Where India’s farmers have gone
The change in the number of cultivators and agricultural labourers in India, as recently provided by Census 2011, is a major indicator of a state’s treatment of its crop-growing communities and its approach to land use. It is usually difficult to spot long-term trends in economic activity, in particular that of agriculture and food production, in the districts – a condition that the state does little to rectify.
Even so, these difficulties are eased to an extent by reading the census data together with other data – in particular land use and major crops. These should help us recognise the growing impacts on food security caused by rampant urbanisation and the steady erosion of the population of cultivators. [Please see the complete article on Macroscan.]
To gain a better understanding of the changes in the numbers of cultivators and agricultural labour (marginal or main) it is useful to read them with the change in the number of agricultural holdings in India over the same ten years, and this is provided, over exactly the same decade, by the Agricultural Census.
The last complete Agricultural Census is for the year 2005-06. The next is for 2010-11, and ‘All India Report on Number and Area of Operational Holdings (provisional)’, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture (2012), from which we have the national and state level provisional data.
This tells us that the number of ‘operational holdings’ in India rose over a ten year period from 119.9 million to 137.7 million (up 14.8%). Whereas in three categories of the size of holdings (large, medium and semi-medium) the number of operational holdings dropped, in the categories of small and marginal the number rose (by 8.8% and 22.4% respectively). The rise in total operational holdings of 17.8 million is due mainly to the increase in the number of marginal holdings, that is, below one hectare, and these account for more than 95% of the all holdings added to the total in this ten-year period.
At a national level, the addition of such a large number of small holdings has not expanded the total acreage under cultivation. Rather, all cultivated land – in all size categories – has very slightly shrunk (by 0.16%) to 159.1 million hectares. However, the total masks both one large deficit and one large addition – a 17.5% decrease in the total operating area of large holdings (10-20 hectares, and above 20 hectares), and a 18.7% increase in the total operating area of marginal holdings (below one hectare). The total area operated as marginal holdings has risen from 29.8 million hectares in 2000-01 to 35.4 million hectares in 2010-11.
This provides some of the background about the change in land use that accompanies the disturbing top-level indication given to us by Census 2011 about India’s farmers. There are now 95.8 million cultivators for whom farming is their main occupation, reported P Sainath, which is less than 8 per cent of the population, down from 103 million in 2001 and 110 million in 1991.
It is with these readings – in the change in number of and type of farm plots – that the change in the numbers of cultivator and agricultural labour gives us a fuller picture. Considering the four categories of occupation under the Census enumeration which pertain to cultivation and agriculture, we have main or marginal cultivators or agricultural labourers, and data for the changes seen in these categories between the two Censuses (2001 and 2011). The changes for the 20 large states reveal the following (data sheet is available here as a xlsx file):
* The variation in the number of marginal agricultural labourers ranges from 170% more in Jammu and Kashmir, 100% more in Bihar and 83% more in Himachal Pradesh to 32% less in Kerala, 23% less in Maharashtra and 16% less in Karnataka.
* The variation in the number of marginal cultivators ranges from 47% more in Jharkhand, 31% more in Himachal Pradesh and 25% more in Bihar to 35% less in Gujarat, 34% less in Haryana and 33% less in Maharashtra.
* The variation in the number of main agricultural labourers ranges from 117% more in Rajasthan, 89% more in Himachal Pradesh and 73% more in Uttaranchal to 10% less in Kerala, 5% more in Bihar and 10% more in Punjab.
* The variation in the number of main cultivators ranges from 17% more in Assam, 12% more in Maharashtra and 2% more in Rajasthan to 40% less in Jammu and Kashmir, 24% less in Jharkhand and 20% less in Bihar.
These losses and Census gains have much to do with the great urbanisation taking place in the major states. There is a continuing trend of holdings smaller in size and greater in number (which must, from an agricultural productivity point of view, not automatically be considered a liability), which is a factor in the redistribution of cultivating communities of the food-producing districts. The consequences to the capacities of these districts for sustaining a minimum level of food production for their own consumption are yet to be recognised and understood.