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.

Changing patriarchy through milk

Meera Bai and Kajori Bai
Meera Bai and Kajori Bai

I looked up in disbelief when I heard her say “I sent my daughter to Duni [a small town 15-20 minutes away] to study for her exams. We have rented a room for her in the town so that she can study without distraction.”
“You sent her there all by herself?” I asked, surprised that the resident of a tiny village in Rajasthan would take such a drastic step going against entrenched social norms against mobility and education of girls. “She is staying with other girls from her college”, the mother replied confidently even as she called to someone to go and deliver milk to her daughter on his way.

Kajori Bai lives in a village 80 km from the nearest city. Until 8 years ago she observed purdah and hesitated in speaking to men.  She was married at the age of 11 though allowed to complete schooling until 8th.

Her daughter is studying home science in college. Kajori is not planning to marry her 20 year old daughter just yet, although she already arranged the engagement some years ago, at the time of the older daughter’s wedding.  Narbada Bai, who lives in a nearby village also related a similar story concerning her thirteen year old who although engaged is also going to be allowed to finish 12th before being sent to the in-laws.

We met Meera Bai, 25, who convinced her husband to join a nursing course in Ajmer, while she herself works as a trained ‘pashu sakhi’ a para vet in her cluster of villages. She has travelled to Madhya Pradesh and interacted with women there on a trip organized by Srijan, an organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Ved Arya.

Four years into her marriage and she doesn’t have children yet.  She says, “My in-laws know the work that I am doing and how important it is.  They don’t put pressure any more. We will have children once we can stand on our own feet.” There’s no shy smile as she says this.  She speaks confidently and clearly.

All the women we met were affiliated with Srijan, which works on livelihood programs related to agriculture – cultivation and dairy – leveraging SHGs for creating village level structures and institutions.  They work almost exclusively through women.  According to Srijan team, when they started working on yield improvement programs for soya with male farmers, they realized that they had to do a lot of repetition and there was no cohesion in the farmer groups.  And they realized that much of the farm labor was provided by women. So they started leveraging SHGs for providing information about seed preparation, proper spacing, sowing of soya.  It was tough going at first.  It was difficult to convince people that if you plant only half as many seeds, your yield will be 20% higher.  But when one or two women tried it out on one ‘bigha’ of land and compared the yield, more women joined.

In milk collection, they also relied on SHG model for dissemination of good practices in care of milch animals.  And later launched an all woman pashu sakhi (para vet) program. It seems that mortality of buffaloes was a big issue in the area. With the help of pashu sakhis, who focus on health, hygiene and preventive care of buffaloes and goats, the mortality was reduced to only a single calf perishing in 12 months.

But there was a design behind all of this seemingly “purely” economic activity. The payment for milk deposited at collection centers is only given to the women (they have to come collect it). The receipt for soya deposited at collection centers is issued in the name of women. All records at Srijan are maintained in the womens’ names.

There are many reasons that Srijan, the non-profit founded by Ashoka Fellow Ved Arya, has been able to bring about such change within 8 years of formation of the SHGs.  After having visited many such organizations and going through research on these topics, I believe that the reason Srijan has been able to achieve this has to do with the fact that the processes it has designed make it very clear to the women and everyone around them, that the extra income being brought home is due to the work of the household’s women.

The entire trip was one full of surprises.  While my colleague and I sat at Kajori Bai’s home discussing her work as SHG Federation president, as an operator of a milk collection center and as a ‘pashu sakhi’ (and many other roles), her mother-in-law quietly swept the courtyard and made tea for us. The father-in-law first sat near us, and then uncertain whether this was meant to be an SHG (therefore women members only) meeting, started moving away.  Someone from our meeting group told him that he can stay, it is only a discussion, not an SHG meeting.

When we enquired about Kajori Bai’s schedule for the rest of the day (she’d been with us from 7 in the morning), she said she had 3 more meetings to attend, one related to the SHG Federation, another relating to a visit to another SHG meeting (sort of like an inspection visit) and another in preparation for a PRA   to be conducted in a new village where they want to start an SHG.  She said that often people visit her with problems at their SHG, where she ends up resolving conflicts and such. Her schedule sounded as busy as any corporate CEO.

At Narbada Bai’s home and farm, we saw her husband sitting to one side and chopping green fodder for buffaloes, while Narbada Bai explained to us how she, an illiterate, keeps track of the dozens of animals under her care, as the village ‘pashu sakhi’.

Sunita Bai showing us fields
Sunita Bai showing us fields

At another household where we met soya farmers, the husband patiently hovered and waited during our discussion with about a dozen women, occasionally hovering but never interfering with his own ideas. Only once our discussion was over, he came across and sat down and started telling us about some of the services he provides to villagers as a Srijan service provider.

While all households might not be as emancipated as the three we visited, it is clear that these changes could not have been brought about if Srijan had followed more expedient ways of working. It may  have improved incomes for these families, but the processes, the new ways of thinking about agriculture, more scientific cultivation practices, and certainly the societal change relating to women’s stature would not have been possible.

One can only hope that now that the villagers understand a woman’s contribution to household and society, the next time a woman’s second child is also a baby girl she won’t name her Naraji (“upset”, as in “the gods are upset with us”) whom we met, or Mat-de Ram (“don’t give, Ram” as in “don’t give us more girls, god”) whom we heard about.