The Monsoon Session of Parliament started on 19 July 2021, and will likely run for 19 business days until 13 August 2021. Over 400 Members of Parliament (MPs) and 200 staff have received the Covid-19 vaccinations before the start of the session. Covid-19 protocols, including maintaining social distancing are also in place, even as members of both houses have been sitting simultaneously for the sessions.
During the 19 days, as per the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, 31 government business items will be taken up, including 29 bills (in various stages) and two financial items. 26 bills have been tabled (including both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha), out of which nine are listed for consideration and passing, and 17 are listed for introduction, consideration, and passing. The first few days of the Monsoon Session have witnessed some turbulence, with parties protesting against the fuel price hikes, the government’s handling of the second wave of COVID-19, and the farm laws. The House has been adjourned several times in the past few days due to loud protests by opposition party members against various bills and ordinances. Union minister Bharati Pravin Pawar’s response to a written question, stating that no deaths due to lack of oxygen were specifically reported by states and Union Territories during the second wave, attracted widespread criticism and opposition. Key bills such as the Essential Defence Services Bill 2021, Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens (Amendment) Bill 2019, and The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill, 2021 have attracted protests from various stakeholder groups across the country.
HOW IS A BILL PASSED IN PARLIAMENT?
The Rajya Sabha currently has 245 members, out of which 12 have been nominated directly by the President. Out of these 237 seats, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has 115 seats. The Lok Sabha has 545 members, out of which the NDA has 382 seats – 301 of these are the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP). Any Constitution Amendment Bill must be passed by both Houses of Parliament and would require a simple majority of the total membership of that House, and a two-thirds majority of all members present and voting. Money and Financial Bills can only be introduced in the Lok Sabha by the recommendation of the President. Money Bills must be passed first in the Lok Sabha by a simple majority, following which it is sent to the Rajya Sabha for recommendations, which can be rejected by the Lok Sabha. Financial Bills must be passed by both Houses of Parliament. Ordinary Bills, on the other hand, can be introduced in either House and must be passed by both Houses by a simple majority of all members present and voting.
A CLOSER LOOK: WHAT DO THE BILLS ENTAIL?ESSENTIAL DEFENCE SERVICES BILL, 2021THE TRAFFICKING OF PERSONS (PREVENTION, PROTECTION AND REHABILITATION) BILL, 2021
The Essential Defence Services Bill aims to provide for the maintenance of essential defence services for the country’s security and will replace the Essential Defence Services Ordinance. The Ordinance empowers the government to prohibit strikes, lockouts, and layoffs in units that are involved in providing essential defence services. The bill will grant power to the government to act in the case of a strike against the corporatisation of ordnance factories. It also enables them to take disciplinary action, including penalties and dismissal, for participating in such strikes. The legislation will affect around 80,000 workers employed across Indian ordnance factories and other establishments.
Various trade union and employees groups such as the All India Defence Employees’ Federation (AIDEF) of Left unions; Bhartiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh (BPMS), an arm of RSS-affiliate Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh; and Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation (INDWF) of the Indian National Trade Union Congress have registered strong opposition to the legislation. The federations have also declared an indefinite strike from 26 July despite the assurances by the government to take care of the employees’ conditions of service.
The main aim of the bill is to “prevent and counter trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and to provide for the care, protection, and rehabilitation to the victims while respecting their rights” while also “creating a supportive legal, economic and social environment for them.” The main features of the legislation include that it expands the definition of the “victim” to include transgenders, widens the range of offenders who can be charged under the law to include public servants and armed forces personnel, and calls for the setting up of a National Anti-Trafficking Committee. Penalties and imprisonment under the law have also been made more severe, especially for “aggravated offences”. However, the bill has attracted objections from lawyers, human rights activists, and civil society members.
Legal experts say that the bill criminalizes sex work and does not provide exit or rehabilitation options for people who are in the profession voluntarily. Additionally, they point out that trafficking and sex work have been made to overlap in the bill, which means that prostitution and pornography have been added in the definition of sexual exploitation. Legal experts have pointed out that making the consent of the victim irrelevant in the bill will put voluntary sex workers in prison. The bill was also only put online for public comments for two weeks (in English only), leading to criticism about it not being accessible to those it affects the most.
ELECTRICITY (AMENDMENT) BILL, 2021
The Electricity (Amendment) Bill,2021 seeks to amend the existing Electricity Act, 2003 and will set the framework for devising and enforcing rules for electricity by regulatory authorities in the power sector. Under the bill, power distribution will be de-licensed to increase competition and will be privatized to allow consumers to choose from multiple service providers. The bill has attracted widespread opposition from stakeholder groups, including trade unions and political parties.
Photograph by Wikimedia CommonsPhotograph by Wikimedia Commons
The All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF) has stated that major key stakeholders are being ignored in the process of finalizing the bill, and the privatisation of power distribution will lead to bankruptcy amongst major state DISCOMs. They also mention that the decision to de-license power distribution will not ensure an efficient and cost-effective electricity supply. Members of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Sanyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) also opposed the introduction of the Bill, stating that it will take away the rights of state governments.
INDIAN MARINE FISHERIES BILL, 2021
The Indian Marine Fisheries Bill, 2021 proposes to grant licenses to vessels registered under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958, to fish in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It also puts the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) in charge of Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS), and proposes punishments for fishermen breaching the EEZ without a licence, for not complying with ICG orders, and for obstructing ICG officials. The bill has attracted criticism from political parties and fishermen’s groups. Earlier this month Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against the bill and said that it went against the interests of the local fishermen and certain clauses infringed upon the rights of the states. Fishermen’s groups have said that the bill does not take into account the traditional rights of fishermen, and the fines prescribed for fishermen with non-motorised traditional crafts are hefty. The groups have also touched upon the fact that the bill was introduced without consultation with stakeholder groups and the public. Fishermen’s groups have been holding black flag protests across the country against the bill being introduced in the Parliament.
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UP DEFECTIONS: TROUBLE BREWING?
Speaking at a press conference earlier this week, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati called for the need to “strengthen anti-defection laws” in the country. “Considering how some greedy politicians change parties during elections, it is necessary to strengthen the anti-defection laws as such practices adversely impact democracy,” she said. Her statement comes at a time when Uttar Pradesh, which goes to poll in less than a month, has been rocked by a series of defections across political parties. Some prominent faces who have defected in the past few weeks include Other Backward Class (OBC) leader and Labour Minister Swami Prasad Maurya, Minister for Environment and Forests Dara Singh Chauhan, and numerous other sitting MLAs and members from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), BSP, and Apna Dal (Sonelal). Defections of party leaders before Assembly or General elections are common in the Indian political arena. Many leaders jump ship as they believe the party will not be able to win the election; others leave if they believe they do not stand a chance to win a ticket from that party. In the last four elections, less than 40 per cent of incumbent MLAs have been renominated by their parties. In fact, out of all re-contesting candidates, less than 30 per cent came back to power in 2017.
BSP DEFECTIONS A SIGN OF ERODING PARTY SUPPORT
However, it appears that Mayawati remains hopeful about the prospects of the party in the upcoming polls. Speaking at a press conference, she said that parties that are discounting the BSP out of the race will receive a surprise akin to that of 2007. Political analysts and experts suggest there are various reasons behind the large scale defections from the party including the BSP’s declining voter base, poor organisational structure, and the rise of the SP. As per analysts, in the last 15 years, the BSP has internally transformed from a cadre-based party to a patronage-based organisation, which increases the significance of local leaders while making party machinery on the ground level almost irrelevant. In such a case, the defection of a local leader would harm the BSP, as it would alienate the voters from the party as well as from Mayawati. Some also believe that successive loss of elections and an overall decline in support for the party has driven away even the party’s key voters and perhaps prompted leaders from the party to jump ship. Furthermore, the SP’s attempts to gain the support of BSP’s core Dalit voters can also be cited as a reason for the decline of the BSP. Not only has the SP welcomed BSP’s Dalit leaders into its fold, but also launched the “New SP” campaign, which seeks to highlight how the party will no longer ignore Dalits as it has been accused of doing in the past. This paints a troubling picture for the BSP, which has been experiencing a constant decline in its seat share and also seems to be losing the support of its core voter base.
BJP DEFECTIONS UNLIKELY TO IMPACT HEAVILY
Between 11 December 2021 and 13 January 2022, 19 BJP members joined the SP-led front. The exodus of members from the BJP started with Uttar Pradesh Cabinet Minister and senior OBC leader of the state, Swami Prasad Maurya, and was followed by the resignation of another state minister Dara Singh Chauhan, and MLA Awtar Singh Bhadana. Shortly after, UP minister Dharam Singh Saini, and three other BJP MLAs — Vinay Shakya, Mukesh Verma, and Bala Awasthi — also resigned from the party. While any defecting MLA provides their own set of reasons for defecting from the party, the resignation of MLAs after the announcement of the Moral Code of Conduct (MCC) is primarily due to MLAs who feel the party may lose or who know they won’t get a ticket to contest.
The spate of resignations faced by the BJP may not appear to be a huge loss when one takes into account the fact that on average, the BJP denies tickets to 25 to 35 per cent MLAs to negate anti-incumbency. Additionally, the party is also facing increasing pressure to nominate candidates from its own cadre rather than those who are turncoats from other parties. A wide section of MLAs who have left the BJP in the past few weeks are turncoat MLAs from the BSP and SP in the first place. However, the loss of key OBC and SC leaders is an alarming sign when one takes into consideration the fact that there has been brewing discontent in the party’s OBC vote bank. Students of backward castes and SCs have been protesting due to repeated tweaking of reservation policy, while Most Backward Class (MBC) leaders have long-held grievances that the Yadavs have been taking a lion’s share in Other Backward Class (OBC) reservation. Supporters of Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan, and Dharam Singh Saini are mostly small and marginal farmers who are involved in the sale of vegetables in local markets. These farmers have been struggling due to the stray cattle problem caused by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanth’s strict ban on cow slaughter.
CAN TURNCOATS REALLY IMPACT AN ELECTION?
India Today’s Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) analysed numbers of all assembly elections in UP since 1980. The data showcases that barring a few exceptions, first-time candidates occupy around 70 per cent or more seats in all assemblies in the last four decades. This was the highest in 2017 at 78 per cent. In the past few elections, the performance of turncoats in the Assembly has revealed some interesting trends. As per industry analysts, the success rate of turncoats who sided with the winning party is very high. For instance, in UP, the success rate of those who switched to the BSP ahead of the 2007 elections was 100 per cent. Similarly, the success rate of defectors who contested as SP candidates in 2012 was 68 per cent, and on BJP tickets in 2017 a whopping 84 per cent. However, defectors who switch to any party which doesn’t emerge as the ruling party have not performed well in the past. As the average of the last 10 assembly elections shows, less than 15 per cent of turncoats have re-entered the assembly. While defections from a party could at times signal a deeper erosion of support for the party, it is not, however, a tell-all sign as defections could be rooted in the personal motives of candidates to be able to recontest.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Ananya Sood, Anurag Anand, Devak Singh, Narayani Bhatnagar, Interns at Polstrat
RISING UNEMPLOYMENT IN INDIA DURING PANDEMIC
The rate of unemployment in India hit 7.9 per cent in December 2021. In fact, in the last three months of 2021, the rate of unemployment has been around 7 per cent or more. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the unemployment rate in the country has consistently been at odds with the various restrictions and lockdown measures imposed by state and central governments, as well as the overall economic outlook of the country. While the figures from 2021 are slightly better than those recorded in 2020, they are still very high compared to levels experienced in the recent past. The unemployment rate was 4.7 per cent in 2017-18 and 6.3 per cent in 2018-19. India’s growth recovery, which started to gather momentum by the end of 2021, has yet again taken a back seat in the light of the third wave. As state governments across the country start imposing measures such as night and weekend curfews and the closure of certain industries, the Indian economy, which has already been struggling for the last year and a half, seems unlikely to get a breather anytime soon.
WHICH INDUSTRIES SUFFERED THE MOST
The industry-wise breakup of employment – of the difference between employment in December 2021 and 2019-20 – conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), shows that the manufacturing sector has lost 98 lakh jobs, while construction and agricultural jobs increased by 38 lakh and 74 lakh, respectively. Additionally, the service sector witnessed a net loss of 18 lakh jobs, hotels and tourism lost 50 lakh and education lost 40 lakh jobs and retail trade gained 78 lakh jobs. Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, India’s micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which contribute 30 per cent of the nation’s GDP and half of the country’s exports and represent 95 per cent of its industrial units, have been struggling to survive. In December 2020, 9 per cent of MSMEs shut down or were scaled down. Similarly, in May 2021, 6,000 MSMEs and 59 per cent of startups shut down or scaled down, unable to cope with rising inflation and prices. This further increased the already rising rates of urban and rural employment.
In December 2021, with the emergence of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, consumer spending took another hit, as economic activity reduced in light of government restrictions and an overall decrease in consumer confidence in the economy. With the renewed restrictions imposed by the government, unemployment in certain industries, including hospitality, tourism, MSMEs, IT, trade, and manufacturing is likely to be negatively affected. As governments impose restrictions on the movement of people during the third wave, the hospitality industry is set to face another tough year. According to rating agency ICRA Limited, the demand in the hotel industry will be curtailed in the fourth quarter of this fiscal year, at least in January 2022, due to the latest wave dampening sentiments. Hotels and resorts are likely to be amongst the worst hit within the hospitality industry during the third wave. This will also affect those directly and indirectly employed by the hospitality industry. Similarly, for businesses in the MSMEs sector, who have already exhausted their cash reserves while struggling to survive the impact of the first and second waves of the pandemic, the only way to survive the third wave is likely to be one with extreme cost-cutting, particularly of personnel. The effects of this will be especially visible in the blue-collar jobs and if it is likely to persist longer, it could seep into white-collared jobs and overall larger enterprises.
The trade industry is also likely to experience the impact of the highly contagious Omicron variant. As per the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO), the restrictions this time around are likely to impact global demand and disrupt supply chains, which have not yet returned to normalcy. Indian exporters of leather goods, garments, and carpets have begun to witness a fall in orders from Europe, requests to push deliveries by a few weeks, and queries related to various restrictions being put in place to control the spread of the Omicron variant. Traders have also noted that the likely manpower crunch – especially in logistics – high freight costs, and restrictions across the globe could dent India’s exports in the first quarter of 2022.
As per some experts, the economy is going to witness an unusual K-shaped recovery curve, whereby certain industries and individuals pull out of a recession, while others stagnate. This would mean that while some sectors/sections of the economy are likely to register a very fast recovery, many will continue to struggle. The impact of such a curve on the health of an economy is profound as this means that recovery is split along class, racial, geographic, or industry lines. This is likely to contribute to an overall rise in inequality. Many big firms in the formal economy have increased their market share during the pandemic, and this has come at the cost of smaller, weaker firms that were mostly in the informal sector and which could not withstand repeated lockdowns. This paints a worrisome picture for the Indian economy where almost 90 per cent of all employment happens in the informal sector.
LESSONS FROM THE FIRST AND SECOND WAVES
Employment in India has not returned to the levels recorded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and given the rising cases in light of the third wave, it is unlikely to anytime soon. During the first wave of the pandemic, the unemployment rate in India rose to 23.8 per cent in the week ending 29 March, 2020 – the first week when the lockdown was introduced – from 8.4 per cent in the preceding week. This data was collected from the Consumer Pyramids Household Survey (CPHS) of the CMIE and was the highest unemployment rate recorded since the start of the survey in 2016. Urban joblessness had hit a high of 20.8 per cent in April-June 2020 when the country was under a stringent lockdown following the pandemic. However, the country’s unemployment rate fell dramatically in June 2020 as restrictions were eased and people returned to work. After touching a high of 23.5 per cent in April and May 2020, the unemployment rate first dropped to 17.5 per cent in the first week of June 2020 and then took a steep fall to 11.6 per cent in the second week. Over 12.2 crore people in India lost their jobs in April 2020, according to estimates from the CMIE. Around 75 per cent were small traders and wage labourers. As restrictions continued to be reduced, unemployment in the country reduced further and was recorded at 9.10 per cent in December 2020.
Following this, India’s second pandemic wave crashed the labour market in April 2021, erasing at least 73.5 lakh jobs. As per the CMIE, Over 1 crore Indians lost their jobs because of the second wave of the pandemic and around 97 per cent households’ incomes declined from the beginning of the pandemic. CMIE data also revealed that the number of employees, both salaried and non-salaried, fell from 39.81 crores in March 2021 to 39.08 crores in April 2021, in the third straight month of falling jobs. In comparison, in January 2021, the number of people employed in India was 40.07 crore. The employment rate fell from 37.56 per cent in March 2021 to 36.79 per cent in April 2021, hitting a four-month low. The number of people who were unemployed and not yet actively looking for jobs increased from 1.60 crores in March 2021 to 1.94 crores in April 2021. Under the pressure of reduced economic activity and multiple lockdowns, India’s urban unemployment rate soared to almost 18 per cent in May 2021, the highest in a year. After the peak of the second wave, similar to the first wave, things began to recover in July 2021. Since the beginning of July 2021, unemployment in urban India stayed below 9 per cent, and at the national level, it has remained under 8 per cent. This could perhaps be attributed to the fact that several industries and businesses in the second wave had learnt to deal with COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns in a better manner and perhaps had accounted for the same or adjusted their businesses to deal with their impact. The unemployment rate in India in December 2021 was recorded at 7.9 per cent and the estimated unemployment rate on January 2, 2022, is 7.8 per cent, according to a 30-day moving average.
As per economic experts, various policy decisions can help mitigate the impact of this unemployment crisis in the country. This can be done in two main ways: direct employment in government and employment into large private enterprises. In 2020, both the Government and private enterprises reduced their investments in infrastructure projects which led to fewer jobs being created. While the Indian government faced a setback because of the revenue demand, private enterprises were unwilling to work because of the contraction in sales and lack of demand. Since 2020, MSMEs have been shedding jobs, not possessing enough capital to sustain them, sending more and more people into unemployment. Experts suggest that the government should focus on fixing demand-side factors, which have continued to be adversely affected by the pandemic. This, along with accelerated infrastructure investment, will provide support to the economy and help recovery post the third wave of the pandemic.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Ananya Sood, Anurag Anand, Devak Singh, Narayani Bhatnagar, Interns at Polstrat.
HOW PREPARED IS INDIA FOR THE THIRD WAVE OF COVID-19?
As of 3 January 2022, India has recorded 1,892 cases of the “very high risk” Omicron variant amongst a surge in COVID-19 cases in the country. The second wave of the pandemic ravaged the health system as daily caseloads topped at around 4,00,000 in April and May 2021. After the peak of the second wave, cases declined substantially, and as vaccinations picked up speed, the national tally of cases remained under the 10,000 daily mark for several weeks in November 2021. However, since mid-December, driven by a surge caused by the Omicron variant, cases have been on the rise. There is a renewed call for caution and action across the globe as countries have recorded a severe uptick in cases driven by the new variant. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been called a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) based on the evidence that it has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves. This suggests that Omicron may be able to evade some of the immune protection afforded by vaccines, many of which are based on the original spike protein and past infections. Scientists at the University of Hong Kong noted that the Omicron variant multiplies about 70 times faster inside human respiratory tract tissue than the Delta variant does.
India’s official COVID-19 death count by the end of June 2021 was 4,00,000; however, experts suggest the actual figures were significantly higher than official estimates. As daily cases across states continue to climb, the healthcare community and individuals alike are expressing growing concern about the possibility of a third wave in the country. According to scientific projections and medical experts, India will see a rise in COVID-19 cases, which may be termed as the third wave, but its impact will not be as severe as that of the first and the second waves. According to experts, the wave is also likely to be short-lived. The surge is predicted to take place at the beginning of 2022. States have already begun to introduce restrictions, including the closure of schools, colleges, and non-essential businesses, and the implementation of night curfews in several states.
IS THE INDIAN HEALTHCARE SYSTEM READY?
The third wave of the pandemic— driven by the new variant of concern omicron — is projected to peak on 3 February 2022, according to a study by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. During the second wave of the pandemic in 2021, states around the country experienced an acute shortage of hospital beds, essential medications, ventilators, and oxygen tanks. Since then, both state and central governments have taken steps to strengthen the healthcare system of the country. This started with the vaccination drive in the country, which has been provided free of cost for the eligible population across the country. To improve the COVID-19 vaccination rate, the ‘Har Ghar Dastak’ campaign was also launched in November. States have been supported with the supply of oxygen cylinders and concentrators and the Centre has also helped in the installation of oxygen concentrator plants / PSA (Pressure Swing Adsorption) plants. During 2020-21, funds of around Rs 8,257.88 crore were released to states and Union Territories towards the India COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health System Preparedness Package. The central government has also approved Corbevax and Covovax COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral drug Molnupiravir for restricted use on adults in emergency situations, as cases continue to rise.
Overall, India’s medical oxygen capacity, essential for serious COVID-19 patients, has increased nearly 28% between October 2020 and November 2021. During the second wave, there was also a massive shortage of hospital beds across the country, as those with more serious symptoms of COVID-19 required ventilators and round the clock medical care. As part of the final plan of the package, six states will get 60% of 75,218 beds that will be set up to augment the three-tier healthcare systems up to the village level. The six states are Uttar Pradesh (11,770), Bihar (9,920), Andhra Pradesh (9,596), Odisha (8,206), Assam (7,320), and Jharkhand (5,798). Apart from this, states are individually working on their own preparedness and interventions, including the setting of additional hospital beds, ICU beds, supply of oxygen cylinders, concentrators, and cryogenic tankers in order to prepare for the third wave of the pandemic. However, experts still suggest that given the highly transmissible nature of the new variant, government decisions must be taken with caution as the increasing load of cases could strain even a ramped up healthcare system.
BOOSTER SHOT DRIVE
On 25 December 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced vaccinations for children in the age group of 15-18 years, along with a “precautionary” third or booster dose for frontline workers and those above the age of 60 with co-morbidities. The “precautionary” dose vaccination drive will begin from 10 January 2022, and the gap between the last dose and the precautionary dose is 39 weeks (nine months) for both frontline workers and senior citizens. The announcement for the booster dose comes as a relief to those most vulnerable to COVID-19, although countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have announced booster shots for the general public since November last year.
Although both doses of the COVID-19 vaccination are effective in preventing the severe impact of the disease, medical experts and studies suggest that the vaccination could become less effective over time, especially for those above the age group of 65. With the emergence of highly contagious variants such as the Omicron variant, many fully vaccinated individuals are at the risk of getting infected again. This is why boosters of the vaccine are recommended especially for the elderly and those with low antibody levels – to be able to increase the level of protection by increasing the antibodies by taking another shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. The WHO has maintained that the introduction of booster doses should be “firmly evidence-driven” and “targeted” at population groups at highest risk of serious disease, and frontline healthcare workers.
While booster shots may offer additional protection, it is important to keep in mind that roughly only 44% of all adults have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccination so far in India. Some healthcare experts have pointed out that given supply constraints, the focus of the government will be to vaccinate those eligible adults first, before moving on to providing booster shots to the rest of the adult population. Out of the roughly 146 crore doses administered, about 85.45 crore doses are first doses; and 61.29 crores are second doses. This implies that India will need 21 crore additional doses to fully vaccinate 90% of the eligible population. Add to this the burden of providing booster doses to senior citizens, frontline workers and those between 15-18 years of age, which would signal that it would be a while before a booster vaccine for those in other age groups is announced. While states such as Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Delhi, and West Bengal have been rallying for booster doses, states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar are lagging behind other states in providing even the first two doses of the vaccine to their population. Due to this, some healthcare experts have raised concerns about vaccine equity in the country and suggested focusing on states which have been lagging.
As a result of daily cases reaching six-month highs in various states, state governments have announced night curfews to prohibit non-essential travel and some have also announced the closure of schools, colleges, gyms, cinemas, and non-essential shops. In light of the new variant, government advisories and health experts have urged people to follow all COVID-19 prevention protocols such as washing hands regularly, wearing face masks, and maintaining social distance. As per health and medical experts, the key to beating the third wave will be such COVID-19 appropriate behaviour along with a calibrated approach to boosters and additional vaccine doses for the vulnerable population.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Ananya Sood, Madhav Chadha, Megha Pande, Interns at Polstrat.
WOOING WOMEN VOTERS IN UTTAR PRADESH
The participation of women as voters in Uttar Pradesh has increased from 44.2% in 1991 to about 63% in 2017, which shows the rise of political decision making for women as well as their importance as a vote bank in the politics of the state. Women are gearing up to play a much more important role in the Uttar Pradesh elections, and their influence has been on the rise since 1991. The first time women outvoted men in exercising their voting rights in the elections was in 2012 during the Assembly elections and this continued in 2017 and 2019. In 2014, women voter turnout was less than that of men by two percentage points, but saw an upward surge in comparison to 2009. Women are more politically mobilized and are emerging as a very decisive vote bloc – parties across the board are leaving no stones unturned to appeal to them.
In Uttar Pradesh, women voters are more inclined to vote in Assembly elections as compared to Lok Sabha elections, making parties’ attempts to woo them during state elections even more important. While the Indian National Congress (INC), led by the state in-charge Priyanka Gandhi, is announcing one promise after another aiming to appease all demographics of women, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is focusing on highlighting its achievements in the last five years in improving women’s safety and welfare. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by the only former female Chief Minister of the state, Mayawati, is banking on her image and support from female voters, while Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) is attacking the lack of safety and welfare for women under the Yogi Adityanath regime. Let’s take a look at the historic patterns of support from women voters in the state and the promises that parties are making to woo them on the road to the 2022 elections.
INC AND THE PRIYANKA GANDHI EFFECT
In the months leading up to the 2022 Assembly elections, the general secretary of the All India Congress Committee in-charge of Uttar Pradesh has been leading the party charge to reach out to women voters in the state. As part of a special manifesto announced on 8 December in Lucknow called the Shakti Vidhan Mahila Ghoshna Patra, the Congress has promised to grant 40% reservation for women in government jobs, while setting aside 25% of jobs in the police for them, if it is voted to power in Uttar Pradesh. Gandhi has also promised that 40% of the tickets from her party will go to women and the allocation of 50% of PDS (public distribution system) shops to women. Priyanka Gandhi also launched a 100-day action plan on 17 November aiming to reach out to women voters. The initiative was launched in Ram Ghat at Chitrakoot and aims to mobilize seven crore women voters in the state through 8,000 women volunteers, 5,000 mobile women’s units and 100 town halls.
However, the party’s efforts to woo women voters do not end here. About four crore women voters in the state are in the age bracket of 18-35 years. In an attempt to woo female voters in this demographic, the party has promised free mobile phones to girls who pass the class 12 examination, and electric scooters to those women who complete graduation, apart from free wifi. In order to appease women voters from older age groups, the party is offering free LPG cylinders, free travel in state transport buses, increasing the wages of ASHA workers and the introduction of an old age widow pension scheme. As per analysts, the INC has focused on making gender issues their main talking point for the Assembly elections as the party lacks the support of any caste / community vote bank. In the past, the Congress has had an edge over women voters even when compared to the BJP. However, a pre-election survey by CSDS-Lokniti found that while the Congress has made gains among women, the BJP too has registered a rise in support from women. This indicates that it could be losing its gender advantage. While the party has made a long list of promises to appease women voters from various demographics, it made several similar promises in 2017. In its 2017 manifesto, the party promised to enact a special law for handling crimes against women (along with other marginalized groups) and the Kanya Sanshaktikaran Yojana amongst several other promises, however, this failed to make inroads with the women voters of UP.
BJP: FOCUS ON WOMEN’S SAFETY AND EMPOWERMENT
yanath. While the party doesn’t have a prominent female leader taking charge in the state, it has been calling in political heavyweights, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce its welfare policies which have benefitted female voters in the state in the past 5 years. In a rally last week, the Prime Minister announced various government schemes for women, including the transfer of Rs 1,000 crore to women-led self-help groups, benefitting around 16 lakh women and laid the foundation stone of more than 200 supplementary nutrition manufacturing units. He also announced that over Rs. 20 crore was transferred to more than one lakh beneficiaries under the “Mukhya Mantri Kanya Sumangala Scheme”. Schemes like Ujjwala Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and PM Awas Yojana have benefited the BJP and added to the appeal of the BJP for women voters. Apart from lauding its past achievements, the party has also announced ‘Kamal Saheli Clubs’, Gram Sabha Chaupals and constituency-wise Mahila Sammelans (women summits) across the state. The proposal to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 is also being presented as a step towards women’s empowerment by the party.
Trends from the National Election Study (NES) conducted by the CSDS shows that the BJP still remains a less preferred party for women across different social groups, although their support amongst females is rising. However, the party has undoubtedly benefited from the launch of women-centric welfare schemes, including its flagship Ujjwala scheme. During the 2017 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP heavily banked on the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that provided over 1.47 crore families with free LPG connections in UP alone. The scheme was launched by the PM himself from Ballia in UP in 2016. Since arranging for fuel to cook food is considered a women’s responsibility in various parts of the country, the provision of free LPG cylinders came as a huge relief for women voters and the BJP continues to be popular among beneficiaries of the scheme.
The Samajwadi Party’s (SP) best performance in an Assembly election was in 2012, when for the first time, the female electorate outvoted men and breached the 60 percent mark. In the past, the party has launched some key welfare schemes, including the 1090 women’s helpline as well as Kanya Vidya Dhan, along with widow and old age pension schemes to win over women voters. The Akhilesh Yadav-led SP government established the Rani Laxmibai Mahila Samman Kosh for providing monetary and medical assistance to destitute women and women survivors of heinous crimes like acid attacks and sexual assault. In the months leading up to the 2022 elections, Akhilesh Yadav has been routinely raising issues of what he calls the “aadhi aabadi”. Yadav has been criticising the Yogi government’s decision to discontinue the Kanyadhan Yojana, and incidents of sexual violence in Hathras and other regions. The party has also created its women’s wing and has allocated two women workers per booth to promise safety to women voters coming out to vote. The party is also in an alliance with Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal which has also promised 50% reservation to women in state government jobs. In addition to this, he has promised to increase the number of women in the police force to 50%. RLD’s manifesto promises to double the pension for widows to Rs. 1500 per month, along with assuring the supply of free sanitary pads to adolescent girls studying in government-funded schools.
BSP AND THE MAYAWATI APPEAL
The BSP, led by party President Mayawati, who was the first female Dalit Chief Minister of India, has enjoyed significant support from women voters in the past. A 2017 survey showed that the BSP is marginally popular among women as compared to men. As the proportion of female voters went up, the NDA’s vote share dipped and in seats where the female voters were less than 80%, the share of BSP was just 18.7%, whereas in seats where women voted more than men, the BSP’s vote share was about 24%. During her tenure, the BSP government initiated the Saubhagyawati Surakshit Matretev Yojana (SSMY) for pregnant women living below the poverty line. With a special focus on girl students from BPL families, the BSP government launched the Savitribai Phule Balika Shiksha Madad Yojana (SBSMY), under which Rs. 25,000 and a bicycle were given to female students.
Leading up to the 2022 elections, the BSP has been organizing women’s rallies across towns in UP, with a special emphasis on urban women- ‘Prabudha Mahila Vichar Gosthi’. The party is also organizing “BSP Mahila Sammelan’ across the state on issues of women security and honour. In a series of tweets, the former Chief Minister attacked the BJP and INC’s attempts to appease women voters. “The approach of Congress, BJP towards women empowerment is almost the same & mostly publicity oriented… under the BSP govt a lot of efforts were made for social, economic & educational self-reliance of women, which rival parties are now trying to cash in on,” she said. During her tenure, Mayawati was seen as a hard administrator and tough on crime. This made her popular among women, who perceived her as fighting hooliganism, and the party is now banking on her image as behenji to increase its appeal among the women voters across the state.
Contributing reports by Damini Mehta, Junior Research Associate at Polstrat and Madhav Chadha, Intern at Polstrat.
WILL 2022 BE THE YEAR OF NATIONAL EXPANSION FOR THE TMC?
In 2021, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC or TMC) swept the West Bengal Assembly elections, held during the peak of the second wave of COVID-19. The Mamata Banerjee-led party continued its domination in the state for the third consecutive election and bagged 213 out of the 294 seats in the Assembly. The party successfully overcame all attempts of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in getting a foothold on the country’s eastern coast. Shortly afterwards, the TMC also defeated the BJP in the by-polls held in October. After being elected as the Chief Minister of West Bengal for the third time, Banerjee has been travelling across states, meeting opposition party leaders ahead of the Assembly elections scheduled to be held in various important states in 2022 and 2023. Unlike her earlier such meetings, Banerjee’s efforts this time are not restricted to only visiting opposition leaders, as her party continues to expand its footprints across the country by inducting leaders from various parties – especially the Congress. In its path to national expansion, the Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress is now contesting elections in the states of Goa, Tripura, and Meghalaya for the first time. While the induction of senior and high profile leaders from various states into the TMC has been grabbing media headlines, the party’s lack of a clear ideology and strategy is likely to be a hindrance on its path to national expansion.
However, even if the party doesn’t manage to win a significant number of seats in these states, even gaining a foothold in these states will help its aspirations of becoming a national party on the road to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
TMC’s Northeast Expansion Plan
The TMC’s national ambitions are taking shape in the northeast, where the party is targeting the Bengali diaspora in three states— Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya. According to the 2011 Census, around 65% of Tripura’s population is Bengali, while the number is 28% and 9% for Assam and Meghalaya, respectively.
As per industry experts, the TMC’s decision to start its national expansion plans with these three states is likely to play out well as all three states have a significant Bengali presence. The TMC seems to be trying to mobilise anti-Modi support in the three BJP-ruled states — West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee has held at least three meetings with Akhil Gogoi of Raijor Dal over the last month of November in Assam and has been engaging with Pradyot Manikya, chief of the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA), in Tripura.
In Meghalaya, the TMC, which earlier had virtually no presence became the state’s largest opposition party in the 60-member House as former Congress chief minister Mukul Sangma and 11 other MLAs formally joined the TMC in November this year. Similarly, in Assam, Sushmita Dev crossed over from the Congress ranks into the TMC fold in August 2021.
The TMC gave her charge of the party in Assam and Tripura besides nominating her to Rajya Sabha. In the same month, over 500 Congress workers from Cachar district of Assam officially joined Trinamool Congress Party following Sushmita Dev’s footsteps. In October 2021, former West Bengal minister Rajib Banerjee and Tripura BJP MLA Ashis Das joined the Trinamool Congress in Tripura, where state polls are due to be held in 2023.
The party contested the Tripura Civic assembly polls in November 2021 – one of its first outside West Bengal.
In 2015, the party did not even have representation in the civic body and had only managed to get a vote share of 0.4%. However, in 2021, the party managed to secure 16.4% of the votes overall. Out of the 120 of 222 seats that the party contested, it emerged as the second-highest party with a vote share of 19.9%.
MAMATA BANERJEE’S GOAN AMBITIONS
The TMC has also identified Goa as one of the key states for expanding its footprints nationally. The party is banking on former Goa Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro, who left the Congress and joined the party in September 2021, to make inroads into Goa. Along with Faleiro, nine other leaders — Lavoo Mamledar, Yatish Naik, Vijay Vasudev Poi, Mario Pinto De Santana, Anand Naik, Rabindranath Faleiro, Shivdas Sonu Naik, Rajendra Shivaji Kakodkar, and Antonio Monteiro Clovis Da Costa have also joined the party after leaving the Congress. The TMC has made substantial progress in Goa with the help of defections from major senior leaders from Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Shiv Sena, and the BJP, who have joined the TMC. The TMC will be fighting the upcoming Goa Assembly elections, scheduled to be held in February 2022 alone on all 40 seats.
Since its announcement of contesting the Goa polls, the party has inducted several eminent Goans from across sectors. These include boxer Lenny D’Gama, former Indian football defender Denzil Franco, and former international footballer Anthony Rabello. Actor and activist Nafisa Ali and tennis star Leander Paes also joined the Trinamool Congress in the state. Party defections to the TMC also included Goa Forward Party’s (GFP) working president Kiran Kandolkar, second only to party chief Vijai Sardesai. Along with Kandolkar came 40 others, including sarpanches of five villages from Assembly constituencies of Tivim and Aldona in North Goa. The TMC is completely eroding the Congress’ base in Goa and is building its cadre in the state mainly with a pool of former Congress workers. About 200 Congress workers and office-bearers had given their support to the Trinamool Congress. This included Priya Rathore, general secretary of the Congress’ women’s wing in Goa, as well as Dashrath Mandrekar, the Congress’ block president for Valpoi, an assembly constituency in North Goa. While the party has ruled out the possibility of an alliance with the AAP or Shiv Sena, it has announced it will be joining hands with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP). Even if the TMC doesn’t win a large number of seats in Goa, gaining recognition as a political party will help its aspirations of becoming a national party on the road to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
ROADBLOCKS TO TMC’S NATIONAL PLANS
While the TMC is going at full speed with its plans to expand its electoral presence outside of West Bengal, the lack of clear ideology, vaguely defined party interests and the linguistic barrier all stand in the way of its long path to emerge as a major opposition party in the country. Firstly, while Mamata Banerjee remains the undisputed leader of Bengal, she does not enjoy the same popularity outside the state, especially in the Hindi-speaking parts of the country. The BJP’s stronghold in the country is the Hindi heartland, including states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand and the only opposition that it faces in this decisive region is from the Congress.
Additionally, the TMC’s “strategy” for expanding its foothold in other states including Goa, seems to be to induct partyless politicians or encourage senior party leaders from other parties to defect. The party believes that it will pose a challenge to the BJP through the induction of disgruntled Congressmen such as Sushmita Dev, president of Mahila Congress, former Goa chief minister and Congress leader Luizinho Falerio and former President Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijeet Mukherjee amongst many others. However, in the long run, this move will at best only fragment the opposition and aid the BJP. The party needs to focus on building an organisation at the micro-level in states where it plans to contest elections. While high-profile inductions help the party gain media attention, it is unlikely to have the electoral impact that TMC expects.
Another very important roadblock that stands in the way of TMC’s national expansion is the lack of a core ideology. Political analysts and industry insiders state that while Banerjee has performed well in her role as a “street fighter” and is well versed in oppositional interest-based politics, she doesn’t have an ideological compass. In sharp contrast to the BJP, the Trinamool Congress remains devoid of an ideological core. For all major issues, including Ram Mandir, Triple Talaq, the border dispute with China, or CAA/NRC, TMC’s stance has almost always been dictated by an immediate political goal or vote bank instead of a clear ideological position. As the party continues to try and make inroads in other states, this will be a major obstacle as outside of the Bengali diaspora, no community would be able to relate to the TMC due to its lack of ideology.
THE INDIAN ECONOMY IN 2021: YEAR IN REVIEW
At the beginning of 2021, as the Indian economy had just begun to recover from the devastating impact of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, towards the end of March, the second wave of infections took over the country, prompting localised lockdowns across the country. The economy, battered by the impact of the first wave, had recorded the biggest contraction in economic growth in almost 40 years. As the second wave of the pandemic surged across the country, it was much deadlier than the first. However, for the Indian economy, the overall shock of the second wave across many indicators has been weaker than the second wave. Since the summer of 2021, growth in the country has recovered, due to high demand for exports and overall consumer demand. Similarly, the continued decline in COVID-19 cases, combined with an increase in the rate of vaccination, has prompted greater consumer confidence. Other overall positive signs of recovery in the Indian economy include a revival of the manufacturing sector and record agricultural production. However, some indicators, including the unemployment rate and labour force participation rate, paint a worrisome picture with the impact of the second wave, particularly on the structure of employment in the country. Let us have a look at some of the major economic indicators, including Gross Domestic Product (GDP), retail inflation, unemployment, Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR,) and the trade deficit to see how the Indian economy has performed so far in 2021.
INFLATION IN 2021: FLUCTUATING INDICATOR
As per inflation data released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation on 13 December, India’s benchmark inflation rate, measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), firmed up to 4.91% year-on-year in November. Given this, the inflation rate of the country has remained at the tolerance level of 2%-6% for five consecutive months this year.
At the beginning of the year, as overall COVID-19 cases began to subside and the economy started showing signs of recovery, inflation in the first four months of the year stood well within the RBI’s target of 2%-6%. However, towards the end of March, as the number of COVID-19 cases began to rise in the country, states and governments decided to impose stringent lockdowns which disrupted the movement of goods and services, thereby having a direct impact on the inflation rate. Following the second wave and its effect on supply chains, inflation rates climbed to 6.3% in May and 6.26% in June. The continued increase in prices of food and fuel put pressure on both businesses and households, sparking protests across the country.
After August, as the economy began to gradually open up and recover, the inflation rate also subsided, touching 4.35% in September, the lowest retail inflation recorded since April 2021. Economists suggested that the decline in food prices, particularly of vegetables and cereals helped ease the inflationary pressure. Additionally, a good monsoon season, resumption of agriculture supply chains and administrative steps such as low import duties on edible oils all contributed to the lowering of inflation. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) MPC expects the increase in vegetable prices to reverse with the winter arrivals and expects CPI at 5.1% for the third quarter and 5.7% for the fourth quarter of this financial year.
Overall, food inflation fell significantly from above 5% at the start of the current financial year to 0.7% in September 2021. During the same period, fuel inflation rose from 8% to 13.6%. While overall inflation declined for all income classes in this fiscal year 2021-22 compared with the last, the urban poor (bottom 20%) bore the heaviest brunt in both time periods.
ECONOMIC GROWTH: RECOVERY YEAR
In May 2021, the National Statistical Office (NSO) released numbers for the overall changes in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the fiscal year 2020-21 which showcased that the Indian economy contracted by a whopping 7.3 per cent. This was the most severe contraction in the economy since Indian Independence and India had been among the world’s major economies to be hit hardest by the pandemic. The impact of the first wave of the pandemic was felt in each sector of the economy and many anticipated that the second wave of the pandemic was likely to have an even more devastating impact on the Indian economy.
Indian GDP actually grew by 1.6 per cent in the January-March period, up from 0.5 per cent in the previous quarter when India began pulling out of a steep pandemic-induced recession in the previous six months. Similarly, GDP actually grew by 20.1% for the April to June quarter in 2021 compared to a year earlier. During the same period last year, India’s economy shrank by 24%. Overall projects for economic growth for the country for the 2022 financial year have been dented due to the low base of 7.3% contraction (2020-21). However, various economic analysts and brokerage houses have already revised their estimates for the economic growth figures for 2022 due to a rise in consumer spending, a fall in COVID-19 cases and an increased speed of vaccination.
For instance, Goldman Sachs revised its projections for Indian GDP from 8% to 9.1% for the 2022 financial year. Similarly, SBI Research increased its forecast of GDP growth to 9.3-9.6% for 2022 from its earlier prediction of 8.5-9%. Similarly, the RBI has also announced that the GDP growth target for this year is likely to be around 9.5%. It can be said that overall, the impact of the second wave of COVID-19 on economic growth was less severe as compared to the first wave. Although the economy suffered, localised lockdowns instead of national lockdowns and greater activity across crucial sectors reduced overall economic damage
INDIA’S TRADE FIGURES SHOW RESILIENCE IN 2021.
Overall, United Nations data indicates that India is one of the few countries that has performed better than major economies in the world in terms of trade in the first quarter of 2021. While the import of goods grew by 45% in the first quarter over the year 2021, exports grew by 26%. Overall, India’s exports in April 2021 were recorded at $30.63 billion, as compared to $10.36 billion in April 2020, exhibiting a growth of 195.72%. Even after the second COVID-19 wave hit the country, India’s merchandise trade has shown resilience. Exports rose in June 2021 by 48.3 per cent to $32.5 billion compared to June 2020. These are also the second-highest monthly exports recorded by the country so far. Experts suggest that the growth in merchandise exports was due to the rising demand from various developed countries where the impact of COVID-19 had already started to decline during this period.
Overall, India’s merchandise trade deficit widened to a record $22.59 billion in September, the highest in at least about 14 years led by engineering goods, petroleum products, plastics, and cotton yarn. India’s merchandise exports increased for the twelfth consecutive month in November and grew 26.49% this year at $29.88 billion. However, sequentially, exports declined 16% to $29.88 billion in November from $35.65 billion. Official data also showed a 57.18% rise in imports leaving an all-time trade deficit of $23.27 billion compared to $10.19 billion in November 2020.
UNEMPLOYMENT IN 2021: WORRISOME PICTURE
Earlier in the year, prior to the onslaught of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as per the Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS) data, available for January-March 2021, the unemployment rate in urban India was 9.4%. While this figure was lower than the previous quarter (10.3%), it was 0.3 % higher than the figure recorded for the same quarter in 2020, prior to the first wave of the pandemic. Youth unemployment continued to be high across states in the first quarter, a continuing trend that has been visible since 2020 in the 15-29 years age group.
During the first nationwide lockdown announced in March 2020 following the first spike in COVID-19 cases, the unemployment rate touched a record high of 23.5% in May 2020 (the highest since 1991). In 2021, although a nationwide lockdown was not announced, all state governments announced lockdowns and during the second wave, the economic impact of lockdown was felt in rural areas as much as in urban areas. The unemployment rate, which had steadily been declining in the first quarter of the year, peaked in May 2021 at 11.84%, translating to job losses for roughly one crore Indians during the second wave of the pandemic.
June onwards, the second wave of COVID-19 has ebbed and restrictions on mobility have reduced. Correspondingly, labour markets have started improving slowly and the unemployment rate lowered to 6.96% in July. However, this was a short respite as the rate bounced back in August and touched 8.3%. As per data by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, this was primarily driven by losses in farm jobs due to the seasonal nature of employment and uncertainty caused this year by an erratic monsoon season. According to the latest CMIE figures, as of November, the unemployment rate in the country has declined from 7.75% in October to 7% in November, painting a hopeful picture for the upcoming year.
However, more importantly, the Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of the country, which measures the proportion of a country’s working-age population that engages actively in the labour market, has fallen structurally during the course of the pandemic, painting a worrisome picture. The two COVID-19 waves have lowered the LFPR to around 40% as compared to 43% prior to the pandemic. According to a World Bank modelled ILO estimate for LFPR, India’s LFPR should be around 46%, with global LPR being around 58.6%. A falling LFPR indicates that there are fewer people in the job market, and for India, most of them happen to be women. According to World Bank estimates, India has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world. Overall data from CMIE showcases that compared to the pre-pandemic level, the likelihood of women being employed is 9.5 percentage points lower than that of men, indicating a widening gender gap in employment.
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