New Delhi: More and more small and marginal rural households are now earning their livelihoods as wage labourers than from farming, latest data shows.
According to a report titled Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India, 2019, released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation last month, most small and marginal agricultural households now depend on wage work.
The report states that on average, about 49.7 per cent of such households’ income comes from farming (crop cultivation plus animal husbandry). A closer look at the statistics, however, reveals that the small and marginal agricultural households possessing less than 1 hectare of land have essentially become wage earners.
Data shows that agricultural households possessing less than 0.01 hectare of land had a monthly income of Rs 11,777, of which only Rs 3,744 (or 32 per cent) came from farming and 55 per cent came from wages. Similarly, households with 0.01 to 0.4 hectares of land earned 26 per cent of their livelihood from farming. Those with 0.41 to 1 hectare of land earned only 44 per cent of their monthly incomes from farming.
Wages, according to the report, are remuneration paid to rural households employed in both regular salaried and casual labour work, both in agricultural (farming) and non-agricultural activities. The report only takes into account work for which wages were paid. As such, more than half of the households possessing less than 0.4 hectares of land were essentially wage-earners.
The data also shows that as the land-holding goes up, the dependency on farming also increases. This is visible from the fact that agricultural households that possessed more than two hectares of land earned about 80 per cent of their income from farming on average.
According to the report, the share of poor and marginal farmers to the total has also expanded.
In the 2002-03 round of the survey, about 69.6 per cent of the agricultural households possessed less than 1 hectare of land, which increased to 76.5 per cent by 2018-19. These marginal farmers now own about 34.5 per cent of the land as opposed to 23 per cent in 2002-03.
The share of medium farmers (4 to 10 hectares of land) has come down from 3 per cent to 1.4 per cent and the share of large farmers, who have more than 10 hectares of land, has come down from 0.5 per cent to 0.1 per cent at the same time.
Clubbed together, large and medium farmers owned about a third of the distributed land two decades ago. In 2018-19, their share didn’t reach even 20 per cent.
How policy should change
As the latest data has shown, farmers with small landholdings have to look for avenues outside farming, and their share has expanded.
This should ring alarm bell for the policy makers, experts say.
According to Samridhi Agarwal, research associate at the Delhi-based think-tank, Centre for Policy Research, “the government should prioritise policy reforms that help the earning farmers who are largely dependent on farming for income so that their operations don’t become unviable and they, too, do not end exiting agriculture or becoming wage labourers”.
Speaking to ThePrint, Agarwal said the issue of why so many small and marginal farmers are turning into wage labourers requires a deeper look into the issues of farming, which she said are quite structural and reflect deep problems that are interrelated and complex and vary state to state. Hence, she said, policy conclusions cannot be made with one single solution and we need a better and more sustainable combination of strategies.
“We have to understand that 70 per cent of the farming population doesn’t necessarily need to be farmers. There should be mechanisms through which this 70 percent can be enabled to diversify away from agriculture,” Agarwal said. “They can earn livelihoods through activities linked to agriculture, but not necessarily within the farms. At present, the policy focus is majorly on those who own the land.”
In a note co-authored with Harish Damodaran and Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Agarwal has called for the need for reforms in agriculture that not only benefit the owners of the land, but also those who are adding value through non-farming activities such as livestock farming, grading, transporting etc.
“Agriculture policy should aim at not only increasing farm incomes, but also adding value to produce outside and closer to the farms,” the authors’ note reads. “Finally, these will necessarily have to be state-specific, and within them, region and location-specific strategies that locate rural households at the centre of a larger vision for agricultural and economic development.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)