How many farmers does India really have? Or, what percent of the population does farming?

Yesterday, Hindustan Times published an article titled “How Many Farmers Does India Really Have?”.  This is a complex question involving definition of a farmer and the workforce of the country.  The article makes a valiant attempt to fairly present data from Census 2011 until the second last para, but ends with a wrong answer by oversimplifying the final calculation.

The article concludes:

So, if we add the number of cultivators and agricultural labourers, it would be around 263 million or 22% of the population (1.2 billion).  Then where does the common perception of 53% of population being involved in agriculture come from? It needs to be remembered that over 600 million Indians dependent on agriculture are not farmers. They are deployed in an array of related activities including fisheries.  And this confusion is widespread and innocent!

I will try to answer this question, since I pulled out half my hair trying to do so last year. But before we start, let me state that adding fisheries and other “allied” activities will not take 263 million to 600 million by any stretch of imagination.

Per occupation data from Census 2011, here are the all-India numbers which add up to 263 million engaged in agriculture either as cultivators or as casual labor.

Cultivators   82,706,724   35,985,916 118,692,640
Agri Labor   82,740,351   61,589,482 144,329,833
Total  165,447,075   97,575,398 263,022,473

But the real question the article asks is “where does the 53%” come from?  And this is where things start getting even more complicated.

What should we divide the 263 million by?  The total population of India (which includes home-makers, old people and young children), as the HT author does?

Or should we divide 263 million by only India’s workforce?  Or perhaps we should divided by all adults in the country (say, 15-59)?  The lower age bound is because Indian law guarantees Right to Education, and prohibits child labor until age 14. The upper bound is determined by the official retirement age in India. The table below summarizes some potential denominators.

Total workforce (all ages, including children)             331,865,930             149,877,381            481,743,311
Children in workforce (14 or less)    5,628,915    4,499,748    10,128,663
Total working age population (15-59, inclusive) 375,474,130 354,597,889    730,072,019
Total population 623,121,843 587,447,730 1,210,569,573

Given the sad state of affairs in our country, roughly 10 million people in our workforce of 482 million are actually children below 14 years of age.  Working children are included both in the agri-workforce number (263 million) and total workforce (482 million).  While Census 2011 data for number of children in total workforce has been released (10 million), the corresponding number for agri-workforce has yet to be released.


I think the real percentage we all want to know is one of the following three:

  1. Of the total workforce (any age), how many are employed in agriculture?
  2. Of the total number of working age population (aged 15-59), how many are employed in agriculture?
  3. or perhaps: Of the total # of households, how many depend on agriculture (let’s define this as, how many get at least half their income from agriculture)?

The first one, we can calculate from the two tables above. We find that 52% of the workforce (any age) is employed in agriculture.

For the second, we know the denominator (working age population) but not the working age population among the agri-workers.  That data is yet to be released.  But we can calculate a range: since we don’t know what portion of the working children are working in agriculture, we can assume that it is 0% or a 100% to get a range.  In fact this correction has to be made for the elderly who are in the workforce (those beyond the retirement age, who add up to 43 million).  So the range turns out to be 27-35%.

And finally, as a percentage of total population, the % employed in agriculture is 21% (in comparison, the percent employed in any occupation is about 40%).

% of people employed in agriculture MALE FEMALE TOTAL
As a % of total workforce 48% 63% 52%
As a % of working age population (aged 15-59, inclusive) 32-42% 22-27% 27-35%
As a % of total population 25% 16% 21%

Regardless of which number we want to look at, it is clear that agriculture is by far the biggest and most important occupation in the country, both for men and women.  It is the sector (much more than any other) that most of the population of the country depends upon for income and livelihood.

And, finally, the question about how many families (or people), “depend on agriculture” is an insanely complex question that I’m hoping some researcher answers once more Census data is released.

[Note: The occupation data is based on preliminary Census tables, which may get revised. And, thanks to my team member Garima for the initial analysis, which I have updated here.]


3 thoughts on “How many farmers does India really have? Or, what percent of the population does farming?

  1. Pingback: Farmers and Agriculture – Dundigalla Venu Guptha

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