did help in preventing coastal erosion but as mentioned earlier the littoral drift was obstructed, accelerating erosion rates of the coastline along the state of Karnataka. Groynes suffer from a similar limitation. These man-made structures protruding into the oceans are known to cause accretion on the southern side and erosion on the northern side. Beach nourishment has proved attainable by methods of re-vegetation with temporary offshore breakwaters/artificial reefs. Artificial reefs provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for marine biodiversity to flourish. 

The west coast policies and the Disaster Management Act (2005) focus on mitigation measures mainly undertaken by the government thus alienating local communities from related coastal work. It is important to shift our focus from mitigation to adaptation. Intervention and policies for adaptation are extremely crucial given two main reasons. We cannot mitigate sea-level rise. Even if we drastically cut down emissions, experts concluded that global mean sea-level would rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meters) above 1992 levels by 2100. With high rates of emissions, sea-level rise would be much higher but was unlikely to exceed 6.6 feet higher than 1992 levels. Hence, it is more important to facilitate adaptation than mitigating impacts of sea-level rise. Adaptation policies focusing on alternative livelihoods, social security nets, preemptive retreat and social infrastructure will greatly enhance the resilience capacity of communities thereby enabling better response to a crisis. Existing policies in India address post-disaster management or displacement stemming from rapid-onset disasters but displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion is yet to find a place in Indian policy. Slow onset events are impacting lives and livelihoods leading to the weakening of a community’s resilience. It is important to identify vulnerable areas and build the capacity of local communities to efficiently manage future crises and prevent large scale life and material loss. The second reason comes from the unpredictability that haunts us. Climate change is complex because every system disturbance sets in motion positive and negative feedback. Interactions of various levels create unpredictable events and large scale destruction. The unpredictable nature of climate change and lag is a lesson to build resilience rather than focus on measures that only handle rehabilitation post-disaster. 

Shining a ray of hope on this oncoming crisis is the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, focusing on better protection, conservation, rehabilitation, management and policy design of the coast. NCSCM aims to support integrated management of coastal and marine environments for livelihood security, sustainable development and hazard risk management by enhancing knowledge, research and advisory support, partnerships and network and coastal community interface. NCSCM has the resources for data monitoring and the mission has started on a good note by tackling the issue of defining High Tide Lines (HTL) and putting forward revised regulations for keeping a check on polluting industries/activities and construction activity along critical coastal areas. Though the vision of this institutional regime is applaudable, little has been done on the ground. The notification though uses terminologies like sustainable development, sustainable livelihood, ecologically and culturally sensitive coastal resources, fails to detail the implementation strategies for each of them.⁷ The mission stands great potential in developing into the institutional setup that India needs in developing and implementing adaptation interventions. However, this is conditional on its alignment with the Millennium Development Goals on environmental sustainability and its focus on the long term impacts of all developmental work in the coastal zones of the country. 

Coastal communities are directly impacted by climate impacts causing declining productivity of fisheries and cultivation lands along the coasts. Existing measures do not help communities in dealing with economic losses. Understanding threats to the economic and social well being of the communities underlines the need for adaptation policies that will help reduce the climate vulnerability of communities and enhance their ability to flexibly adapt to changing conditions. Policies which create alternate livelihood opportunities, social infrastructure, planned retreat, and community involved coastal management need to find a place in India’s climate legislations.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.


  1.  Rahmstorf, S. (2008, July). The 5 Most Important Datasets of Climate Science.
  2. Panda, A. (2020, May 26). Climate change, displacement, and managed retreat in coastal India – India. ReliefWeb.’s%20more%20than%207%2C500%20square,related%20to%20sea%2Dlevel%20rise.&text=Beyond%20displacement%20and%20migration%20along,relocation%20in%20major%20coastal%20cities
  3.  Status Report on Coastal Protection & Development in India Central Water Commission New Delhi .(2016).
  4. NOAA (2020, August 14).Climate Change: Global Sea Level | NOAA
  5. Masselink, G., & Lazarus, E. (2019). Defining Coastal Resilience. Water, 11(12), 2587. MDPI AG. Retrieved from
  6. Warrier, S. G., Aggarwal, M., Aggarwal, M., Sarkar, S., Sarkar, S., Padmanaban, D., … Gopal, S. (2016, November 9). Walls can’t keep out the sea in Kerala. India Climate Dialogue. 
  7. Krishnamurthy, R., DasGupta, R., Chatterjee, R., & Shaw, R. (2014). Managing the Indian coast in the face of disasters & climate change: A review and analysis of India’s coastal zone management policies. Journal of Coastal Conservation, 18(6), 657-672.
  8. E. Vivekanandan. Impact of Climate Change in the Indian Marine Fisheries and the Potential Adaptation Options. 
  9. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed. (2018). Community-based rehabilitation attempt for solution of climate displacement crisis in the coastal area of Bangladesh. 1. 358. 10.1504/IJMRM.2018.10016042. 
  10. Inti Carro, et al.,(2012, August 18) Building capacity on ecosystem-based adaptation strategy to cope with extreme events and sea-level rise on the Uruguayan coast ISSN: 1756-8692 Publication date:
  11. Climate Change Adaptation in Fisheries and Aquaculture: Compilation of initial examples, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular No. 1088, Clare Shelton,ISSN 2070-6065
  12. Podesta, John. (2019, September 4)“The Climate Crisis, Migration, and Refugees.”
  13.  Alongi, D.M. Mangrove forests: Resilience, protection from tsunamis, and responses to global climate change. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. (2008), 76, 1–13
  14.  Das S (2009) Addressing coastal vulnerability at the village level: The role of socio-economic and physical factors. Working paper series No. E/295/2009. 
  15. Alongi, Daniel. (2002). Present State and Future of the World’s Mangrove Forests. Environmental Conservation. 29. 331 – 349. 10.1017/S0376892902000231.
  16. Kantamaneni, K., Sudha Rani, N. N. V., Rice, L., Sur, K., Thayaparan, M., Kulatunga, U., Rege, R., et al. (2019). A Systematic Review of Coastal Vulnerability Assessment Studies along Andhra Pradesh, India: A Critical Evaluation of Data Gathering, Risk Levels and Mitigation Strategies. Water, 11(2), 393. MDPI AG. Retrieved from
  17. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed & Molla, Morshed. (2017). Sustainable adaptation for resolving climate displacement issues of south eastern islands in Bangladesh. International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management. 9. 10.1108/IJCCSM-02-2017-0026.
  18. Ministry of Environment and Forests (Department of Environment, Forests and Wildlife). (2011, Jan 6).Coastal Regulation Zone Notification.

How would you define poverty? There are several definitions and each one of them helps us imagine poverty in different ways. One way to define poverty is the lack of resources required to lead a basic life. By this definition, as long as your basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, you are not in poverty. The United Nations defines poverty as the “inability of having choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity.” A more quantitative definition from the World Bank defines poverty as living under $1.90 (Purchasing Power Parity) per day. This is the international poverty line. Amartya Sen’s capability approach describes poverty as “a failure to achieve certain minimum capabilities.” This means that poverty is not seen purely as an issue of economic development but includes measures of human rights and access.

It does not take long to realize that poverty has many faces. In a recent project called One Hundred Homes, researchers conducted a visual survey of India to examine what a household falling under a particular income or consumption level as per a standard government survey (IHDS, NSS) would look like in real life. The result was a collection of hundred visual essays showcasing the living conditions of families to understand the connection between wealth and poverty visually. A key insight is that it is almost impossible to predict which household is wealthier just based on the appearance of living conditions. We cannot simply look at assets owned to determine who is better off or worse off. Surveys usually measure poverty through consumption spending in a given period of time on a fixed category of things. This does not account for the value of the house, credit borrowed, subsidies received from the government, etc. In addition to this, the poverty line in itself is based on several assumptions such as calorie requirements and ignores indicators of education, health and wellbeing.

Figure 1: A snapshot from the One Hundred Homes project website (Source: One Hundred Homes)

Poverty, through its appearance and measurement, presents several puzzles. Some obvious facts about poverty may not be true. On the other hand, results from experiments to understand the lives of the poor may be counterintuitive.

For example, one knows about the vicious nature of poverty. But why do the poor remain poor? Do bad decisions cause poverty or does poverty cause people to make bad decisions? Sendhil Mullainathan and other researchers ran a series of experiments to understand how scarcity affects cognitive capability and decision making. For an illustration of how poverty affects thinking, they asked people to memorize a list of words similar to the one below in 20 seconds and asked them to recall as many as they can from memory.

Figure 2: List used by researchers in the experiment to determine effects of poverty on cognitive capacity (Source: Chicago Booth Review)

What’s interesting is that, although “money” was not on the list, people with low income are more likely to remember seeing money in the list than people with high income because words on the list are related to financial concerns. This portrays that money occupies a significant part of the cognitive load of the poor. Further, experiments also depict that people under financial stress perform poorly in cognitive tests such as Raven’s matrices and cognitive control tasks compared to those who are not. This implies that poverty in itself impairs sound cognitive performance. 

A more realistic experiment conducted on Indian sugarcane farmers tested their cognitive abilities pre-harvest and post-harvest. Sugarcane has one harvest cycle per year. Before the harvest, farmers are relatively poor and uncertain about their finances whereas post-harvest, the same farmer is relatively rich. A random sample of small farmers was tested pre- and post-harvest on Raven’s matrices, a measure of fluid intelligence and the traditional Stroop task, which gauges cognitive control. Controlling for other fixed effects such as nutrition, work effort, etc., the experiment showed that being poor reduces cognitive capacity. Farmers post-harvest performed better on cognitive tests compared to pre-harvest.

This research suggests that the poor are less capable not because of their inherent capabilities but because poverty in itself imposes a cognitive load. Imagine if you were to make a decision after staying awake an entire night. Would you be able to make the right decision? The effect of poverty on cognitive function is comparable to losing a full night’s sleep. The poor constantly make important decisions of education, health, consumption and saving in this state of mind. The implication of this is that policymakers need to be aware of the psychological nature and cognitive tax of poverty. Welfare programs with complex ordeals aimed at better targeting may be counterproductive. The timing of welfare policies is also critical. Cognitive aids such as nudge can go a long way in offsetting the effect of poverty on cognition.

This also begs the question, why do the poor have to make more decisions than the rich with regards to essential utilities like savings, healthcare, insurance and so on? A poor person, who may not have access to banking services or formal employment, must decide to save for his or her retirement. On the other hand, the decision is already made by the organization of a rich person through the provident fund. The same goes for insurance, healthcare and even water. A rich person in an urban area can simply open a tap in the comfort of their home and clean water flows out, whereas a poor person has to choose where to procure water from, uncertain of whether it is clean or not, and decide what to do if it is not clean. Poverty impedes cognitive function and affects decision making. Above this, the poor make a significantly greater number of decisions amidst a lot of uncertainty. Both these facts are detrimental to leading a good life. Human beings have bounded rationality and self-control problems, hence fewer the decisions, the better. This is the reason why in developed countries like the United States, essential utilities such as insurance, savings are left to institutions and not the individual. If a poor person has to consistently choose to save every month for his or her retirement, they are bound to run into self-control problems. It is unfortunate that despite evidence on this, policymakers have made little effort to minimize the decisions taken by the poor. What, if not this, is an indication of inequality?

Another puzzle is that of risk and entrepreneurship. More number of poor people are self-employed and own businesses compared to the rich. Entrepreneurship involves risk and uncertainty. If the rich are better at managing risk due to their endowments and safety net, why is it that more poor people start businesses than the rich? This is the mystery of self-employment. That a person for whom it is easier is less likely to do it whereas a person for whom it is harder is more likely to do it.

A possible explanation for this is that the poor are natural entrepreneurs. But the question to ask is whether poor people are creative or does poverty force them to find creative ways of earning their income? This is not to say that poor people cannot be creative. An average poor person is probably as creative as the average rich person. However, there is an overrepresentation of entrepreneurs among the poor. The poor are entrepreneurs not because they want to be, but because they have to be. 

Economics teaches us that people are generally risk-averse. So, they must prefer a salaried job to starting a business. A survey question asking parents regarding their ambitions for their children confirms this belief. The results from rural Udaipur and around the world are that most poor parents want their children to be in a salaried job. Only 7% of parents want their children to run businesses. For the poor, a job is a means to achieve stability and move up the social ladder. However, public policy does not seem to understand this. The policy view is that poor people are more entrepreneurial in nature and several policies have been created to encourage the poor to turn into entrepreneurs. Rural areas have the RSETIs (Rural Self Employment Training Institutes), which focus on providing training for rural youth on entrepreneurial development. There is no such equivalent for urban areas. However, for the urban poor specifically, there is a Self-Employment Programme (SEP) under the NULM, which provides financial assistance to set up self-employment ventures.

From my field experiences of visiting and working with SHGs (self-help groups) of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the thrust has been for SHGs to begin businesses. NABARD, NRLM and civil society are invested in this idea, providing loans and market support. It is likely that most of the SHGs are not even interested in business but have to involve themselves in order to take advantage of the credit and market support. Even in the recent COVID relief package by the Government of India, the specific relief measure for SHGs was to increase the collateral-free loan limit to Rs. 20 lakh so as to meet their business needs. This differential focus on self-employment for the poor is concerning. 

Additionally, the traditional investment theory of risk-reward ratio does not work for the poor because of capital and technological constraints. Most businesses owned by poor people are not profitable. Different occupations are filled with different amounts of risk and uncertainty. Agriculture is one of the riskiest, yet least profitable occupations. Agriculture is subject to whether uncertainty, price uncertainty, market uncertainty, credit uncertainty, government uncertainty and what not! Hence, a poor farmer is not the same as a poor plumber and public policy needs to give attention to this fact. A reason why agriculture is one of the most intervened sectors by the government is not just populism but also the level of uncertainty tagged with the occupation.

There are many more such puzzles in the world of poverty. To unearth these puzzles, we need to rigorously test the traditional theories we hold about the poor. In a developing world, everybody is undergoing a transformation, with the poor transforming at a faster rate at the margin. Thus, we not only need to ask the right questions but also revisit the existing answers to update our understanding of poverty. Each piece of evidence gives us insights into the lives of the poor and incorporating these insights helps us create better poverty alleviation policies.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

On 24th March, 2020, the Indian government announced the imposition of a complete lockdown in the country as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 virus. As important as it was to enforce a lockdown, it was equally important to think of the unintended consequences that could result from it. In particular, it was important to think about the effect of a hastily implemented lockdown on vulnerable sections of society who live a hand-to-mouth existence and already lie on the margins of government support. The migrant workers are one such section, who were left to suffer in starvation, stranded, with no income, food and shelter. A lack of information and political will, exacerbated by the rigid framework for disaster management characterized the government’s slow response, forcing Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) across the country to immediately intervene and take up the challenge of delivering relief to those in need. However, confronted with resource and infrastructural constraints, this type of relief delivery proved to be unsustainable. The suffering that resulted was nothing less than unimaginable, and can make one see, more clearly than ever, that when a crisis breaks out, relief delivery must be as fast as possible. In this context, I attempt to emphasize three interwoven gaps which need to be addressed, as a stepping stone towards quicker and more efficient relief delivery – Discretion, Data and Trust.

Understanding the Hurdles

As it usually does during disasters, the Indian government invoked the National Disaster Management Act (2005) as a framework for disaster management. In light of how the situation was handled, it becomes apparent to us that the administrative and operational procedures under this act are far too rigid to effectively address the mass hunger crisis that the lockdown imposed on migrant welfare. It took over five days for the Centre to declare the provision of any kind of relief for these people, and even with this announcement of free food, problems of information asymmetry and beneficiary identification still persisted. How would migrants know where to go to avail of these provisions? Did all of them know of its existence? This relief response characterizes the myopic top-down approach that the government tends to take, with heavy paperwork and a lack of urgency. For a response to be quick and meaningful, we need insights that are inspired by the ground reality of the situation. However, the lack of discretionary powers at the local levels of government prevents the realization of these insights. This stems from a lack of trust in local governments from the upper levels of the bureaucracy.

The next problem we are confronted with is a lack of credible data on potential beneficiaries. Without complete information on which people need relief and which areas are affected, it would be difficult for any agent of relief delivery to identify beneficiaries and efficiently allocate resources to different localities. This issue can be seen in the way the Public Distribution System (PDS) functioned to distribute dry rations to poverty-stricken populations. The limitation with PDS was that workers were only entitled to these rations in their home states, which essentially excludes migrant workers from accessing these benefits. Although the PDS system was eventually extended to include temporary beneficiaries, it remains that there was no clear cut mechanism to identify who needs it. There is also no credible data on the number of people who actually benefited from this provision. This problem is not even solved by CSOs in the way they operate, in that they lack the infrastructure to conduct essential surveys to gauge the extent of the problem in each area and coordinate amongst each other. As a consequence, all CSOs and State agents could potentially be targeting the same forty-percent of the population repeatedly, leaving the remaining sixty percent with no access. On top of this, CSOs had faced backlash from law enforcement officials for violating lockdown norms, restricting them from reaching people in need.

The major constraints faced by CSOs and governments are in the form of information and infrastructure. Moreover, due to a lack of credible data and the precedent of slow responses by the government, CSOs will not stand aside and trust the government to do its job. These are gaps that those on the ground are well aware of, and is in fact the very reason that they exist to fill them. Trust is a nuance of the problem that shows up in many ways in the intricate picture of relief delivery. We see a lack of trust not only in lower levels of government from the bureaucracy, but also a lack of trust in the bureaucracy from first-responder CSOs. Overall, it appears that Discretion, Data, and Trust, lie at the root cause of slow relief delivery.

Overcoming the Hurdles

In crisis situations, there is some potential in collaboration between CSOs and governments, where CSOs can serve as a channel for surveying and data collection, and the government can provide them with infrastructural support in the form of access and resources. The most effective way to mobilize CSOs would be through local governments. However, we see from the problem articulated above that discretion becomes a necessary condition to leverage local governments. A decentralized bottom-up approach would allow local governments to facilitate a process of community mobilization and collaboration through CSOs and engage a much larger group of people to help facilitate quicker relief. It would also give local government officials a more participatory role in judgement and decision making on the ground. Here of course, the problem of trust and accountability creeps up once again. With the right checks and balances in place, giving more discretion to local governments to utilize government funds would help to provide infrastructural support to CSOs. These organizations can then be sent on the ground in addition to existing government human resources to survey areas and collect data on affected population. The additional government backing would allow CSOs to reach areas that were previously inaccessible. It would also allow us to capture a more realistic picture of the on-ground situation within its own context, and enable us to respond in a more appropriate, effective manner through local governments. These surveys should be designed in a manner that holistically captures the need of a potential beneficiary, keeping in mind that the notion of ‘poverty’ is a fluid state.  The data collected from these surveys could be reported to local government officials, who can mobilize the necessary resources and funds, after understanding the situation in their areas. This increase in coordination would help in understanding which areas are getting too much attention at the expense of others. Moreover, since the CSOs themselves are collecting the data, it would add a significant amount of credibility, trust and understanding of the situation on-ground.


The nature of collaboration suggested here is intended to be inclusive, collaborative and is founded on trust. With trust, comes the willingness to allow discretion. With discretion, there is a strong possibility of more effective data collection. However, a simple relaxation of bureaucratic hurdles is not a sufficient condition for this. The system is plagued with a lack of transparency and accountability, both of which are detrimental to any form of trust. Issues on this front become increasingly complex with each day, in a world where realities are constantly distorted by conflict and propaganda. One thing that is certain, however, is that people have suffered, and continue to suffer. It is time for us to realistically and practically acknowledge what is going wrong and commit to putting aside our vested interests, in pursuit of collective good. We must develop the political will to step up, and come together in times of crisis.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

June 16, 2020
COVID-19 has provoked a migrant crisis in India which has uncovered the incalculable socio-economic vulnerabilities confronted by a vast segment of the country’s workforce. This article dissects the impact of the recent labour law relaxations by many state governments on the stated agenda of labour formalisation. It also probes the adequacy of the proposed labour code reforms by the central government for the protection of migrant workers. The article culminates with recommendations for systemic reforms towards formalisation of labour, based on best practices achieved by different states in India.


The COVID-19-induced lockdown imposed by the government of India has brought to fore some of the country’s harshest realities. The ongoing migrant crisis is perhaps the most prominent illustration of the same, since it uncovers the socio-economic vulnerabilities confronted by a vast segment of India’s workforce and the apathy being displayed by governments in securing their health, well-being and transportation arrangements for the journey back to their homes. 1

Over the course of the lockdown period, lakhs of migrant workers in affluent cities have left – some of them on foot – for their native constituencies after being stripped of their wages and livelihoods amidst an unrelenting battle with hunger and unhygienic living conditions. 2 While none of the adversities faced by the migrant workers are a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic or the lockdown alone, the magnitude of the crisis must invoke a reassessment with regards to the legislative and administrative framework governing the status of these workers. The focus must shift from ad-hoc and often, poorly implemented welfare policies, towards formalising the labour market and getting migrant workers on the socio-economic map of India.

While Census 2011 pegs the total number of migrants in India at 139 million, the Economic Survey of India 2017 estimates that inter-state migration in India was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016. 3,4 Much of the latter can be attributed to circular or seasonal migration where workers from poor states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Madhya Pradesh migrate to industrialised areas of Maharashtra and Delhi to work as construction and transport workers or even as street vendors and domestic helpers in urban residences. These are temporary workers with no official count or identity and find no place in India’s social security framework.

Their informality can be gaged by the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2018 which estimates that among regular wage/salaried employees in the organised or non-agriculture sector, more than 71 percent had no written job contract and nearly 50 percent were not eligible for any social security benefit. 5 The conditions would be even worse for the estimated 10 million street vendors and 50 million domestic workers in India. 6,7

As stated earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the notion that the migrant workforce is the most neglected strata amongst the Indian electorate. In this context, it is important to evaluate the potential impact of labour law relaxations announced by a bunch of Indian states on the indicated formalisation agenda. Likewise, the proposed labour code reforms by the central government must be scrutinised to assess whether they are comprehensive enough to address the many nuances of labour market formalisation, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

Finally, it is imperative to locate best practices from selected Indian states where demonstrated success has been achieved with respect to formalisation of migrant workforce across sectors like construction, transportation, inter alia. This would provide useful guidance to follow given that much of the administrative burden in respect of the migrant workers lies with state governments.

Current Issues and Proposed Reforms

The migrant crisis due to COVID-19 poses dual problems for the Indian economy. On one hand, manufacturing establishments in major industrial clusters around the country are facing labour shortages due to the return of migrant workers to their native villages. This state of affairs adds to the economic voes by creating supply bottlenecks in a scenario where aggregate demand conditions have already deteriorated due to the lockdown. 8 Conversely, the native states are not adequately prepared to support the returning migrants given the stressed rural economy and the underwhelming stimulus package announced by the Central government. 9

In consequence, many of the source states of migrant workers, including Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have approved labour law relaxations in order to augment their prospects in attracting fresh investment and with the objective of fiscally supporting the returning workforce.10,11 Meanwhile, many industrial states like Haryana, Rajasthan or Maharashtra have also increased their maximum weekly work hours in factories to limit supply chain disruptions. 12 This is even as corporations have no other option left but to invest on the central government’s labour code reform agenda to provide strong incentives for migrant workers to return to work once the crisis is over.

Labour Law Relaxations Across States

Labour is a subject that falls under the concurrent list of the Indian constitution. This implies that state governments carry the right to amend central legislation, subject to the assent from the President of India. In view of the same and due to the fiscal uncertainty brought about by COVID-19, the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have recently sanctioned sweeping moderations to their labour governance frameworks.

The Uttar Pradesh government has approved an ordinance which would exempt all new factories and manufacturing establishments from all labour laws for a period of three years, subject to the fulfillment of a few very basic conditions pertaining to bonded labour and death or disability compensation. 13 Surprisingly, even a leading industrial state like Gujarat has decided to adopt a similarly unsystematic and short-term approach on the issue. 14 In fact, the Madhya Pradesh government has a far more measured outlook with respect to labour law relaxation in the state. While even the latter has relaxed thresholds and requirements on employers with respect to employment conditions and workers welfare, and also amended the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, it has chosen to retain crucial provisions pertaining to lay-off and retrenchment of workers, as well as closure of establishments. 15

In a scenario where 90 percent of the India’s workforce is employed informally, these changes are deeply problematic in that employers will be freed from even basic obligations with respect to job security, health and social protection of their workers. This will encourage worker exploitation, given that employees will not have access to any grievance redressal mechanisms and also drive down wages sharply, in view of the suspension of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. 16 It will disincentivise formal employment and is unlikely to spur economic growth, taking into account the excess capacity in the industrial sector and the expected drop in consumer demand due to the imminent suppression of wages.

The state governments could have chosen to extend work hours on the lines of Rajasthan and Maharashtra or partner with the industry in shouldering some of the burden in respect of wage payments or worker welfare. They could have even expedited the central government’s planned agenda on labour law rationalisation, which incorporates meaningful relaxations to India’s labour laws, but in a methodical and well thought-out manner. Instead, they have chosen to adopt what amounts to a huge step backwards with respect to formalisation of the Indian workforce.

The Inter State Migrant Workmen (ISMW) Act, 1979 and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSHWC) Code, 2019

Currently, there are over 40 central laws and 100 state laws governing various aspects of labour in India. With the objective of reducing compliance costs for industrial establishments and ensuring uniformity for ease of enforcement, the Central government is in the process of streamlining labour laws under four codes. They are (i) industrial relations, (ii) occupational safety, health and working conditions (OSHWC), (iii) wages, and (iv) social security. The code on wages has already been passed by Parliament. The standing committee on labour has also submitted its report on the OSHWC code, which seeks to replace 13 labour laws, including the one governing inter-state migrants i.e. the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. 17

The ISMW Act, 1979, was enacted with the purported objective of preventing exploitation of inter-state migrants by labour contractors and to ensure fair and decent conditions of work in establishments where they have been employed. The law carries strict requirements on contractors to get licenced and report to relevant authorities, in both the source and host state of workers, the details pertaining to wages paid, work hours and essential amenities provided to the migrants. 18 The establishments hiring them are also required to obtain a certificate of registration. There are also strict obligations with regards to paying the migrant workers at par with regular workers, providing suitable residential accommodation and even displacement allowance in case of dislocation from host state. 19

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing migrant crisis has conclusively proven that the ISMW Act is not being implemented in the country. Had contractors been reporting the required details, state governments would have possessed sufficient information regarding the size and distribution of inter-state migrants in their territories and could have potentially taken corrective measures during the lockdown. Had residential accommodation or medical facilities been provided or dislocation allowance paid to migrant workers, some wouldn’t have had to undertake the arduous journeys back to their villages on foot. Further, the contractors and the employers who left the migrant workers to fend for themselves would have faced heavy monetary penalties or even criminal action suits.

However, it needs to be acknowledged that the onerous conditions prescribed in the ISMW Act can be a major disincentive for both contractors and industrial employers to comply with the same. It deters the formalisation of the migrant workforce by making the process of hiring them even more burdensome than regular workers. The OSHWC Code was conceived precisely with the stated objective of reducing the compliance burden on corporations and incentivising formalisation of the workforce by prescribing uniform standards for contract and migrant workers employed in sectors like, inter alia, building and other construction, motor transport and plantations. It does so by necessitating only a single licence for contractors, irrespective of the sector and amalgamating or combining certain special provisions pertaining to inter-state migrant workers and contract labour. 20

The OSHWC Code provides that where inter-state migrant labour is employed by an industrial establishment through an unlicenced contractor, the former would be deemed the principal employer. While this provision does address the gaps left between the existing legislation on contract and inter-state migrant labour, the Code has left out certain provisions from the ISMW act which may be detrimental to the formalisation of the migrant workforce. These include provisions pertaining to furnishing details of migrant workers to the two concerned states and providing the workers a passbook with those details in their language of preference. 21  Further, while it retains the provision of displacement allowance, it removes all statutory obligations with regards to maintaining certain health and safety conditions of employees and delegates the concerned rule-making powers to the state governments

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that migrant workers enjoy no security on employment or wages and are subject to inhumane treatment by their contractor and employers. Their needs are distinct and demand a separate chapter in the Code. The standing committee on labour in Parliament argues the same. 22 This chapter must include the obligation on contractors or principal employers to maintain a digital register on the particulars of inter-state migrants commissioned under them, which would enable better decision-making by state governments. It must also include a clause which provides these workers with the equivalent of an identity card that would make them eligible for welfare schemes run by various governments. Finally, the chapter should provide for certain minimum health and safety standards which employers must maintain in order to ensure welfare for the migrants.

Best Practices on Formalisation of Migrant Labour in India

With the above discussion, we can infer that central legislation on labour is expected to remain inadequate with respect to formalisation and welfare of the migrant workforce in the country. This is while the indicated agenda continues to be kept on the margins of politico-economic priorities of most state governments in India. In this context, it is important to identify those sectors which serve as the largest source of employment for migrant labour and uncover best practices and case studies from across the country where a measurable level of formalisation has been achieved with respect to the same. This would provide much-needed guidance to governments in India on a collection of policies, “institutional innovations and grass-roots intervention which complement each other and jointly contribute to progressive formalisation” of the migrant workforce in the country. 23

Building and Other Construction Workers

The construction sector attracts a large number of migrant workers due to the labor-intensive nature of the industry and low skill requirement. An estimated 50 million workers are employed in the construction industry. 24 The level of informality is high in that workers are made to work at a daily wage rate and often without formal contracts. Besides, due to the ineffectual implementation of the legislation pertaining to working conditions, the workers are usually made to reside on the construction site itself with inadequate safety measures and no provision of essential amenities. The high prevalence of children and women in construction makes it even more important to address the informality of labour in the industry.

The Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act, 1996, is one of the principal legislations governing the construction sector. It mandates the registration of workers with state-level construction worker boards as well as the usage of funds – collected as a 1 percent tax on the cost of construction – towards their welfare. The estimates from the labour ministry of the central government show that the registration of workers and use of the funds is improving but remains dismally low.  25

However, the success story in this regard can be found in Gujarat where the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has established itself as a “legitimate representative voice of informal construction workers” in the state. 26 Not only was it instrumental in setting up the workers welfare board in the state but it also got the Gujarat government to accept certificates, which would guarantee welfare access to the construction workers, issued by SEWA as proof of work. Further, it has supported the establishment of construction cooperatives which undertake independent construction contracts, thereby enabling members to access the market and upgrade to skilled workers from mere labourers.

The above example demonstrates that coordinated efforts by civil society and a responsive state government can bring informal workers into the mainstream. In this respect, every state government must endeavor to have a functioning construction workers welfare board and ensure all informal workers, including migrants, are registered with the same. It is important that funds collected under the law are fully utilised in order to ensure welfare of informal workers, especially during times of crisis. Finally, it is imperative that minimum health and safety conditions for construction projects are updated in the context of COVID-19 to ensure physical distancing and monitored strongly to guarantee compliance. Governments can play a crucial role in this regard, by mandating a compliance requirement for all their infrastructure projects being auctioned to private players.

Informal Transport Workers

Informal transport like auto rickshaws or e-rickshaws are critical instruments for last mile connectivity in urban India. Although this market is characterised by a high degree of informality, it often marks the first point of entry for migrant workers into the labour market. 27 The sector is marked with long working hours, irregular payment and intense competition due to the prevalence of a large number of players. The sector is highly diversified with working conditions are arguably the poorest for those at the bottom of the pyramid, i.e. head loaders, rickshaw pullers or porters on railway stations. They are seldom supported by municipal bodies and, in fact, end up skirting safety regulations prescribed for official transport vehicles.

In this regard, two social enterprises, Ecocabs in Punjab and G-Auto Nirmal Foundation in Gujarat, have been quite successful in addressing the informality of transport workers. 28 In both cases, they were given strong incentives to join an external platform and, on joining, were trained on safety regulations as well as service delivery in order to ensure a standard code of conduct. Both these initiatives have not only helped the transport workers transition towards proper legal recognition but has also facilitated a much-improved quality of life with increased income, access to health services and insurance programmes along with a substantial network of peers.

In both cases, government support was extremely crucial in that the requisite infrastructure was incorporated within the urban design plans of municipal councils. The respective governments also facilitated network support through state telecom companies and financial assistance by offering advertisement contracts on the vehicles concerned. 29 The improved service delivery and customer satisfaction has led to a rapid expansion of the initiatives in their respective states.

This example demonstrates that governments, while being an enabler for private sector ingenuity, can produce mutually beneficial outcomes. In the context of COVID-19, well laid out ‘Code of Conduct’ guidelines are going to be crucial in order to ensure social distancing just as much the framework to track the number and distribution of transport workers in any urban conglomeration. The lessons derived from the above examples can be extremely valuable in this respect.

Street Vendors, Restaurant Workers and Domestic Helpers

Occupations such as street vendors, helpers in restaurants or domestic helpers in urban households are prolific job creators for migrant workers and often an easy point of entry into the labour market. As stated earlier, the number of street vendors in India are estimated to be 10 million, while domestic helpers stand at 50 million. In both cases, the actual numbers may be much higher given the lack of recognition accorded to them under India’s legal and administrative system. All these occupations share a high degree of informality with no written job contracts, long working hours and poor implementation of regulations where they exist.

In this context, Aajeevika Bureau, with its presence in both the ‘source’ and ‘destination states’, has achieved a degree of success in helping migrant workers acquire registration cards, legal protection and even written job contracts. An estimated 60,000 migrant workers have increased their income by 50-80 percent due to the efforts put in by Aajeevika.30

Similarly, a few state governments have accomplished formalisation of domestic helpers through a variety of interventions. For instance, Kerala managed to register 35,000 domestic workers in 2012 due to its decision to delegate that responsibility to the direct stakeholders like trade unions, resident welfare associations and even employers of domestic workers. 31 Jharkhand issued nearly 3,000 smart cards to domestic workers in 2012 due to its decision to include them in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. 32 Finally, Maharashtra introduced a comprehensive piece of legislation exclusively for domestic workers with a mandated requirement of a welfare board. 33

Due to the highly tactile nature of their work, COVID-19 represents an existential threat to this category of workers. It is essential that some of the best practices mentioned above are calibrated upon by various governments before the migrant workers start pouring back to the cities.


The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that migrant workers are arguably the most vulnerable section in the Indian electorate. They are away from their homes and are made to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions with low or irregular payment. The contractors through whom they are hired and the establishments that employ them face no repercussion on deserting them in times of crisis, without any cash for essentials or travel. Further, poor implementation of laws leaves them without legal protection and precludes them from availing any government compensation or welfare schemes.

In this context, it is important that formalisation of migrant labour is adopted as a priority policy objective by governments at various levels across the country. Given the same, the relaxation of labour laws announced by state governments is an eminently erroneous decision, bearing in mind the subject of the legislation, i.e. migrant workers, are going through their worst crisis. Further, it is imperative that the Central government recognises the plight of the migrants and introduces an exclusive section for them in the new labour code. Finally, considering that state governments are going to be primarily responsible for administering the migrant workforce, it would be useful that relevant case studies with respect to labour formalisation from within the country are identified and adopted into state policies.


[1] “In Long Walk Back Home, Migrants Battle Hunger, Scourge of Covid-19,” Hindustan Times, May 16, 2020,

[2] Sarah Farooqui, “89% Stranded Migrants Hadn’t Been Paid Wages during Lockdown Period: Report,” Business Standard India, April 17, 2020,

[3] “Census of India Website : Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India,” accessed May 23, 2020,

[4] “UNION BUDGET & ECONOMIC SURVEY,” accessed May 18, 2020,

[5] Annual Report, Periodic Labour Force Survey, July 2017 – June 2018

[6] National Policy for Urban Street Vendors

[7] “Domestic Workers – NDWM,” accessed May 23, 2020,

[8] “Govt Nod for 12-Hour Shifts in Factories Facing Labour Shortage | India News,The Indian Express,” accessed May 24, 2020,

[9] “Overpopulated, Too Reliant On Agriculture, Rural India Can’t Absorb Reverse Migrants,” accessed May 24, 2020,

[10] “Relaxation of Labour Laws across States,” accessed May 20, 2020,

[11] Gautam Chikermane and Rishi Agrawal, “COVID19: Shivraj Singh Chouhan Initiates Reforms 2.0 in Madhya Pradesh,” ORF, accessed June 9, 2020,

[12] “Relaxation of Labour Laws across States,” accessed May 20, 2020,

[13] Ibid

[14] Prashant K. Nanda, “Gujarat Offers 1,200-Day Labour Law Exemptions for New Industrial Investments,” Livemint, May 8, 2020,

[15] “Relaxation of Labour Laws across States,” accessed May 20, 2020,

[16] “Explained: What Labour Law Changes by States Mean,” The Indian Express (blog), May 16, 2020,

[17] “The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019,” PRSIndia, July 23, 2019,

[18] “INTER-STATE MIGRANT WORKMEN | Chief Labour Commissioner,” accessed May 22, 2020,

[19] Ibid

[20] Brief Note on The OSH Code 2019 – 5 March 2020 – Swaniti Initiative

[21] Ibid

[22] “Chapter At A Glance,” PRSIndia, accessed May 25, 2020,

[23] Sandra; Kring Rothboeck, “Promoting Transition towards Formalization: Selected Good Practices in Four Sectors,” Report, December 15, 2014,–en/index.htm.

[24] “Report of the Working Group on Migration | Smartnet,” accessed May 23, 2020,

[25] Ibid

[26] Sandra; Kring Rothboeck, “Promoting Transition towards Formalization: Selected Good Practices in Four Sectors,” Report, December 15, 2014,–en/index.htm.

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

June 4, 2020
The current crisis has necessitated school closures, the impact of which is being felt by millions of school-going children across India. The risks associated with the same for girls, however, are likely to be heightened, especially for girls from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. In this conversation with noted educationist Vimala Ramachandran, Shreeradha Mishra explores the nuances of the disproportionate impact of school closures on girls and discusses the role of effective policy-making and implementation to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of school-going girls.

India’s struggle to make schools accessible to girls, and to ensure they stay in school, has been a long and uphill journey. Enshrining the right to education as a fundamental right for all children between 6 and 14 years of age through the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2008, and the National Education Policy (currently being revisited as the draft New Education Policy), coupled with campaigning efforts on the necessity of educating the girl child have all been pivotal in earning some amount of success in bringing girls to schools. However, reducing drop-out rates among girls has continued to be a challenge. The burden of domestic chores, responsibilities in looking after younger siblings, early marriage practices and social attitudes that dictate the preference to educate the boys in the household instead of the girls have been significant roadblocks in ensuring access to education for the girl child. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undo years of advocacy and policy efforts aimed at increasing enrolment and literacy rates among girls. The current crisis has necessitated school closures, the impact of which is being felt by millions of school-going children across India. The risks associated with the same for girls, however, are likely to be heightened, especially for girls from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dr. Vimala Ramachandran has worked and published extensively on education, health, gender issues and women’s empowerment and has been engaged in advocacy for universal quality education and girls’ education. She co-founded Mahila Samakhya – a Government of India programme on women’s education – and served as the first National Project Director from 1988 to 1993. She is currently on the Research Council of Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is the Managing Director at the Educational Resource Unit (now known as ERU Consultants Private Limited), which is a network of researchers and practitioners working on education. Most recently, she is engaged in researching educational needs of out of school youth, especially girls.

In this conversation with her, Shreeradha Mishra explores the nuances of the disproportionate impact of school closures on girls and discusses the role of effective policymaking and implementation to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of school-going girls.

SM: The school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced millions of school-goers all over the world and in India to stay home. This is likely to have impacted girls in different and disproportionate ways as compared to boys. Could you highlight some of these impacts and the underlying reasons?

VR: The impact on girls, especially from poor and middle class families is expected to be far more severe for a wide range of reasons – girls end up sharing a greater load of housework / farm work / animal-related work than their brothers; girls have less access to mobile phones, as we saw in the recent studies co-authored by me.1

In both these studies we found secondary school girls did not have any access to smartphones or simple mobile phones. Boys have mobile phones, even smart phones – but most girls in rural Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh in the sample villages said they do not have access to phones. Even when families have phones, they are not encouraged to use it. So online learning is practically impossible. Besides, informal tuitions are fairly common in both rural and urban areas. It is a common observation that parents readily spend on sons’ and not on daughters’ tuitions. When schools are shut down, tuitions are perhaps the only informal learning space. This would be far more acute for girls in high schools and higher secondary schools.

SM: The 1986 National Policy on Education for the first time recognised the need for girl-child specific policy to address the gender gap in education in India. This policy also saw the establishment of the grassroots initiative Mahila Samakhya, of which you were the first National Programme Director. This initiative has been evaluated to have significantly increased demand for rural girls’ education, and consequently an increase in female literacy rates in rural India. A crucial aspect of this initiative was the ability of the programme to reach out to out-of-school girls and create learning opportunities for them in alternative centres and residential camps. In the wake of the pandemic, there is a need to re-think and re-invent more of such innovative solutions albeit in the context of a completely uncharted territory. How do we bring girls back to school, and keep them in schools, when the definition of a school and a classroom is currently going through a shift?

VR: The irony is that when the BJP came to power in 2014, Mahila Samakhya was shut down as a centrally sponsored scheme. Most states were not ready to continue the programme and the states that continued it linked it to the Department of Women and Child Development’s ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) / Stree Shakti / Nari Adalat and child helplines. The original idea of the programme was pushed aside and today it is seen as a delivery programme for women and girls. The education and awareness dimension is practically non-existent now.

SM: A lack of access to nutrition for girls, especially in rural households, has been a significant contributor to the existing practices of gender discrimination. The mid-day meal scheme ensured they received at least one meal a day at schools. Under the prevailing circumstances of indefinite school closures and accentuated poverty due to the extended lockdown, what can the government do to alleviate this risk?

VR: When families go through a food crisis, we know that women and girls not only eat last, but they get the leftovers. They may also not get adequate nutrition when all they eat with rice or roti is watery vegetables, dal or meat dishes. Even when schools are closed, the government should restart the mid-day meal programme so that all children have access to at least one nutritious meal a day. Equally, in the post Covid-19 period, where poverty and hunger has become more pronounced, schools need to consider providing breakfast to all children.

SM: According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 94.6% of cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is known to the child, and is often times a parent, relative or school teacher. How does the lockdown exacerbate the risk of abuse for children, especially for girls, and what can be done to address the issue?

VR: During lockdown, when families are huddled in small spaces, the chances of domestic violence against women and children, and sexual abuse by family members of both girls and boys, is known to have increased. Newspapers report more distress calls in urban areas. Equally important is the fact that in rural areas when girls go out to graze cattle or to bring fuel or fodder, they are vulnerable to sexual abuse / violence / harassment. When men and boys have little to do and are ‘hanging around’, they are also more prone to frustration, anger and violent behaviour. This could also aggravate the situation. The only way out of this is a vibrant and strong women’s group and also a Nari Adalat in every village and urban ward that is girl-friendly and has women who would be willing to listen to girls, support them and bring the perpetrators to be booked through the Panchayat. We also need to create greater awareness at every Panchayat level to the vulnerability of women and children (both girls and boys) to violence and abuse and the importance of a safe space where they feel comfortable sharing their fears and bringing issues to the notice of persons in positions of responsibility.  We also need to become more alert to trafficking – especially of older children as labourers.

SM: What are some of the immediate challenges that the government needs to address in order to realise last-mile and equitable delivery of education in a post-COVID India?

VR: The government needs to consider the following –
(a) Sensitise all teachers to the issue of trauma and fear that COVID-19 has generated among the people and especially among children;
(b) Ascertain learning levels of children, organise them in small groups and impart teaching at the right level to each group – for instance, what good bridge programmes used to do in the mid-1990s and the kind of work we did in Mahila Shikshan Kendras. A two-three-month programme should be aimed at enabling children to reach their grade-specific level. Teachers need to be trained for this and where feasible, possible local NGOs could be involved in this process;
(c) Make story reading/ reading aloud an integral part of daily language-related school work. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that children who are able to read with comprehension and read well have the potential to become self-learners and do better in all subjects. Ensuring all children have access to grade or level-specific story books in their own language or medium of instruction is essential;
(d) Make games, sports, art and craft an integral part of the curriculum alongside fun ways of explaining the pandemic and why children need not fear if they adopt the requisite practices to stay safe. This could be incorporated as part of the morning assembly or before or after lunch and could be a valuable addition to the curriculum.

SM: How do you see the public vs private debate playing out in the education space post the pandemic? Are we likely to see more collaboration between the public and the private education systems?

VR: I do not see it as a black and white scenario. Public education is absolutely essential for poor children and also middle-class children. We have to focus on strengthening the public education system, improving quality and bringing it at par with the high-end government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas. That should be the benchmark. My own work in the health sector has shown that it is the public system that sets the benchmark – low-cost and other forms of private schools will always compare themselves to the public or government schools to reach out to the poor and middle classes. If we push the quality of our government schools, this will have a ripple effect on the private sector.

Works referred to:
[1] (2019 Draft). Ramachandran, Vimala, Nagpal, Nagendra. Secondary Education in Rajasthan – quality and systemic functioning explored. Project supported by AJWS. New Delhi

(2018). Ramachandran, Vimala, Saxena, Niti. Quality and Systemic Functioning in Secondary Education in India – A study in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Research commissioned by The World Bank, New Delhi.

Note from the editor: Special thanks to Nivruti Tagotra, staff writer at the ISPP Policy Review, for her inputs.

March 28, 2020
In December 2018, the Mumbai-based Godrej India Culture Lab published a white paper titled ‘A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workplace’ authored by Nayanika Nambiar and Parmesh Shahani. It sensitises readers to the challenges faced by trans people in Indian society but does not stop at enumerating what is dysfunctional about current systems; it is invested in documenting best practices through case studies and providing corporates with a rigorous blueprint for policies that revolve around trans inclusion. This article aims to offer a critical reading of the manifesto in the light of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 passed by the Indian Parliament, which has been widely critiqued by trans activists themselves, the intended beneficiaries of the new legislation.

In December 2018, the Mumbai-based Godrej India Culture Lab published a white paper titled ‘A Manifesto for Trans Inclusion in the Indian Workplace’ authored by Nayanika Nambiar and Parmesh Shahani. What is remarkable about this document is that it offers policy researchers working on gender issues an opportunity to think outside the binary of man/woman, an exclusionary lens that is steeped in cisgender privilege. It sensitises readers to the challenges faced by trans people in Indian society but does not stop at enumerating what is dysfunctional about current systems; it is invested in documenting best practices through case studies and providing corporates with a rigorous blueprint for policies that revolve around trans inclusion.

This article aims to offer a critical reading of the manifesto in the light of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 passed by the Indian Parliament, which has been widely critiqued by trans activists themselves whom the state constructs as intended beneficiaries of the new legislation.1,2,3,4,5,6 Fortunately, Nambiar and Shahani, the authors of the manifesto present it not as a finished document but as a work in progress that is open to future iterations. Their objective is to find a path that can address the needs of trans people from a rights-based perspective while also securing the financial interests of businesses.

Recognising trans inclusion as a separate category of work that requires attention within the broader mandate of adopting LGBTQ+ friendly policies is a significant step advocated in the manifesto. The authors note that trans employees “face a distinctly different set of challenges in the workplace that are not a part of the lesbian, gay or bi experience”. These are crucial to account for because diversity and inclusion efforts in the corporate sector, and the queer rights movement in general, have excluded trans people when the leadership is concentrated in the hands of cisgender gay men.7, 8

In an email dated March 10, 2020, Nambiar and Shahani elaborated, “Through the course of writing the manifesto, several trans individuals brought up that housing was a difficult issue to navigate. The prejudices of housing societies and landlords makes the process of renting a flat quite uncomfortable. In addition to this, it is difficult to manage the expenses of hormone therapy as well as rent. This was a recurring issue with the trans employees that Kochi Metro was working with. Another hurdle that is sometimes out of the company’s hands is commute — trans persons often face discrimination on the way to work. If companies can provide shuttle services or chalk out a carpooling policy, this might help as well”. 

While the stated aim of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 is to prohibit discrimination against trans people in terms of access to education and employment opportunities as well as the ability to rent or buy property, it prescribes no penalty or remedy for breach of these provisions.9 Instead of respecting the principle of self-determination, it violates the dignity and bodily autonomy of trans people.10 It empowers the district magistrate and the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex to determine who is qualified to identify as trans, and who does not fit the bill, based on biological determinism and compulsory gender affirmation surgery.11, 12, 13, 14

When legal recognition is made a prerequisite to establish the personhood of a trans person, any revision to the manifesto will have to keep in mind that corporates are likely to build policy mandates around the letter of the law rather than human rights precedents. The burden of documentary proof hinders access to health care, bank loans and housing. In their email dated March 10, 2020, Nambiar and Shahani mentioned, “According to the National Human Rights Commission report, less than half of India’s trans population have access to education, and 62% of those that do, face abuse and discrimination. In this light, companies should try to evaluate trans candidates on the basis of skills and not qualifications, and perhaps even begin skilling programmes in-house as well”.

As a result of their estrangement from the families they were born into, trans employees may not possess identification documents such as their birth certificate, election photo identity card, PAN card or Aadhaar card. Going back is not a choice because they have had to extract themselves from contexts of violence and abuse, where there is a threat to their life. Their legal status has become even more precarious in recent times, as is evident from recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR). They are anxious about being stripped of their citizenship because they are not in a position to furnish documents showing family history of residing in India.15, 16, 17, 18

While Nambiar and Shahani did not have anything to say about how the corporate sector can protect trans employees who are unable to produce the citizenship documents mandated by the NRC and the NPR, they did comment on how companies can back trans persons who are worried about their legal status because of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. Nambiar and Shahani stated, over email, “In the case of name and gender change on identification documents — companies should maintain ties with local NGOs working to help trans persons with this process. The process is outlined here on TWEET (Transgender Welfare Equity and Empowerment Trust) Foundation’s website: NGOs often have better leverage than companies in matters of documentation”.

They added, “The company’s legal team could also assist and advise trans persons undergoing this process. In terms of which documents are required, it differs from state to state. Sandeep Nair of Community told us that that the individual could also be employed based on a notarised affidavit declaring their name and gender and then the company can further assist them in applying for the Central Gazette notification”. Navigating these bureaucratic hurdles is a complex and cumbersome process, and one of the strengths of the manifesto is that it attends to these practical considerations alongside advocating for a trans affirmative discourse.

A new and improved version of the manifesto would benefit from a more detailed articulation of the psychological implications of dysphoria and transitioning, the reasoning behind the use of preferred pronouns, and the trauma caused by misgendering and deadnaming for individuals whose identity documents reflect the gender assigned to them at birth and not their self-determined gender identity. This knowledge is essential to impress upon corporates the need to provide mental health resources and services for trans employees. A deeper engagement with what sexual harassment at the workplace and what intimate partner violence at home could look like for trans persons might also play a substantial role in informing trans inclusion policies.

Nambiar and Shahani are of the opinion that all policies should be made gender neutral and trans inclusive, including the policy on the prevention of sexual harassment. Over email, they said, “Over and above this, companies should know of queer affirmative counsellors, companies or NGOs that provide mental health services, as they would have the expertise required to understand what the employee is going through. It is vital that companies consult with LGBTQ+ community organisations while drafting their policies — there are many excellent organisations with expertise now at working with corporations”.

While this could be a fertile ground for collaboration, competing ideologies can also lead to friction. There is a growing body of critique around how companies are trying to cash in on the vulnerabilities of LGBTQ+ consumers through a well-packaged narrative of rainbow capitalism that cares only about the revenue they bring, and not their rights. It is seen as replacing the culture of rebellion against patriarchy, conversion therapy and corrective rape with a rhetoric of assimilation that upholds monogamy and the nuclear family as normative, respectable institutions that will guarantee a fairy-tale version of happiness akin to heteronormativity. It also erases the struggles of LGBTQ+ people who are marginalised by virtue of being working class, dalits, adivasis, Muslims, sex workers, racial minorities or refugees.19, 20, 21, 22 While the Godrej India Culture Lab has been conscious about programming events that look at these intersections of identity, it remains to be seen whether it can convince other corporates to do the same.


  1. Knight, K. (2019) India’s Transgender Rights Law Isn’t Worth Celebrating. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

2. Pathak, S. (2019) India Just Passed A Trans Rights Bill. Why Are Trans Activists Protesting It? NPR. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

3. Shukla, P. (2019) India’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019: A Critique. Eurasia Review. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

4. Bhatia, G. (2020) ‘The Constitutional Challenge to the Transgender Act’, Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy (blog). Retrieved from (Accessed 31 January 2020)

5. K. R., B. (2020) India’s Transgender Community Must Gear Up For A Long Fight. Huffington Post. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

6. Sahai, V. (2020) The Sexual is Political: Consent and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Centre for Law and Policy Research. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

7. Modi, C. G. (2020) Queer Azadi Mumbai 2020: For whose pride? The Hindu. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

8. Tellis, A. (2020) Saffron rainbow rises as queers police their own. The Asian Age. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

9. Bhatia, G. (2020) ‘The Constitutional Challenge to the Transgender Act’, Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy (blog). Retrieved from (Accessed 31 January 2020)

10. Pathak, S. (2019) India Just Passed A Trans Rights Bill. Why Are Trans Activists Protesting It? NPR. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

11. Knight, K. (2019) India’s Transgender Rights Law Isn’t Worth Celebrating. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

12. Pathak, S. (2019) India Just Passed A Trans Rights Bill. Why Are Trans Activists Protesting It? NPR. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

13. K. R., B. (2020) India’s Transgender Community Must Gear Up For A Long Fight. Huffington Post. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

14. Sahai, V. (2020) The Sexual is Political: Consent and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Centre for Law and Policy Research. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

15. Sharma, D. (2019) Determination of Citizenship through Lineage in the Assam NRC is Inherently Exclusionary. The Economic and Political Weekly. Retrieved from  (Accessed 17 March 2020)

16. K. R., B. (2020) India’s Transgender Community Must Gear Up For A Long Fight. Huffington Post. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

17. Sahai, V. (2020) The Sexual is Political: Consent and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019. Centre for Law and Policy Research. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

18. Sarfaraz, K. (2020) Transgender, queer groups march against CAA, NRC. Hindustan Times. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

19. Banu, G. (2018) ‘Where Are the Archives of Our Dalit Trans Foremothers and Forefathers?’, ThePrint (blog). Retrieved from (Accessed 29 April 2018)

20. Harrison, D. (2019) How rainbow capitalism harms the origins of what pride is about. Bet. Retrieved from  (Accessed 17 March 2020)

21. Tatchell, P. (2019) Pride has sold its soul to rainbow-branded capitalism The Guardian. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

22. Watta, A. (2019) Is rainbow capitalism truly queer liberation? Gaysi Family. Retrieved from (Accessed 17 March 2020)

March 15, 2020
Humanitarian intervention refers to a means to prevent or stop a gross violation of human rights in a state, where the state in question is either incapable or unwilling to protect its own people, or is actively persecuting them. By employing a feminist lens, Kirthi Jayakumar makes the case for dispensing with the use of force altogether and engaging in active community-level consent-seeking processes while carrying out an intervention to address large-scale human rights violations in another state

Humanitarian intervention refers to a means to prevent or stop a gross violation of human rights in a state, where the state in question is either incapable or unwilling to protect its own people, or is actively persecuting them. It is facilitated on the basis that no state has a prerogative to allow the large-scale violation of human rights, and therefore, if such violations do occur, another state, or other states, may intervene to put an end to them. While a feminist philosophy of supporting the marginalised and taking on structural and overt violence underlines the idea of humanitarian interventions, they are seldom carried out through feminist means. Where military force is treated as the last resort, most instances involve military force as the first resort. Where interventions are implemented, they are carried out without the consent of, on the request of, and in response to the communities for whom they are carried out. In sum, both the use of force and absence of consent come together to cause greater harm than what the intervention intends to avert. The “humanitarian” component then becomes questionable.

By employing a feminist lens, this paper makes the case for dispensing with the use of force altogether and engaging in active community-level consent-seeking processes while carrying out an intervention to address large-scale human rights violations in another state. I start by presenting a brief outline of what humanitarian intervention is. In the second part of this paper, I explore the feminist principles underlying humanitarian intervention and make the case for a feminist implementation of it. In this section, I argue that intervention to restore peace or to bring human rights violations to an end is not humanitarian if it does not factor into account the needs of the people in the community in which such an intervention is made. I also argue that intervention undertaken without consulting or taking the consent of those facing such violations creates room for more human rights violations. Third, I make the case for the need for an approach that responds to structural factors in the site of intervention that led up to the occurrence of mass atrocities in order to ensure that there are no repeat incidents. Finally, I conclude the paper with a vision for what humanitarian intervention should strive to achieve if it follows a feminist path in implementation.  

A Feminist Idea: Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect

                  Unilateral military action on humanitarian grounds has been justified in several contexts globally, oftentimes drawing legitimacy from customary international law.1There is no codified legislative framework offering a process, approach, or system governing the actual conduct of humanitarian intervention operations – but at its base, that there should be “coherent humanitarian justification coupled with a proper procedural and substantive legal regime to underwrite it”.2 State practice indicates the need to identify a humanitarian concern that needs addressing through intervention: be that a case of gross human rights violations in a state, or state-sponsored violence targeting a community, or a case of violence that the state is unable to or unwilling to draw to an end.3

                  The conduct of sovereign states is circumscribed by the rules provided under the UN Charter. To this end, Article 2(4) prohibits the use of force in any form, offering an exception only in the case of necessary and proportional self-defence under Article 51. Any conduct that deviates from the explicit framework of the law requires to be legitimated suitably, and standard international practice has suggested that this legitimacy flows from the Security Council of the United Nations, through its Resolutions. However, the 1990s, known as the decade of humanitarian intervention, witnessed several instances of intervention both authorised and not authorised by the United Nations.4 The United States and its allies engaged in military action on at least three instances without prior authorisation by the Security Council – such as the establishment of no-fly zones in Northern and Southern Iraq in 1991 and 1992, the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs by the NATO in 1995, and the NATO’s Kosovo campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.5 Some were declared legitimate belatedly, such as the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the US intervention in Libya during the Arab Spring that was authorised under Security Council Resolution 1973.6

                  There is no legally “binding” instrument that regulates or governs humanitarian intervention, and this has also led to tricky terrain. According to supporters of humanitarian intervention, if it were legal, the very cost of the potential abuse of pretextual interventions would outweigh any benefit from altruistic interventions.7 There are two kinds of intervention: A pretextual intervention is essentially a case of a state’s use of military force in another state in pursuit of its own gain and not for the protection of human rights; and an altruistic intervention is one that is rooted in the core value of protecting human rights.8

                  In 2005, for the first time ever, the global community endorsed the notion that the world at large has an obligation to protect a community that is facing mass atrocity. This came about through the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, which makes the approach to humanitarian intervention from a different angle – one that endorses that sovereignty is a responsibility – and that a state has a duty to take care of its people.9 When a state fails to do so, the responsibility to take over devolves to the international community. The Responsibility to Protect is aimed at protecting global populations in different communities from mass atrocities and large-scale human rights violations. In all the occasions of intervention in international relations and history, the basis has been genocide or mass atrocity/human rights violations of any kind.

           In the words of Noam Chomsky, “For one thing, there’s a history of humanitarian intervention. You can look at it. And when you do, you discover that virtually every use of military force is described as humanitarian intervention.” This summarises everything that is wrong with how humanitarian intervention is used, executed, and justified. States use military force as the first, rather than last, resort. Interventions take place unilaterally in violation of territorial sovereignty and are not always authorised by the force of law. Furthermore, in the course of intervening, the use of force automatically negates any value for the humanitarian basis that motivated – if only on paper – the intervention in the first place.

           On one level, as Charlesworth explains, the concept of the responsibility to protect appears “hospitable to feminist agendas.”10It fundamentally transcends the traditional paradigm of sovereignty as an equivalent of autonomy and impermeability, notions that feminist scholars have linked to the male body.11The language of responsibility as well also resonates with “research on female reasoning”.12

                  Humanitarian intervention is also a feminist viewpoint in that it seeks to end mass atrocities and violence through, emphatically, non-military modes of intervention; in principle – but not in implementation.13 The motive to take on overt and structural violence and to support the marginalised, oppressed, and the victimised represents a feminist standpoint that strives to engage with structural violence and the protection of the oppressed. The Responsibility to Protect also aligns with this – in that it recognises the failings, violence, and complicity of the state as a structure, and aims to respond to it. However, in their execution, neither is humanitarian intervention nor the responsibility to protect feminist.

A Feminist Approach: Outlawing Military Force and Taking Consent

           A feminist approach to international law in practice is generally marginalised and is entirely absent from the discourse around humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect.14However, such an approach is necessary. That military force is often prioritised over other means of action, and that there is a constant disregard of the agency of those in whose support an intervention is carried out, represents a deviation from the feminist ideals in itself.15, 16 I argue that there are two key components that can ensure a feminist implementation of humanitarian intervention: acknowledgment of the agency of those for whom the intervention is carried out by taking consent and outlawing military force altogether.

Consent of the Governed

           The social contract tradition offers a basis to understand the legitimacy of state authority over individuals. Within this, states are also responsible to their citizens and to protect their interests. Drawing from this principle and state sovereignty under international law, Hathaway et al. made the case for consent-based intervention and argue that a state must either invite or legitimise intervention by another for it to be tenable in law.17 However, only those cases where a state is unable to perform its duties towards its citizens would be open to potentially considering intervention by another state. They go on to suggest that if not the state, only those who legally represent the government can invest or legitimise intervention.

           However, where the state itself is the chief cause of the humanitarian issue, the idea of the state taking the initiative to invite or legitimise intervention is unimaginable. Given that humanitarian intervention fundamentally does not occur at the request or with the consent of the government, unsolicited intervention can be seen as a violation of state sovereignty, and because such interventions are fundamentally coercive in nature, they involve military force or threats of such force.18 Regardless of whether an intervening state follows a strategy of prevention or reaction, most approaches involve the use of force, are top-down, and do not empower those for whom such interventions are carried out.19

           I argue in favor of a consent-based intervention of a different kind: one where the consent of the victims of the humanitarian crisis for whom such intervention is sought, is vital before an intervention. Those against whom an intervention is directed are almost always the government and its supporters. 20 The social contract tradition in the context of international law has been seen as binding individuals as parties to the contract.21 The assumption of a social contract approach is that the parties to the “contract” are equal and have equal bargaining power.22 The point of the social contract is to construct principles that can secure peace.23

           Drawing from this, if individuals are given this equal bargaining power, they can legitimise or invite interventions from third states and prescribe the scope of such an intervention. The ostensible beneficiaries of humanitarian intervention should have a veto authority with respect to intervention on their behalf.24 The basis of intervention on humanitarian grounds is that no state has the prerogative to allow the violation of human rights, and therefore, if it does take place with no action from the state in question towards putting an end to it, another state, or other states may intervene to put an end to them.25 All aspects of human rights are a concern of international law, and therefore, interventions furthering an agenda of protecting human rights are legally permissible.26

           A community consent-based approach to intervention would also pave the way for peaceful engagement, defined and perhaps led by the community seeking such intervention. Military force would not be a natural first choice, and there would be other means for intervention. It may arguably come across as impracticable or potentially difficult to execute – with a very real possibility that there may be posturing and the pursuit of vested interests, it would be an interesting avenue to pursue through the reliance of civil society networks across borders.

Outlawing military force

           The use of force in international law is fundamentally outlawed; the most commonly cited provision endorsing this is Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. In both customary law/state practice and treaty law as interpreted by judicial engagement, the common understanding is that the exceptional use of force must be both reasonable and proportionate to what it is used for.27 

           Most instances of humanitarian intervention have involved the use of force, thus creating what Orford called as “muscular humanitarianism”.28 There is an assumption that an intervention prompted by just forces is assumed to be a positive force.29International practice and scholarship have accommodated such use of force if it is “legitimate,” wherein there is a consideration of the balance of consequences of military action. However, there is a narrow frame accorded to inquiries into consequences, wherein the threshold is whether the atrocities or sufferings that warranted the intervention are ended or not.30 There is, in practice, a “fusion” of military and humanitarian goals that “pushes questions of social justice off the agenda”.31

           The use of military force in the course of humanitarian intervention can also result in the doctrine of double effect, wherein innocent people are targeted deliberately.32, 33, 34 The doctrine legitimises the killing of innocents only if the act itself has good consequences such as the end of a tyrannical regime, that the intention of the actor is good and not one to harm innocent people, and that the good consequences of the act outweigh the bad ones.35 However, the preponderance of good over bad is a subjective assessment to make, and can easily lead to the condonation of several instances of “collateral” harm to innocent people in the name of the “bigger” aim.

           On paper, the use of force is treated as a last resort, one that is neither encouraged nor intentionally normalised. However, in practice, the use of force appears to be the first course of action in any of the instances of intervention. As Engle noted, it warrants the presentation of problems as crises “that only military intervention can solve”.36 There are dangerous consequences of this of which one is that the overt use of military force has its obvious devastating consequences, and another is that such interventions do not question structures and systems that led up to the immediate conflict in the first place.

           Lu cautioned against conflating the idea of intervention with the use of military force, arguing that “The conflation of these two issues in international theory and practice has meant that governments have been able to claim a much stronger social convention against all types of intervention than is supported even in international law…. Many situations may justify some kind of interventionary international response that violates or restricts some aspect of a state’s sovereign authority while ruling out a full-scale military assault”.37

           Non-military interventions exist, and can produce tangible change. Cudd recommended that interventions should be preceded by adherence to five key parameters: a just cause, a right intention, attempts at all strategies in order, minimal use of force to an extent that is both necessary and proportionate to the threat or prevailing violence, and an expectation of good consequences.38 She goes on to recommend a spectrum of options that start from least to most coercive, namely from diplomatic persuasion and support for non-violent internal resistance groups to military intervention aimed at preventing killing and military intervention aimed at removing governmental authority.

           Seeking or calling for judicial support and investigation is perhaps one of the most sustainable ways of calling for an end to human rights abuses. For instance, in 2019, The Gambia initiated legal proceedings against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice with the support of 57 other countries, calling for an end to the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people in the region. In amplifying the call for justice, The Gambia not only averted greater disaster and protracted war through armed conflict, but also spoke up to present a socio-political reality that comprised structural violence in the run up to the genocide, and called for a judicial solution that holds the promise to pave the way for sustainable peace.

Responding to structural violence

           The focus on addressing overt violence without, or in some instances, instead of responding to the structural and systemic violence underlying it is no less than responding to the symptom than the root cause of the illness.39 No mass atrocities take place without a certain formulaic build up that culminates in the overt violence. If these structures are not dismantled, they may remain dormant to be restored to full power at a later date, allowing for the community to slide back into the state where overt violence prevailed in full force. Papamichaile made the case for how any humanitarian intervention should strive to not only stop direct violence, but should also consider and address violent structures that allow for such violence, and called it a moral imperative.40 Humanitarian intervention should strive to be more than a band-aid policy, and should attempt to address structural violence through institutional reform. In a military intervention, the use of overt violence guarantees that there is no engagement with structural violence in any way so as to alter its propensity to recur or continue post-intervention.

           Non-violent approaches to intervention have a greater likelihood of achieving this. For instance, approaching the International Court of Justice on the lines of The Gambian strategy also offers the ICJ room for judicial activism in a way that require errant states to comply with its decision. Admittedly, practice does inform that institutional reform has been “the most opaque and nebulous” amongst all sites of transitional justice and that most prosecutorial approaches have taken a human rights-based approach to justice, focusing more on human conduct as the cause for human rights violation rather than state failure and complicity, as well as structural violence.41, 42 However, that the prohibition against mass atrocities amounts to jus cogens norms in international law warrants that there is no room for derogation and the demand for compliance can also call for the dismantling of structures that permit such violations to continue.


           A feminist idea of humanitarian intervention is both conceivable and practicable. The basic premise builds on the idea of the consent of the governed – wherein the support for those intervened for is inspired by the social contract theory, or that governments are the mere agents of the people.43 Human rights are obligations for governments to implement and sovereignty is a responsibility, not an inviolable property that is weaponised against human rights. As a principally feminist approach in that it strives to respond to large-scale human rights violations in situations where the state is unable or unwilling to protect its affected population, the responsibility to protect encourages the devolution of this responsibility on the international community. “International law informed by a feminist perspective requires that new means of social intervention, which disrupt traditional roles and gender hierarchies, must be considered to replace military intervention which tends to maintain the global dominance of military power over the freedom of autonomous individuals and of men over women”.44 By prioritising the agency of those for whom intervention is carried out, and by acknowledging that the use of force is both detrimental and antagonistic to the aim of humanitarian intervention and acting on such knowledge, we can potentially look at restoring the humanitarian component to such policies.


Christine Sylvester, ‘Feminists and Realists View Autonomy and Obligation in International Relations’ in V. Spike Peterson (ed.), Gendered States: Feminist (Re)Visions of International Relations Theory (Boulder, Colorado, Lynne Rienner Press, 1992)

1. Rakiya Omaar, Alex de Waal “Can Military Intervention Be “Humanitarian”?,” Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

2. ‘Humanitarian Intervention: A Legal Analysis’, E-International Relations (blog), accessed 20 March 2020,

3. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

4. Mary Kaldor, Human Security: Reflections on Globalization and Intervention (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007), p.16

5. ‘Humanitarian Intervention: A Legal Analysis’, E-International Relations (blog), accessed 20 March 2020,

6. ‘Humanitarian Intervention: A Legal Analysis’, E-International Relations (blog), accessed 20 March 2020,

7. Ian Brownlie, International Law and the Use of Force by States 338 (1963)

8. Oscar Schachter, The Right of States to Use Armed Force, 82 MICH. L. REV. 1620 (1984)

9. Anne Orford, ‘Jurisdiction Without Territory: From the Holy Roman Empire to the Responsibility to Protect’, Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2009, pp. 984–1015, at p. 990

10. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

11. Hilary Charlesworth, ‘The Sex of the State in International Law’ in Ngaire Naffine and Rosemary Owens (eds.), Sexing the Subject of Law (Sydney: Law Book Company, 1997

12. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

13. Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2008).

14. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

15. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

16. Karen Engle, “Calling in the Troops:” The Uneasy Relationship among Women’s Rights, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Intervention,” Harvard Human Rights Journal, 20: 189-226 (2007)

17. Hathaway, O.A., Brower, J., Liss, R. and Thomas, T., 2013. Consent-Based Humanitarian Intervention: Giving Sovereign Responsibility Back to the Sovereign. Cornell Int’l LJ46, p.499.

18. McMahan, J., 2010. Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality. Ethics and humanity: Themes from the philosophy of Jonathan Glover, pp.44-72.

19. Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2008)

20. McMahan, J., 2010. Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality. Ethics and humanity: Themes from the philosophy of Jonathan Glover, pp.44-72.

21. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

22. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

23. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

24. McMahan, J., 2010. Humanitarian intervention, consent, and proportionality. Ethics and humanity: Themes from the philosophy of Jonathan Glover, pp.44-72.

25. Fernando Teson, ‘Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality” 5 (1988)

26. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

27. Martti Koskenniemi, ‘International Law in the World of Ideas’ in James Crawford and Martti Koskenniemi (eds.), Cambridge Companion to International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

28. Anne Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 56-71

29. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

30. Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2008).

31. Hillary Charlesworth, Global Responsibility to Protect 2 (2010) 232-249

32. Quinn,W. (1989) Actions, intentions, and consequences: The doctrine of double effect, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 18

33. Spector, H. (1992) Autonomy and Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

34. Woodward, P.A. (Ed) (2001) The Doctrine Of Double Effect: Philosophers Debate A Controversial Moral Principle (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press).

35. Fernando R. Tesón (2006) Eight Principles for Humanitarian Intervention, Journal of Military Ethics, 5:2, 93-113, DOI: 10.1080/15027570600707698

36. Karen Engle, “Calling in the Troops:” The Uneasy Relationship among Women’s Rights, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Intervention,” Harvard Human Rights Journal, 20: 189-226 (2007)

37. Catherine Lu, “Whose Principles? Whose Institutions? Legitimacy Challenges for Humanitarian Intervention,” in Humanitarian Intervention, eds. Terry Nardin and Melissa Williams (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 188-216.

38. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375.

39. Buss, D. (2011) Performing Legal Order: Some Feminist Thoughts on International Criminal Law. International Criminal Law Review 11, 409–423.

40. Papamichail, A., 2018. Structural violence and the paradox of humanitarian intervention (Doctoral dissertation, University of St Andrews).

41. O’Rourke, C. (2016) ‘Gender and Transitional Justice.’ in Handbook on Women and War. ed. by Sharoni, S., Welland, J, Steiner, L, and Pedersen. New York: Edward Elgar Publishing

42. Aroussi, S. (2018) Perceptions of Justice and Hierarchies of Rape: Rethinking Approaches to Sexual Violence in Eastern Congo from the Ground up. International Journal of Transitional Justice 12 (2), 277-295

43. Fernando R. Tesón (2006) Eight Principles for Humanitarian Intervention, Journal of Military Ethics, 5:2, 93-113, DOI: 10.1080/15027570600707698

44. Cudd, Ann E. “Truly humanitarian intervention: considering just causes and methods in a feminist cosmopolitan frame.” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 3 (2013): 359-375, 369

Editor: Ishan Gupta
February 15, 2020
Women’s issues, except ones that are concerning their domestic and familial roles, are severely under-represented in the Indian political narrative. This paper attempts to argue this through an analysis of the Question Hour data from 2006 to 2017.

Women’s issues, except ones that concern their domestic and familial roles, are severely under-represented in the Indian political narrative. I attempt to argue this through an analysis of the Question Hour data from 2006 to 2017.

In elected democracies, there is no specified role of a representative; is the task of a representative to be a delegate of the constituents’ demands and voices, or is it to represent policies, even unpopular ones, that would do their constituents well? According to political theorist Hanna Pitkin, there are four kinds of representations: Formal, Symbolic, Descriptive, and Substantive.     [i]

If we were to understand representation as substantive representation  – the activity of representatives that is taken on behalf of and in the interest of those they represent – we would be able to judge representatives in the parliament based on the questions they ask and the issues they decide to discuss. That is to say, the role the parliamentarian performs during the question hour, if done as prescribed, is one of being a Substantive Representative. This is the metric used in this paper while analysing how women’s interests are navigated in the Indian Parliament.

For this paper, women shall be understood as cis-gendered women. While trans and non-binary identities are important to study, it is beyond the scope of this paper. Additionally, I will be using questions asked during the Question Hour to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, to be questions pertaining to “women’s issues”.  The unintended consequence of defining such a boundary may include exclusion of programmes such as health care and education schemes impacting the population. However, due to the absence of any other Ministry dedicated (solely) towards Women’s Welfare, it can be assumed that the rest of these questions happening to represent women’s interests were accidental or unintentional. They have been excluded since they were not specifically meant to benefit women, even if they do so.

Background Literature

The standpoint theory informs us that women have been left out of the pursuit and creation of knowledge. Thereby, most, if not all, knowledge that has been created over the centuries is inherently androcentric. Proponents of the theory believe that even the ‘empirical’ science is partial towards men; it is not neutral, but in fact, based out of a historically sexist point of view. The theory further emphasises on the need for women to provide the previously underrepresented perspective and are in a better position to represent women’s interests, given the historical bias. Although such a theory runs the risk of essentialising the female identity and women’s interest, it gives us a great starting point to analyse how female parliamentarians navigate their positions as women in the parliament.

Women make up about 11% of the Lok Sabha, asking only about 7.5% of all questions and approximately 13% of these on women’s issues.[ii] This is strikingly different from other minority identities that are politicized in India, such as religion and caste. Muslims make up about 5% of total MPs in the Lok Sabha and ask about 22% of total questions on Muslim issues. SC/ST MPs make up about 24% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, and they raise 41 % of questions on caste issues.[iii] The ratio of women’s numbers in the parliament to the questions they ask is severely disproportionate when compared to similar ratios of other minority representatives.

There are some intersectionalities: a representative can be both a woman and a Muslim, or a member of the SC/ST community and a woman. Are they then more likely to adopt their non-woman identity? Is the ‘woman’ identity of a representative less politicised than their identity as a different minority? Texts concerning women in Hindutva Politics may help to answer these questions.

Sikta Banerjee details that women in the hyper-masculine Hindu Right navigate their position by fitting into the boxes of a heroic mother, a chaste wife, or a celibate warrior[iv]. They adopt these non-sexualized female identities since they are drawn from the Right’s narratives and hence are more accessible. Even in the discomfort that patriarchy creates, such identities provide a comfortable space to exist; an alternative to an outright defiance of the system. Banerjee has found that, “[the] cost of defiance is quite high in India…rebellion remains an alienating, isolating factor”.[v] Furthermore, as Tanika Sarkar put it so poignantly: all women are not feminists.[vi] This means that they may not identify as women-leaders per se. Despite this, there may exist a large-scale movement among (not-feminist) women from the right who bring with them agency and informed consent.[vii]

This perceived alienation between women and their female identity is contrary to the experiences of women in the Parliament such as Malini Bhattacharya. She has noted that, “…there was a tendency in Parliament to push women into certain corners. Just as in social life […], in Parliament also women are pushed into certain spaces saying, “this is where women should intervene””.[viii] If this were true, current participation should suggest that women are only participating in discussions about specific topic areas where it is allegedly acceptable for them to have a say, but that is not the case.[ix]

Contrary to the Parliamentary data, the data from state and local level legislation suggests that an increase in women sarpanches was more likely to be contingent on identity-based investment in women-centric issues, such as availability of drinking water.[x] Jacob and Basu explain that this lack of difference may be the product of the lack of a critical mass of women in the house (globally defined as 33%). We stand at 11.4% in 2014, which is much lower than the global 22.3%.[xi] India doesn’t fare well in comparison with its South Asians neighbours like Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, all of who have reservations for women.[xii] Nepal fills 29.9% of its house with women and ranks highest in South Asia.[xiii]

  (Figure 1: Jacob 237)[xiv]

This brings us to the elephant in the room –   the Women’s Reservation Bill. While the legislature has approved a bill that reserves seats for women in local legislatures, they have been averse to the same in the state and the centre. Proponents argue that the bill will help reach critical masses of women (globally defined as 33%), and that this would alter the outcome and tenor of the parliamentary debates.[xv]  There are two very important oppositions to this bill that we must take into account. The first opposition is that such a reservation would act as a ceiling rather than a base, thereby limiting the number of women who could be had in a Parliament.[xvi] The second opposition is a caste-based opposition which believes that the whole debate on the women’s reservation bill is an upper-caste ploy that is intent on erasing the new wave of lower-caste men who are entering into politics.[xvii] They believe that a blanket women’s-based reservation would erase caste, and the only people who would benefit would be upper-caste women – the biwis, betis and bahus.

Proponents of this line of thinking believe that a lot of women in positions of power are upper-caste women who are merely placeholders for the men in their families. Data shows that dynastic women are more likely to get elected. In 2014, 43% of the women in parliament (12%) had dynastic links as compared to only 19% of the men.[xviii] If this were true, it could be a valid explanation for their passive participation in the process of legislating for women.


For this paper, I will be conducting a quantitative analysis. As previously mentioned, I will be using questions from the last four terms of the Question Hour in the Parliament. The Question Hour is a latent paradigm which can reveal intriguing patterns in the discussion on women’s issues.  As in several western legislatures, during Question Hour, legislators are not restricted by party regulations. They pose up to five questions, four of which must be written. The government is obliged to answer. The speaker allows a maximum of only 250 questions (20 oral) picked via a ballot,[xix] providing us with a rather unbiased metric.

Saloni Bhogale, at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, has been working on the issue of Muslim Representation through the Question Hour data. The data was scraped from the Lok Sabha website, and with her help, a specific sub-set of questions asked to the Ministry of Women and Child was drawn. We were left with a sub-set of 2833 questions that contained the ID number, question number, subject, question, date, member(s) who asked the question, ministry (only the ministry of women and child for this data set), and whether the question is starred or unstarred.  They were then further categorised based on whether they were about children, women, the girl child. Several data points lie in the intersection of these categories and have been accordingly assigned to all applicable categories. Then the questions were further classified into nine categories: Anganwadi, abandonment and adoption, child welfare, economic, education, girl child, law and order, legislation and nutrition, health and growth. Some of these questions applied to more than one category and were assigned to all applicable categories. Lastly, to account for the effects of gender and the party allegiances of the members asking the questions, this data was merged with general election data as scraped, cleaned, and collected by TCPD.


Out of the 2833 questions, eventually, 2519 questions were analysed. 314 questions had to be discarded due to the absence of question text. Ten of these did not have enough data to be classified into women/child/ girl child but remained in the dataset under “cbd” (‘could not be determined’). Analysis of data was conducted in five different ways, a) all questions, b) questions asked about children, c) questions asked about women, d) questions about women and the girl child and lastly, e) questions asked by women.

  1. All Questions
Year No. of Questions
2006 152
2007 173
2008 119
2009 166
2010 275
2011 200
2012 274
2013 275
2014 228
2015 213
2016 253
2017 192

A total of 2519 questions have been asked to the Ministry of Women and Child since its inception in 2006. The trend of the number of questions being asked has remained similar over the years:

The lowest was 152, in the year the ministry was set up, and there seems to be a steady rise but not extremely significant given the highest has only been 275, in 2010 and 2013. The peak in 2013 could be attributed to the Nirbhaya Rape Case in December 2012[xx].

4436 people have asked these questions – since more than one person can ask a question. 3848, which is 87% of these people, are men and 588, which is 13% of them, are women.

From available data for 4340 of these people, 1482 of the questions have been asked by BJP elects, and that’s 34% and 21%, respectively. 1950 of the questions have been asked by others – that is the remaining 45%.

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 262
Abandonment and
Child Welfare 486
Economic 225
Education 50
Girl Child 94
Law and Order 435
Legislation 484
Nutrition, Health, and Growth 326

A general distribution of questions across topics looks as follows:

Most of the questions asked to the ministry were about child welfare (19.1%), followed closely by legislation at 19% and law and order at 17.1%. Questions about economic interests, education and those about the girl child remain on the fray at 8.9%, 2% and 3.7%, respectively.

  • Questions about Children:

Not inclusive of questions about children within other categories like child + women, there are 1227 questions about children. 2165 people have asked these questions, 1898 of who are men and 267 of who are women – that’s 88% and 12%, respectively.

We have parties available for 2059 of these (106 are missing). Given that data for 106 people is missing, from the remaining people, BJP asked 730 (30%); Congress asked 448 (22%); and 881(43%) questions were asked by members of other parties.

A general distribution of questions across topics looks as follows:

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 173
Abandonment and
Child Welfare 274
Economic 42
Education 23
Girl Child 31
Law and Order 236
Legislation 171
Nutrition, Health and Growth 164

Most of the questions are about child welfare, closely followed by law and order. The topic of education remained unexplored.

  • Questions about Women

In this category, there are questions asked about women in any combination. That is, it could be a question about both women and children, the girl child and children, about the girl child, children and women and so on.

1282 such questions have been asked about women. These questions have been asked by 2242 people, 1924 (86%) of whom are men and 318 (14%) of whom are women.

Parties are available for 2130 of these members (112 are missing). 740 of these are asked by members of BJP, that is 35%, and 455 of these are asked by members of Congress, that is 21%. 935 of these, that is the remaining 44%, are asked by members of other parties by other parties.

The general distribution of the kind of questions asked looks like this:

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 89
Abandonment and
Child Welfare 212
Economic 183
Education 27
Girl Child 63
Law and Order 198
Legislation 312
Nutrition, Health and Growth 154

Legislation, at 312 questions, has the most amount of questions asked, and Child Welfare continues to have 212 questions. Education, too, continues to have the least amount of questions asked.

  • Questions only about women and the girl child

This category completely excludes the child, and only includes questions that have been categorised under ‘women’, ‘girl-child’ or ‘girl child and women’.

890 such questions have been asked, by 1585 people, 86% (1338) of whom are men and 14% (206) of whom are women.

Discounting 86 people with missing party data, 35% (520) of the questions have been asked by members of BJP, 22% (326) by members of Congress and 43% (653) by members of other parties.

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 64
Abandonment and
Child Welfare 116
Economic 139
Education 17
Girl Child 54
Law and Order 153
Legislation 224
Nutrition, Health and Growth 69

The general distribution of questions looks as follows:

The greatest number of questions are those with regards to legislation at 224, followed by law and order at 153 and economic at 139. Child Welfare, at 116, has a considerably large amount of question base in this context.

  • Questions asked by Women

Although this does not qualify under the Substantive Representation of Women, given this paper is about women, it is important to also see what questions women who make it to the house ask. At least one woman has asked 528 Questions to the Ministry of Women and Child.[xxi]

The general distribution of these questions are as follows:

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 55
Abandonment and
Child Welfare 86
Economic 52
Education 13
Girl Child 12
Law and Order 96
Legislation 106
Nutrition, Health and Growth 68

 Legislation seems to be the most important topic at 106 questions, closely followed by law and order at 96. Child Welfare continues to occupy an important space here at 86 questions.


The Ministry of Women and Child did not exist before January 2006. It was originally set up as a department under the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 1985. That it took 13 houses to set up a ministry dedicated to women, highlights the inadequacy of constructive discourse around women in the country’s policymaking.

Further, it is problematic that the ministry compiles both women and children under one ministry. This suggests that the archaic narrative in Indian politics about a woman’s primary role –as a mother, a wife, a caregiver, is still at large. While the mandate of this ministry says that, “… these efforts are directed to ensure that women are empowered both economically and socially and thus become equal partners in national development along with men”[xxii], the subject allocation that follows this mandate tells a different story. The first item on this subject list is ‘welfare of the family’ and pertinent issues such as the National Commission for Women, the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh and Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equity come much lower in the list. Several of the subject areas that do deal with women are concerned with nutrition and crimes such as trafficking and while these are important, women’s issues are only seen as either that of the family or that of crime, and not of equity and opportunity. For decades, feminist critiques have been commenting on the limited appreciation of women’s issues in light of family and marriage,[xxiii] but this conversation has evidently not percolated into the political discourse in India. While questions on economic growth and opportunity made up only 8.9% of the questions asked to this ministry, child welfare accounts for more than twice of that, with as much with 19.1% of the questions. Questions about children alone (1227 questions) make up more than the questions about both women and the girl child put together (890 questions).

Kind of Questions No. of Questions
All Questions 486(/2519)
Only Children 274(/1227)
Women in some capacity 212(/1282)
Only Women and Girl Child 116(/890)
Questions asked by women   86(/528)    

This focus on child welfare remains irrespective of how the data is classified, as seen in the table below.

Irrespective of the nature of the classification, the questions about child welfare make up an average of 17% of the questions.

More than 50% of the questions, irrespective of the classifications, are asked between BJP and Congress. The representatives from BJP seem to be asking more questions than the representatives from Congress, irrespective of classification, which seems counter-intuitive given Congress’s popular narrative[xxiv]. This would make for interesting future research.

Lastly, women make up around 11% of the house and ask around 12% of the questions regarding women’s issues. When such an analysis is done with other identity markers, the difference is starkly noted. Muslims, for example, make up 5% of the house but ask 20% of the questions with regards to Muslim issues.[xxv] This is also true for SC and ST representatives.[xxvi] This points towards literature that suggests that women don’t want to be seen as “only” women’s representatives[xxvii] but as representatives beyond their identity.

What is hence outlined is a concern vis-à-vis the core of an Indian woman’s identity. As equal citizens of this Republic, the constitution bears upon Indian women every one of the same rights that it bears upon the men, to pursue their social, economic and political goals. Therefore, it is critical that the representatives of this country and especially the representatives of Indian women, recognise this and legislate accordingly.

[i] Formalistic Representation: Institutional, formal representation for the represented, Symbolic Representation: The value that the representative holds for the represented, Descriptive Representation: How much a representative resembles those represented? [and] Substantive Representation: The activity of representatives—that is, the actions taken on behalf of, in the interest of, as an agent of, and as a substitute for the represented (Stanford Encyclopedia).

[ii] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[iii] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[iv] In the Indian imagination: heroic mother like Rani of Jhansi, a chaste wife like Rani Padmavati, or a celibate warrior like the God Kaali

[v] Banerjee, S. (2006). “Armed masculinity, Hindu nationalism and female political participation in India.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 8(1): 62-83.

[vi] Sarkar, Tanika, “Pragmatics of the Hindu Right: Politics of Women’s Organizations.”  Women’s Studies in India edited by Mary E John, Penguin Books.

[vii] Sarkar, Tanika, “Pragmatics of the Hindu Right: Politics of Women’s Organizations.”  Women’s Studies in India edited by Mary E John, Penguin Books.

[viii] Bhattacharya, Malini. On Being a Woman in Parliament,

[ix] Jacob, Suraj. “Gender and Legislative Performance in India.” Politics & Gender, vol. 10, no. 02, 2014, pp. 236–264., doi:10.1017/s1743923x14000051.

[x] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xi] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xiii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xiv] Jacob, Suraj. “Gender and Legislative Performance in India.” Politics & Gender, vol. 10, no. 02, 2014, pp. 236–264., doi:10.1017/s1743923x14000051.

[xv] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xvi] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xvii] Menon, Nivedita, “The Elusive ‘Woman’: Feminism and the Women’s Reservation Bill.”  Women’s Studies in India edited by Mary E John, Penguin Books.

[xviii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xix] Jacob, Suraj. “Gender and Legislative Performance in India.” Politics & Gender, vol. 10, no. 02, 2014, pp. 236–264., doi:10.1017/s1743923x14000051.

[xx] See Harris, Gardiner. “Charges Filed Against 5 Over Rape in New Delhi.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018,

[xxi] As previously mentioned, some questions are asked by more than one person

[xxii] “Ministry of Women & Child Development | GoI.” About the Ministry | Ministry of Women & Child Development | GoI,

[xxiii] Satz, Debra, “Feminist Perspectives on Reproduction and the Family”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[xxiv] See PTI. “Women Empowerment Must for Country’s Development: Rahul Gandhi.” Https://, Livemint, 28 Feb. 2014,

[xxv] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[xxvi] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[xxvii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.; Bhattacharya, Malini. On Being a Woman in Parliament,

February 4, 2020
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 has left the transgender community and activists in India disappointed and angry. Why is the Act being considered as a denial of their basic rights? Shivangi Singh analyses the pitfalls and gaps in the law.

Decoding Gender Identity

Argentina, a pioneer in pro-trans legislation, has operationalized the term gender identity in its constitution. The article says that the “internal and individual way” in which a person understands their gender is their gender identity.1 This involves their personal experience with their body, changing (voluntarily) their appearance, and anatomy via surgical means as well as other expressions through dress and mannerisms.

The definition makes it amply clear that gender identity is a very subjective phenomenon, or a ‘qualia’.2  This means that since the gender of a person is an introspective experience, only the subject of that experience can verify the gender identity.

Transgender Policy in India

In the face of the historic 2014 National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) vs. Union of India judgment by the Supreme Court, that made it clear that gender determination is in the hands of the person concerned and did away with biological tests, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 (hereby referred to as ‘the Act’) is severely regressive.3, 4 The very potential of the Act to transform the sphere of trans rights has been diluted. Professor Bittu Rajaraman of Ashoka University, a transgender activist, noted that the policymakers have subsumed the intersex identity (having a sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit into typical male and female) within the trans identity (having a gender identity non-conforming to birth-assigned sex), as a subtype (in chapter 1, point 2.k of the Act). Clearly, there is an insufficient understanding of the very difference between gender and sex, and the many variations within each. Such a conflation makes for irresponsible policy. Specific policy requirements for the intersex community remain unaddressed; for example – legal prohibition of non-consensual medical procedures to make their bodies conform to assigned sex.5

Furthermore, the only self-perceived gender identity that the Act allows for is ‘transgender’, that needs to be substantiated by a district-magistrate approved certificate. Under no circumstances is a trans person allowed the autonomy to identify themselves as a man or a woman (if they wish to) upon self-perception. Point 7.1. states that only a person who has undergone surgery to become either male or female can apply for a certificate which states the so-called corrected gender. It comes as no surprise that this process would require an application, corroborated by documents from the medical institution, and the associated medical officers. For this clause to exist, despite multiple examples from around the world of the omission of medical processes as a prerequisite for gender affirmation, is dehumanizing. The act is striving to put trans people back into the tight binary holds of man and woman, and has left no space for people who exist in neither of the two categories, such as non-binary, gender-fluid and gender-non-conforming people, as well as people who do not wish to medically transition. Bangladesh has already seen the repercussions of pathologizing the trans identity; the community was given state ‘disability allowances’, but such welfare mechanisms backfired when trans persons were forced to undergo medical examinations to prove their transgenderism, and fired from their government jobs when they failed.6

Another surprising aspect of the act is offences and penalties section, which establishes that the maximum punishment for crimes against trans persons (point 18.d.), including sexual and physical abuse, will be two years along with an unspecified fine. In comparison to this, for crimes against women such as stalking (Indian Penal Code (IPC) 354D) and sexual harassment (IPC 354A), the punishment is at least three years in jail; for rape it is life imprisonment.7, 8 There is no explanation behind this other than the unsaid assumption that the trauma experienced by the trans people is somehow less grave, even though the crime is the same. The act also seeks to provide for grievance redressal mechanisms in all establishments (Chapter V, point 11), both public and private, but says nothing about the prevention and punishment of harassment that occurs in streets, slums, brothels and other informal places of employment. This is exemplary of the policymakers’ limited understanding of trans lives in India.

Further, the Act says that in the face of institutional or familial discrimination against a trans child, on the behest of a court, the child will be placed in a rehabilitation centre (point 12.3). The act is silent on the infrastructural, safety and medical conditions that these rehabilitation centers must comply with in order adequately provide adequately for the children that are going to be placed there. Studies10 have shown that an absent family and community structure for trans children manifests in the form of mental health problems in trans children, and leads them to engage in destructive behaviour like self-harm and substance abuse. But the act does not account for this. It also does not deal with civil rights such as marriage and adoption, which perpetuates the hetero-normative ideal of Indian society and prevents them from having a recognized and rights-enabled family structure.

An Overview of International Transgender Legislation   As this decade comes to a close, many countries have succeeded in giving the trans community their rightful place in society, through empowering and non-discriminating laws. These laws strive to give the trans people autonomy and state recognition, and also set excellent precedents for lawmakers globally to take note from.   Denmark   The Danish pioneered the movement for gender self-determination in Europe with the 2014 gender recognition law11. It does away with psychiatric diagnoses and medical treatments as grounds for filing an application. People under the age of 18 cannot file for gender self-determination.   Ireland   Starting in 2015, people above the age of 18 have been allowed to legally change their gender by “statutory self-declaration”12. The framework is being reviewed to account for younger people as well as non-binary/agender13/gender-fluid people, who do not want to opt for the male-female binary.   Malta   The Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (GIGESC Act) of 2015 provides “quick, transparent and accessible”14 gender recognition, contingent entirely on self-recognition. Declarations must be made to a government notary, who is legally prohibited from seeking medical information for the same. Applications for minors can be made by their parents or legal guardians. Additionally, birth certificates can remain without gender markers until the child has made an informed decision.     Argentina   By far, Argentina has one of the most comprehensive provisions for gender-identification rights. Article 1 of the constitution outlines the Right to Gender Identity as the (1) freedom to self-recognition of gender identity, (2) freedom to develop according to said identity and (3) the right to be identified and treated accordingly15. Article 4 accordingly supplements this by stating that under no circumstances will the applicant have to provide evidence of total or partial sex reassignment or therapies (both hormonal and psychological). Once these basic requirements are met, the public officer in charge can move for the issuing of a fresh birth certificate and a new national ID card. All legal entitlements and obligations remain as they were prior to gender identity change.   Others   There are certain countries which decided to break down the very construct of gender as a marker of identity. For instance, in New Zealand and Australia, it is no longer considered necessary for a person to even have a gender. Official documents for people are allowed to say ‘unspecified’ against gender. The Dutch parliament, similarly, is considering whether official documents should even record gender at all16.      While these are noteworthy pieces of legislation which provide legacy for other nation states to learn from, there is room for improvement. For example, in Denmark, a clause in the law that mandates a six-month period between application and approval has met with resistance from activists. The lawmakers added this clause to make room for people who might want to withdraw their applications. However, the organization Transgender Europe has raised concerns about how this provision fuels the myth that trans people are ‘confused’ about themselves and may make the wrong decision in haste.17   Additionally, the move by Ireland and Denmark to prohibit people under the age of 18 to file for gender self-determination is being understood by many as a move to undermine the autonomy of trans children. The policy seems to be based on the notion that they are not old enough to understand their gender identity. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) has maintained that there is no valid reason to believe that people below the age of 18 do not have the mental or physical faculties to self-evaluate and recognize their gender status.18  

Understanding the Motivation Behind the Transgender Act

While there is no clear answer to this predicament, a few indicators can be identified. In a previous version of the bill, which lapsed in 2018 in the Rajya Sabha, begging by transgender persons was proposed to be criminalized.19 Rajaraman posits that this is indicative of the policymakers’ belief that trans persons beg out of choice, which is an extension of their incomplete understanding of the community’s concerns. There was little consideration of the fact that trans persons face an ostracization of inexplicable levels, shunned from places of work, worship, leisure and education. They beg, enter prostitution and become performers to eke out a livelihood.

Until recently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association, classified gender dysphoria as an ‘identity disorder’, thereby insinuating that there is something inherently pathological about not feeling at one with one’s birth-assigned sex.20 While the manual has now done away with this classification, the medical community’s beliefs vis-a-vis dysphoria and transgenderism have been echoed by society for decades, which has been evident in discourses about the matter. Given the misinformation, even the most well-intentioned policymakers are unable to discuss trans rights without using trans-phobic vocabulary. For example, in the tabling of the Trans Bill in the upper house of the parliament, one of the members, who was vocally opposed to the bill, said the following:

If a baby is born blind, if a baby is born with hearing-impairment, then, do we think that this baby is a curse from God? No. It is God’s own children. Likewise, these transgender persons are also God’s children”.21

The parliamentarian then went on to add that the ‘brain power’ of transgenders is powerful and that they ‘can be trained’ to do many jobs. Policymakers of our country are hesitant about treating trans people as adults who have capacities of self-awareness and mature decision-making. Here, it must be noted that the 2016 version of the bill necessitated the establishment of a district level screening committee to hand out gender certificates, and the committee was required to have at least one psychologist or psychiatrist.22 While this section has now been removed, the patronizing stance towards the trans community is evident from the uninhibited allusion to transgenderism as some sort of a handicap. Given this circumstance, achieving an equal and unprejudiced stature for them, as well as an empathetic piece of legislation, are still distant eventualities.

What can be done?

A systematic ambiguity of legal recognition enables the perpetuation of structural violence against the community in India. Be it poor mental health, discrimination, isolation or abuse, the root of most problems faced by them can be traced back to inadequate policy coverage, which fails to provide for their special circumstances and does not address the historical injustice done to them. Annette Verster, a technical officer with the HIV Department at WHO, Geneva, said that “identity documents that do not match a person’s gender can hinder access to health services, social protection and employment”.23

In its present form, the act does not contain any actionable or attainable goals for the near future. Chapter IV of the act, which is dedicated to welfare measures that the government is required to take, is unspecific about these measures. There is no attempt to elaborate on what ‘full and effective participation’ means, what will be the format of the proposed welfare schemes or what will ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘recreation’ entail. This is not an act which will ensure an empowered status for the trans persons in India. The commitments should be broken down into unequivocal deliverables, for which organs of the government and special committees must be given accountability.

Policymakers, themselves, need to be sensitized about the matter of legislation, so that they are able to create an infrastructure of recognition for the trans community within the larger society.  It is time to think about how can we enhance communication between research and policy-making, so that legislation in the parliament is more attuned to the needs of people. Politics and policy are intertwined, which means that attempts shall have to be made to understand the political motivations behind the act. Only then will we able to make strides ahead, especially in the face of our parliamentarians’ unrelenting rigidity, presumably rooted in stereotypes and outmoded attitudes about the trans people. New methods of protest and communication will have to be adopted, although what they will be remains unclear.



1 2013. “Argentina Gender Identity Law,” Transgender Europe.

2 Tye, Michael. 2018. “Qualia,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University),

3 Wojcik, Mark. E. 2018. “Male. Female. Other. India Requires Legal Recognition of a Third Gender,” American Bar Association,

4 “THE TRANSGENDER PERSONS (PROTECTION OF RIGHTS) BILL, 2019”, [as introduced in Lok Sabha],

5 2019. “India: Transgender Bill Raises Rights Concerns,” Human Rights Watch,

6 Bhattacharya, Sayan. 2019. “The Transgender Nation and its Margins: The Many Lives of the Law.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, pg. 12. DOI: 10.4000/samaj.4930.

7 According to Section 354A IPC, sexual harassment includes unwarranted touching or other physical contact, demands for sexual acts, making sexually-coloured remarks and unwarranted exposure to pornographic material.

8 N.d. “Legal Provisions Related to Sexual Offences against Women”. Vikaspedia,

10 Ryan, C. 2014. “Generating a revolution in prevention, wellness & care for LGBT children & youth”. Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 23(2): 331-344.

11 2014. “Historic Danish Gender Recognition Law Comes into Force,” Transgender Europe.

12 Brooks, Libby. 2018. “‘A Monumental Change’: How Ireland Transformed Transgender Rights,” The Guardian, sec. Society,

13 Agender people are those who do not subscribe to any gender identity, thereby remaining genderless.

14 2015. “Malta Adopts Ground-Breaking Trans and Intersex Law – TGEU Press Release,” Transgender Europe.

15 2013. “Argentina Gender Identity Law,” Transgender Europe.

16 Ghoshal, Neela and Kyle Knight. 2016. “World Report 2016: Rights Trends in Rights in Transition,” Human Rights Watch.

17 2014. “Historic Danish Gender Recognition Law Comes into Force,” Transgender Europe.

18 N.d.“WPATH World Professional Association for Transgender Health,” accessed December 16, 2019,

19 Singh, Prachi. 2019. “Why Is Transgender Community Unhappy with Trans Persons Bill?,” DownToEarth,–67158.

20 2013. “Gender Dysphoria”. American Psychiatric Association.

21 2019. “DC-MZ/1A/11:00.” Rajya Sabha Secretariat, pg. 164.

22 Bhattacharya, Sayan. 2019. “The Transgender Nation and its Margins: The Many Lives of the Law.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, pg. 12. DOI: 10.4000/samaj.4930.

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