Housewife’s Economic Contribution to the Household

Earlier this month, The Hindu ran a piece on a case decided by the Madras High Court, where the Court called for a re-look at how the death of a housewife is compensated in accident claim cases under the Motor Vehicles Act. The case is National Insurance Co. v. Deepika, and can be accessed here. Delivered by Justice Prabha Sridevan ( of the Novartis Case fame), the judgment refers to India’s obligations under CEDAW to take into account the economic value of the unremunerated domestic work of women , since this plays a significant role in the development of the family as well as the country. The court also cites examples from other countries (and from an “exploration on the internet”) to show how a housewife’s economic contribution to the home is/can be, calculated. Currently, the Second Schedule to the Motor Vehicles Act provides that the income of a non-earning spouse is to be calculated as one third of the earning spouse. However, the Court opines that, “[o]ne cannot ignore or forget that the homemaker, by applying herself to the tasks at home, liberates her spouse to devote his energy and time and attention to tasks that augment his income and generate property for the family.” In light of this, the Court is of the opinion that “while the income of the spouse may be generally adopted as per the Second Schedule, the time has come to scientifically assess the value of the unpaid homemaker both in accident claims and in division of matrimonial property.
The case has highlighted, perhaps for the first time in the annals of the Indian judiciary, how “the high prevelence of the stereotypical attitudes with regard to the role of women” denies them full economic equality, and consequent financial security and liberty. As the Court itself notes, understanding the economic contribution of women to the household also has immense potential in re-shaping our understanding of division of matrimonial property. In an area where courts, as well as popular perception, regard the granting of alimony as a matter more akin to charity and for the purposes of the maintenance of the woman, rather then her right by virtue of her contribution towards the generation of family property, if taken to its logical conclusion, the ideas propounded in the case can turn matrimonial law in India on its head-and for the better.
Written by
Aparna Chandra
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  • under article 15 as interpretated in Naz (strict scrutiny, indirect discrimination, horzontal discrimination), the one-third-of-spouse's-income formula is clearly unconstitutional. It may have been upheld under the old 14 inquiry of reasonableness (citing administrative convinience in rough calculation etc.), but such arguments are not available under strict scrutiny.

  • It is interesting to note the method the HC finally employs is the equal partnership method *even* in the absence of documentary evidence that the wife had participated in the husband's partnership business. I think this is revolutionary too – the fact that the Court seems to have depended solely on the oral testimony of the child's guardian.