Migration for us, not them: A conversation in class

Discussions with students on agrarian distress and migration inevitably turn into “how can we stop migration from rural to urban India”.  In India, one in five rural households have an out-migrant for economic reasons.  About half of these out-migrants send remittances home.  In most cases, these remittances provide an essential life-line to households otherwise suffering from various forms of agrarian or broader rural distress.  Despite this, the idea of wanting to stop migration has taken a firm root in our collective consciousness.

When we say that we want to stop migration, what we are really saying is that we want people to stay where they are – where they were born.  And how narrowly would we define “where they were born”?  Would we require they stay in their own district? Within a 100 km radius of where they were born? Within a 10 km radius?

And whose migration would we want to stop?  Everybody? An IT professional? A construction worker? In my class, emphatically state that I am a migrant to Bangalore.  If all migration was stopped, I wouldn’t be here teaching this class. Many students laugh. Some are silent.

The cognitive dissonance in the class is palpable. The students want to say “we meant stop migration of poor rural people not you” but they realize how elitist that sounds, so there is silence for some time while students process their own thoughts.

How can we subscribe to any argument which says that everyone should remain within 10 km of where they were born?  Imagine how boring the world would be… Creating a dynamic society requires exchange of ideas, of people, of things.  In “no migration” scenario, we would have a pretty boring and stagnant human society.

“We don’t want that”. Then what?  You want to prevent only the rural poor from migrating but are okay with the well-off to migrate?

Some clarifications emerge: Migration for marriage is okay.  Urban-to-urban migration is okay.  Rural-to-rural is okay. But rural-to-urban is not.

Okay, let’s back up. Why do we want to stop migration, anyway? “Because our cities cannot support any more migrants”.

If that’s the case, instead of stopping migration, shouldn’t we improve the capability of our cities to provide for the migrants?  Shouldn’t we develop/improve many more cities to absorb migrants, rather than using our inability as an excuse to stop others?

“But then, who would do farming? Who would produce our food?”  Ah, so now we are saying that we want to stop migration so that we can compel others to grow our food.

But shouldn’t choice of occupation be voluntary? Just because someone’s parents are farmers, must they continue farming?  Are you in the same occupation as your parents? “No”.  So why demand that of farmers’ children?  Shouldn’t they have a choice too?

“But then, who would do farming”? Firstly, all farmers may not leave farming.  Even if they did, in principle, others who are currently in cities could move to rural areas to do farming.  Why not?

“But they will not want to move to rural areas because farming doesn’t pay enough. It is risky. Also there are no good schools or hospitals so they won’t want to live in rural areas”.  So,  shouldn’t we provide essential services like schools and hospitals in rural areas?  Shouldn’t we address systemic issues of agricultural incomes and risk mitigation, instead of forcing those who are currently dealing with the risk to continue to do so for generations to come?

So, let’s ask again: Why do people migrate, leaving aside marriage? “To find jobs. Better schools for their children. Better health care.”  Why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to migrate for a better life? How can we tell them that you must stay in your own village/city regardless of how bad the situation is?

Moreover, aren’t we all descendants of the prehistoric people of Africa? Over millennia, they moved north and then east to form the hunter-gatherer peoples of ancient India. More waves of migrants came 3-4000 years ago from modern-day Iran, from eastern-central Europe followed by even more waves of people in recent history.  So, aren’t we all migrants? The only difference is how many generations ago we arrived here.

[This post is an amalgamation of multiple discussions on migrations with students]

Overuse of fertilizer and pesticides in India and its impact

India’s uses more fertilizer (kg/ hectare) than the US, something which I have written about previously.

A recent report by the Standing Committee on Agriculture shows heavily skewed (over)use of fertilizers and their impact on quality of soil, water and human health.

Read some of the findings: “42% of India’s districts use 85% of its chemical fertilisers”

Download the full detailed report: Impact of Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides on Agriculture and Allied Sectors in the Country: Standing Committee on Agriculture (2015-2016)


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.]

Why women are withdrawing from agri labour

A recent article from Livemint examines the reduction in availability of female agricultural labor.

India witnessed a massive exit of female agricultural labourers between 2004-05 and 2011-12, according to India’s official employment estimates published by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). Thirty three million agricultural workers, mostly women, quit the labour force between 2004-05 and 2011-12.

… Landless labourers, considered to be the bottom of the rural pyramid since they have the lowest incomes and typically belong to historically disadvantaged caste groups such as the Dalits, are at the forefront of the changes sweeping the rural economy today. Even a few years ago, women in Mamta’s circumstances would have joined their parents to work in others’ farms. Not anymore.

Dalits are increasingly turning away from farms because they associate farm jobs with the indignities of the past, said Chandrabhan Prasad, a Delhi-based Dalit intellectual. Dalit women, in particular, have long borne the brunt of caste and sexual oppression in rural India.

Read more: Why women aren’t taking up farm jobs


Mobile phones and women farmers

Narbada Bai and Meera BaiThere is a lot of interest in using mobile phones as the “last mile” connectivity for providing various services in rural India:  Services ranging widely from education, awareness building, and a variety of health services.  Many of these services are intended for women.

My team’s study of women farmers’ access to and usage of mobile phones has thrown up some fascinating insights.

For example, while only 10-25% of women farmers own mobile phones, the majority have access to phones at some point in the day.  Our survey shows that women have access to mobile phones typically from 3 – 5 pm and 7 – 11 pm in rural Karnataka and from 7 – 9 am in Odisha.

But access does not mean attention: Competing with TV watching time and saas-bahu dramas can only lead to ineffective outcomes. Therefore, our study concluded that the best time to provide women farmers information through alerts or pre-recorded messages is between 3 – 5 pm and 9 – 11 pm in rural Karnataka and between 7 – 9 am in rural Odisha. 

Intriguing, isn’t it?

Programs targeting women often fail to understand the nuances of how women actually live and work, even though attention to detail such as this is critical for their success.

Read the full report with information on rural women’s ownership, access and usage of mobile phones here.

Soil nutrient management

Previously I have written about mobile-phone based personalized alerts for crop management offered by EkGaon Technologies founded by Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya. And about KC Mishra who is developing various software tools for helping farmers manage soil nutrients and select the right seeds. The software is available at his eKutir chain of shops run by micro-entrepreneurs.

And now, we hear that Re:char, a Kenyan company is creating a device called SoilIQ that would fit on an android phone and measure soil nutrients on the spot.

I wonder if these three could be combined to create an end-to-end solution for farmers.

  1. Soil testing using a device like Re:Char’s SoilIQ device
  2. Customized advisory on soil nutrient management through solutions such as eKutir’s tools or EkGaon’s research
  3. Soil nutrient management services via mobile SMS/calls through services such as EkGaon

Of course, there are still lots of issues that make the feasibility of such an end-to-end solution questionable:

SoilIQ measures only moisture content of soil. It is still in design phase. And, the cost of  such a combined service might be too high.  Plus, farmers’ may not be able to afford android devices.  But it is still interesting to imagine such a solution, perhaps leveraging a micro-entrepreneur or NGO as a service provider might solve some of these issues.

Given the deteriorating soil conditions in the country, it would be useful to have such information easily available, complete with advise on corrective measures not just for the macro fertilizers but also micro-nutrients for the soil.

As science begins to prove the link between nutrients in the soil, in the crops grown on these soils and in people who eat these crops, managing soil nutrients becomes an important tool for improving malnutrition in India.

Indian farmer population drops by 9 million in a decade

Census data released this week shows that the farmer population in the country has declined by 9 million over the last 10 years.  While the percentage of farmers in the population have been declining for decades, this is the first time India has recorded an absolute drop.

On this occasion I thought it might be interesting to repost a few paras from my previous post about Peter Timmer’s analysis of structural transformation of developing economies.

The Structural Transformation: What, When and How

As  economies develop, the share of agriculture in national GDP drops over time. However the agriculture GDP continues to grow in absolute terms (unless of course nature or politics go horribly wrong). For example, India’s agri GDP is currently 18.5% of national GDP, down from 42% in 1970.

The share of agri employment in total labour force also declines over decades. At some point, the agri employment starts decreasing in absolute numbers, not just in percentage terms. For example, agri employment is currently 52% in India — that is, 52% of the workforce is involved in agriculture. This number was 70% in 1970. In India, the number of people employed in agriculture is still growing — we added 20 million people (net of urban migration) working in agriculture over the last decade.

The gap between the share of agri in employment (52%) and share of agri in GDP (18.5%) first widens and then starts narrowing at some level of threshold per capita GDP in the economy. While this number varies from country to country and based on decade, some definitive things can be said about this turning point.

While the global average turning point is at per capita GDP of around $9-10K, for Asian economies this turning point is around $1600.  Last year when I wrote the above blog, India’s per capita GDP was ~$1500.

Although India now seems to have crossed the turning point of absolute reduction in farmer population, only further analysis will show how far we are from reaching the turning point that Peter Timmer talks about — a reduction in the gap between share of agri in employment and share of agri in GDP.