The worth of an agricultural wage day
Being unorganised, rural and particularly agricultural labour constitutes a relatively vulnerable segment of the work force. Rural and agricultural labour is generally deprived of the benefits of collective bargaining and lacks the protection of labour enactments which their counterparts in the organised sectors of the economy can fall back upon during times of work uncertainty, or calculated mismanagement. Agricultural labourers however have to live with casual employment, frequent changes of employers as well as places and wide fluctuations in the pay.
Farming remains at the centre of rural Indian life, even as more men and women today seek out non-farm work. Using data from the MGNREGA records, the proportion of men aged 15–59 working solely in agriculture fell from 41% in 2004–05 to 31% in 2011–12. The decline for women was smaller, from 40% to 35%. Many men and women combine farm work with non-farm labour, whether or not they participate in MGNREGA.
The labour scenario in a rural area is influenced by a number of factors such as its topography, natural resources, population growth, pressure on land, level of economic development, level of utilisation of resources and the institutional factors, namely, land tenure systems and inheritance laws.
Rural wages are considered to have risen steadily between 2004–05 and 2011–12, but the increase has been greater at higher wage levels compared with lower levels. MGNREGA records show that men’s daily wages for agricultural work grew by 50% between 2004–05 and 2011–12, women’s by 47%. Overall, growth in rural wages is higher in states and districts whose populations have greater participation in MGNREGA but it is important to note that MGNREGA plays only a modest role in wage increases.
Taking national averages, about a quarter of rural households participate in the programme, about 60% of these would like to work more days but are can’t get MGNREGA work. This widespread ‘rationing’ of work affects about 29% of all rural households, but percentages vary between regions. Households in the lowest income quintile worked only 23 days a year when they were allocated work.
The information base on the working and living conditions of this segment of labour market is scanty. The only major source of reliable information on socio-economic conditions of the rural labour is the Rural Labour Enquiry conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) every five years. Consumer Price Index Numbers for Agricultural and Rural Labourers, released by the Bureau every month, provides a basis for minimum wages in agriculture under the Minimum Wages Act,1948.