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True cost of ghar ka khana: Time to pay the Indian housewife?

When I was a boy, and first encountered a friend’s mother who worked outside the home, I told my own mother that I didn’t want her to ever go to work. I wanted her home when I came back from school.

My mother repeats this story fondly to this day while I cringe.

I see it as the story of the sexist little first grader happy to reinforce gender roles – daddies go to work, mommies stay at home. My mother, secure about her role as homemaker, just sees it as cute. The government of India sees it as a problem.

A woman lights candles during Diwali in Kolkata as her son lights fire crackers. AFP.

A very well-intentioned Krishna Tirath, Minister for Women and Child Development, wants to introduce a bill that would require women to be legally compensated by husbands for house work. Yes, we are talking about a monthly salary, paid out of their own salary by the husbands.

“A majority of women in India are involved in household chores after getting married but they do not get any salary for it,” Tirath told the Indian Express. “The socially accepted behaviour becomes a tragedy when a woman gets divorced or widowed when she is left with nothing for survival. The government is mulling a law under which a husband will have to legally pay a definite amount to his wife from his salary.” (No word if stay-at-home dads qualify for this or wives who do hold down a job but still do the housework.)

Tirath thinks this will empower women. I can see why. I remember meeting an elderly widow at an old age home who found herself homeless after signing over her share of her property to her son. Even her jewellery was gone – given away to daughters and daughters-in-law. I remember her sitting in her white sari, on her bed in the dormitory room, an old black and white family picture on the nightstand by her bed. She could not believe that this was how she was being repaid for all the work she had put in raising her children and seeing them settled.

But how do you put a price tag on all that work? And once you go down that road where do you end up? Diwali bonuses like the cook and the daily help get? Does she get extra pay for cooking up an elaborate birthday dinner with banana blossom croquettes because that’s her husband’s favourite dish as opposed to dishing up the usual dal-chawal? Is it going to be pro rated according to the number of children she has?

Will men be able to claim a rebate/deduction for anything they do like going to the market on Sunday with a shopping list?  Do the household expenses have to come out of that salary or is this her personal nest egg? Does a woman’s housekeeping salary end with her husband’s death if her housekeeping does not? Should the son be contributing part of his salary to her AND his wife? (That could be endless new fuel for those saas-bahu TV dramas). And what about all the time she spends not actually cooking or cleaning, but supervising the cook, fluffing the sick child’s pillow, or just being there? Ultimately that is the greatest value a homemaker brings to the family. She is there for her children’s bruised knees, her maid’s dramas, and the courier guy’s deliveries of hubby’s credit card bill. How do you put a rupee figure to that?

In fact, how do you put a rupee figure to the worth of the homemaker at all without in effect cheapening it? The government wants to figure out what all the services a housewife provides would cost on the open market. Therefore some bureaucrat will have to find the formula for  how many bais equal one memsahib.

And once you figure that out, a man will have to hand over that amount as a “salary” to his wife every month. These days more and more couples have separate bank accounts and many men do just that – fork over a fixed amount every month for household expenses. My father’s paycheck just went into their joint account. That was regarded as the unwritten rule of marriage. That money was for the family. When he made investments he spread them out between my mother and my sister and me. Over a decade after his death, my mother, a homemaker, uses her own money to figure out what vegetables to buy. When she haggles with the fishmonger, it is her own money she is stretching. She pays her own medical bills. She complains about how much her expensive eye drops will cost every month but stoutly refuses any money from her children for them.

Tirath will say she is lucky. Many women are not. But the fact is my mother had an equal share in everything my father earned. If Tirath’s bill had been in effect, in the name of empowering my mother, it might have just entitled her to only 25 percent of my father’s income.

None of this takes into account what’s called the “opportunity cost” of the career not chosen. My mother was well-known as a dancer and taught at a reputed school before her marriage. She gave it up after marriage, on her own accord. But had she continued she might have had her own successful school. Who can measure the cost of the road not taken?

In her take on the bill for India Real Time, Rupa Subramanya writes that while measuring the value of unpaid work at home is “conceptually correct and well worth trying” the salary sharing proposal is “definitely wrong.” It’s not “paternalistic and illiberal” it’s also economically wrong.

(M)aking men pay their wives for household work doesn’t increase the household’s total income and amounts instead to a forced transfer payment from husband to wife – like a tax within the household imposed by the government.

But if this does go through I can see two possible advantages.

Men might finally understand that watching television does not count as a household chore. This might get them off their butts, and doing some chores around the house just to hold on to a little more of their paychecks. And maids and cooks all over India might suddenly rejoice as they get a pay increase as housewives try to pump up the “market value” of house work.

Other than that, I am afraid the government is blundering in where angels fear to tread. Bean counters have no place on our kitchen counters. The government wants to figure out the cost of house work now so women don't have to pay the price for doing it later in life. But we already have alimony laws and laws that require children to support their parents in old age. How about actually enforcing those laws instead of creating more household laws that will be next to impossible to enforce?