New Delhi: Every winter, Uttam Singh, 48, leaves his shared room in a south Delhi slum and heads back to his village. A skilled electrical worker, highly in demand for the basic wiring of new buildings and factories, he still opts out, as per family tradition, to help harvest potatoes and wheat back in Agra.
“We manage some surplus in potatoes, but we eat the wheat we grow throughout the year,” he says. “Even producing this is sheer agony because we never get the price we deserve. That is why I learnt this trade and came away to the city, while my brothers are still plodding along.”
Singh typifies the 40% of farmers mentioned in a 2003 National Sample Survey report, the Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers, who want to give up farming and are increasingly doing so.
National Statistical Commission member Surjit Bhalla’s independent calulations from the National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2004-05 survey found that farm employment increased by just 0.1% between 1993 and 1999 and 1.4% over 1999-2004. This is much lower than the rate of growth of population in the last decade. Census 2001 reveals that rural population rose by 2.36% in this period.
In contrast, non-agricultural jobs grew faster, rising by 2.1% over 1993-99 and 5.3% during 1999-2004, leading some economists to suggest that this was where migrating farm workers were ending up.
Another independent estimate confirms the decline in the agricultural workforce. Extrapolating on the basis of the Census and the NSS data post 2001, a Delhi-based consulting and data research firm, Indicus Analytics, estimates that the share of agriculture sector in the total workforce fell from 58.2% in 2001 to 52.5% in 2005.
In Punjab and West Bengal, for example, the share of farm labourers and cultivators, according to Indicus, may have even dropped to around one-third.
They estimate that in Punjab alone, the farm workforce has gone down from 38.9% in 2001 to 33.3% in 2005, and in West Bengal from 44.2% to 35.2% over the same period.
Ashok Gulati, director, Asia in the International Food Policy Research Institute, says “even a figure of 58% rural workforce in 2001 is a huge drop. I’d be glad to see the figure dropping to 50% by the end of this decade, but I doubt it. Even 25 years after reforms, China still has 50% of its people working on farms.”
While there is consensus on the fact that there has been a decline in the farm workforce with outward migration, economists are divided on the cause.
Ramesh Chand, Icar professor at the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research under the agriculture ministry, believes the decline in farm workforce in states such as Punjab and West Bengal could be linked to agricultural prosperity, other than developmental migration.
This is corroborated by the Indicus study, which finds that two of its districts, Medinipur and Barddhaman, topped all Indian districts in terms of domestic product from agriculture, earning Rs7.2 billion and Rs4.9 billion, respectively, in 2005-06. These two districts also topped in rice production while Punjab’s Sangrur topped in wheat and ranked fourth in rice.
Laveesh Bhandari, director, Indicus, says, “West Bengal is an unsung success story. And the numbers from Punjab and West Bengal show the lag effect of agricultural development on migration.”
Arguing similarly, Chand says: “Increased agricultural prosperity encourages the growth of sectors such as agro processing, trade and commerce including retail, small business, rural transport and farm implement repair shops, or as we have seen in Punjab and Haryana, automotive sales and repair shops.”
However, Bhalla argues contrarily, saying most rural migration has been in search of better incomes, since rural wages at the end of 2005 had grown at 3% annually for 25 years.
To resolve this debate, Gulati suggests a government agency should ascertain how much of the incomes of rural families accrue from non-farm activities. For instance, Uttam Singh’s annual income of about Rs60,000 would account for a significant proportion of his family’s income, but government data agencies would still report the family as dependent on agriculture.
Yet, for the likes of Singh, change may already be a way of life: His sons, who are in school, have already made it clear that they would not like to join the annual family exercise of helping out in harvesting the winter crop.