India in Focus

Breaking The Glass Ceiling | Corporality Global

Women will increasingly shape the ‘New Normal’ in a post-Covid world

The world observes March 8 every year as the “International Women’s Day”. In most cases these do not go beyond some familiar platitudes on the need for greater gender justice and equal opportunities for women across the world. What made this year’s Women’s Day extraordinary and memorable was a scintillating address by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen on how a greater women’s participation will be central to a post-covid economy. He argued Women’s role should not be seen merely in terms of social Justice, but in terms of economic logic and imperatives. Sen’s lecture began with an observation that Women’s Days generally focus on successful women in the world and this year the spotlight is on Kamala Harris and Angela Merkel, the first one assuming a prestigious new position and the other retiring from a widely admired national leadership after a long tenure. However, successful women, by their very nature, are concerned more about power than about women. It is the mainstream women who can make a difference to this world. One important fallout of the Covid-19 and the quite acceptance of “work from home” is that the world is taking a close, hard look at “women’s work within home”. Millions of women across the world have combined their domestic responsibilities with their professional career and achieved a measure of balance in the two and maintaining a quality of work and productivity equal or better than what is achieved by men.

Prof. Sen, with remarkable insight, spelled out three reasons for women’s better performance in the workplace.

First, Women are far less alcoholic than men in most societies. In may countries, the percentage could be zero or near zero.

Second, Whenever there is a report of a crime involving women, women emerge as the victim and not the perpetrator.

Third, financial prudence and integrity come naturally to women. Most women enterprises have impeccable records in Financial Management. There are many success stories like the Grameen Bank which are collective enterprises of largely poor women. The money they borrow are returned diligently with almost 99% promptness.

Prof. Sen said that “there are many such inspiring stories world has not heard yet. They must be heard, shared and discussed in business schools media and seminars and webinars and other knowledge platforms”.

Prof. Sen’s powerful address makes me share an untold story of how an Indian organisation created massive employment opportunities for women in a great social experiment in postindependent India. This is the Life Insurance Corporation of India story.

An untold story of how Life Insurance Corporation of India (Lie) created thousands of jobs for women in post independent India.

It is a tribute to the Nehruvian vision that the large number of institutions created in the post independent era have withstood the test of time and many of them have risen to global standards. From oil to steel, from dams to highways, from the iconic IITs to the prestigious Institute of Design, they covered almost every segment of economic activity.

Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, described them as temples of modern India. Undoubtedly, India’s emergence today as an economic powerhouse rests on the foundation of these remarkable institutions created in the early years of free India. In 1947, India with a population of 345 million, a per capita Income of Rs. 249.6 and literacy rate of 12% was one of the poorest countries in the world. Even amidst such an environment of deprivation and low income, Prime Minister Nehru, felt the importance of social security and the need for promoting a culture of Insurance. Thus was born the idea of a state run Life Insurance Corporation and LlC was established on September 1, 1956.

LlC has steadily grown in the next six decades and today with over 290 million policy holders and an asset value of Rs. 1,560 crores ranks as one of the largest insurance companies in the world. Yet, when LlC celebrated 60th anniversary in 2017, its biggest achievement was hardly mentioned. The fact that LlC created large scale employment for women from its inception in 1956. Thousands of women became LlC agents in the 50s and 60s when job opportunities were scarce. There was no entry barrier in terms of age or fixed time for work. Education requirement was a mere high school pass. Many of these women were housewives who could earn an extra income by selling LlC policies. This was a period before the arrival of digital technologies and these women had to sell the policies through personal contacts. In fact most of them did not have any marketing experience, yet LlC was able to create a vast army of motivated agents and inspiring stories emerged from them.

Ms. Usha Sangwan, the irrepressible Managing Director of Life Insurance Corporation of India in a recent conversation with me described this initiative “as one of the great social experiments of the time, turning raw talents to mature professionals”. LlC had an innovative reward scheme of offering the agents, a membership of exclusive clubs based on their performances. These clubs range from Manager’s Club progressively moving higher and higher to reach the top level of Chairman’s club. Many agents climb these stairs fast to reach the .top level to earn substantial amounts as commission.

A milestone in the history of India’s insurance industry was the opening of the sector for private participation in the year 2000 and this caused wide spread scepticism that LlC will find the competition tough and could very well be marginalised. Today there are 24 private players in the Life Insurance space and many of them had foreign collaborations. Yet LlC remains a colossus capturing 75% of the Life Insurance business in the country. Its claim settlement at 99.87% is far above the industry average of 84%. Ms. Usha Sangwan says “much of the success has come from the incomparably dedicated nine lakh agents. Many of them were women who have chosen a career that is essentially suitable for women’s personality and talents”.

Innovation has been the single most important factor that underpins the LlC story. In a country of vast poverty and low income, LlC recognised from the beginning that it cannot sell insurance as a risk cover on premature death. LlC therefore devised policies focussing on savings and the need for children’s education and daughter’s marriage which are fundamentals to family values in India. These policies also ensured that part of the premium paid was returned at regular intervals before the maturity period providing liquidity for emergencies. They simultaneously covered risk caused by death. LlC also differed from its new generation competitors in its marketing style and culture. While the private players concentrated on technology driven marketing, Lic’s approach was significantly people – centric. Everything about LlC from its logo with its two hands protecting a flame to its focus on India’s rural population has a powerful impact on ordinary lives.

When the Prime Minister launched the highly publicised Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana for financial inclusion of over 300 million of rural population on August 15, 2014, LlC was already there with its policies covering a rural population of 200 million. It also established LlC as a unique organisation among India’s public sector enterprises. Yet that uniqueness is hardly recognised in India. Satyajit Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson says in his life story of the Master Film Maker “Indians have an incredible capacity of ignoring home grown success stories until the rest of the world discovered them”. The fact remains that LlC keeps a low profile inspite of its many sided achievements. When the Prime Minister launched its Skill India Mission many foreign agencies and institutions saw a honey pot there and rushed to put their hands in. Yet no institution was more equipped to take on this massive task than LlC of India.

Its nearly million strong agents provide case studies that touch real India. It is this treasure of real life situations that can form the basis of a strong skilling Mission. LIC’s training program with its mix of online education and real life case studies offer the best model for India’s skilling requirements. The much hyped platforms like Coursera which are exclusively based on online models devised by foreign Universities hardly meet India’s needs.

In India, education is more a means to find a job than a process to acquire knowledge. LIC’s relevance comes from its track record of creating vast number of employment opportunities for ordinary Indians, male and female, urban and rural. In a nation which is significantly under insured, LlC should be able to generate even more employment opportunities. The nation needs to recognize the strengths of LlC for India’s skilling mission.

I feel that Prime Minister Modi in one of its Mann Ki Baat should talk about this great institution and its transformative role in India’s growth story.

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