People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 12, 2013


Distressing Signals for Workers and Farmers


Archana Prasad


THE impact of the rural distress faced by farmers and agricultural workers has finally shown up in statistical terms in the newly published provisional population estimates of the Census of India 2011 and Agricultural Census 2011. The evidence gathered from these reports shows that the penetration of corporate capital in agriculture and its allied sectors has reduced jobs and destroyed the agrarian base of the country. This is confirmed by the statistics in these two reports.




It is well known that the agrarian distress, haunting us roughly from 1995 onwards, has resulted in the suicide of at least 2.7 million farmers. Of these, more than a million farmers’ suicides occurred in the last five years alone. These recorded instances, however, ignore the suicides by agricultural workers and other labourers in the erstwhile green revolution areas. The drop in agricultural employment shows that the agricultural workers have been compelled to seek work in the casual labour market.


The provisional figures of the Census 2011 only confirm this trend. The figures show that the numbers of agricultural cultivators has gone down by 7.8 million, i.e., from 103.6 million in 2001 to 95.8 million in 2011, i.e., a decrease of 7.1 percent. At the same time the number of agricultural labourers has increased by 3.5 per cent only. The neglect of the agriculture sector and the limited employment opportunities it has are further shown through the decrease in the number of total workers by 3.6 per cent in agriculture and allied activities. This is evident in the overall pattern of work in agriculture and the allied sectors from the table alongside.


The Table shows that the only two categories of agricultural work and other workers, mainly comprising construction workers, has gone up in the decade between the two periods of enumeration. It is thus evident that jobs are only being created in the lowly paid informal sector that largely depends on casual labour. Further indication of this is that more than half of the agricultural labourers are marginal workers who get less than six months of work in a year.


Another interesting fact that comes to light from this analysis is that most of the agricultural labourers who are classed as ‘marginal workers,’ or people getting work for less than six months in a year, are males whereas about 40 per cent of the female agricultural workers are classed as ‘main workers’ who get more than six months of work in a year. This pattern is also reflected in the overall employment trend where the total number of male workers getting employment for more than six months in a year has declined by five per cent between 2001 and 2011. In sharp contrast, the overall pattern of female work is that the number of female workers getting employment for more than six months a year has gone up by 2.3 per cent. Thus the move towards the expansion of the informal sector is gendered in character.


This engendering of the workforce is largely a result of the fall in real wages, especially in agriculture and its associated sectors. An analysis of recent wage patterns in the agriculture sector shows that real wage rates for agricultural labour started declining between 2000 and 2007 but started rising slightly between 2008-2011 (i.e., in the period after the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). But this rise has only between two and three per cent per year and has been most unfavourable towards the unskilled agricultural workers. Hence the Agricultural Census 2011 shows that the at least 48.6 per cent of the households dependent on agriculture were under debt. But this is a gross underestimation as these figures are based on the NSSO survey of 2003. In states like Andhra Pradesh this figure can go up to 82 per cent of the entire farming households. Hence we see that the distress in the rural economy has fuelled a livelihood crisis whose impact has been felt in gender specific ways.




The loss of land based livelihoods is evident not only from the rising landlessness but also from the increase in the number of marginal farmers. The marginalisation of landholdings itself implies a displacement of livelihood and a change in the economic status of farmers. This is evident also in the patterns of employment.


About 45.2 per cent of households have no access to cultivated land and more than 60 per cent of the landholders have less than four hectares of land. Within this macro picture, the Agricultural Census 2011 shows that the number of marginal landholders (i.e. those owning land below one hectare) rose 2.01 per cent and the average size of their landholding declined from 0.40 hectare to 0.38 hectare between 2005-06 and 2011. The number of small landholders (i.e., those having lands between one and two hectares) increased by approximately 2.2 per cent and the average size of their holdings remained static at 1.42 hectares in the same period.


This rise in marginal and small land holdings has regional variations with the mineral rich states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha facing the highest rise. In Odisha the number of marginal landholdings increased by almost 13 per cent between 2005 and 2011. In the same period, the number of small and marginal farmers increased by about 5 to 6 per cent in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This fragmentation of land holdings has been a direct result of the acquisition of lands for mining and construction on the one hand, and the rising costs of doing agriculture on the other hand.


The picture also varies across social groups in the period between 2005 and 2011. More than 80 per cent of the area cultivated by the schedule castes has farmers owning less than two hectares of land. Of these 78 per cent are marginal farmers. Amongst the scheduled tribes the situation is only slightly better with about 60 per cent farmers operating a landholding of less than two hectares. It is even more interesting to note that in the case of both these social groups there has been a significant decline in the number of people having small and semi-medium landholdings, and a corresponding increase in marginal landholders. This means that small and semi-medium landholders are forced to make distress sales of at least a part of their lands. It also means that those who sell these lands are forced to depend on labour for their subsistence. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a loss of agriculture based livelihoods by about 3.6 per cent in the decade between 2001 and 2011.


Thus we see that the recently released data only confirm the experience of the Left and democratic organisations that have been organising the peasantry and workers. The distress of the peasantry has been fuelled by the intensification of corporate capital and neo-liberal policies. The very existence of such a system depends on the expansion of a labouring force that works for low wages. Public policies towards agriculture and its allied sectors are aimed towards creating the conditions for such an army of mobile and surplus labour. Thus the emerging trends also highlight the urgent political need to facilitate a broader alliance between all workers and peasants in order to fight the increasing influence of neo-liberal corporate capital.


Percentage of Workers in Different

Occupational Groups, 2001-2011






Workers (Main + Marginal)

All Areas

Total Workers










Ag. Labourers



+ 3.5


HHI Workers





Other Workers



+ 4.0

Primary Census Abstract, Census of India, 2011.