ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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An Ode to Altruism

How Indian Courts Value Unpaid Domestic Work

Feminists have demonstrated how the invisibility and lack of recognition of unpaid domestic and care work result in gender inequality and women’s disempowerment. Discussions of the role of law in reinforcing this invisibility is limited and focused on family law. This paper shall look at tort law, namely a review of compensation awarded to the dependents of homemakers, between 1968 and 2019, under the Indian Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. The growing recognition of women’s UDCW by Indian appellate courts, culminating in an influential Supreme Court decision in 2010, is traced. This “wages for housework” jurisprudence is then marshalled to probe the redistributive function of tort law.


Research for this paper received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 772946).
The deceased Maya Devi was, by all accounts, a reproductive superwoman. She was a 25-year-old mother to a minor child at the time of her death in a motor accident and was pregnant in 28 weeks. She worked as a maid, doing domestic work in four households. She helped her husband to milk the cows and buffaloes, and carried out agricultural work on their farm (Rakesh Kumar and Anr v Prem Lal and Ors 1995). Maya Devi is only one of the hundreds of homemakers1 and roughly 1,50,000 men, women, and children, who die ­every year on Indian roads. This paper is about how their dependents petition the courts for compensation and the grounds on which the courts accept, reject or modify their claims for compensation.

Based on my analysis of hundreds of such cases that have come to the appellate Indian courts since the 1960s, I assess how Indian courts value women’s reproductive labour.2 In other words, how is the unpaid labour of homemakers, homewor­kers and mothers recognised by an area of private law, namely tort law. Lessons from the judicial archive can, I argue, help reimagine the recognition of women’s unpaid domestic and care work (UDCW), now memorialised by the Sustainable Deve­lopment Goals (SDGs), and contribute to the debate on female labour force participation rates (LFPR) while generating economic gains for nearly 300 million Indian homemakers.3

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Updated On : 6th Sep, 2021
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