The country’s grain bowl – Punjab, where the growth of agricultural sector has become unsustainable — is experiencing rampant ‘de-peasantisation’ as peasants are seen giving up agriculture as a means of livelihood in the past three decades.
Consequently, the agricultural sector seems to be shrinking in terms of gainful employment opportunities, and the population dependent on agriculture, especially the agricultural labour, the weakest economic strata in the rural society, is mired in a state of vulnerability and desolation. This process has pushed many households towards non-farm activities, points out a recent study — ‘Punjab’s Agricultural Labourers in Transition’ — conducted by the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University’s senior economist Sukhpal Singh and Shruti Bhogal, from the Centres for International Projects Trust, New Delhi.
This longitudinal study of three decades, in 1987–88 and 2018–19, reveals the transition in agricultural labour households and highlights an occupational shift in agricultural labour households in Punjab.
The study says that in 1987–88, out of a total sample of 100 households, 88 depended solely on agricultural labour, whereas the remaining 12 were mixed households, comprising at least one family member engaged in non-farm activities. However, the proportion of solely agricultural labour households declined from 88% in 1987–88 to just 7% in 2018–19, while for mixed households, this increased from 12% in 1987–88 to 37% in 2018–19.
“The shift of labour from farm to non-farm sector is quite robust since, over three decades, 56% of these households turned as solely non-farm households, with none of the workers of these households engaged in agriculture. This situation clearly brings out the magnitude of occupational shift in farm labour households in the rural economy of Punjab during three decades,” Mr. Singh told The Hindu.
“…the labour engaged in agriculture underwent three types of changes in these 30 years. The first and most prominent was the shift of nature of employment from permanent to casual, since almost all the labourers that were engaged as permanent labour (on an annual basis) were now employed as casual workers (on a daily basis) in agriculture. The second type of transformation was the one wherein permanent agricultural labour based on share-cropping were converted to permanent wage labour based on fixed cash remunerations. And, the third type of transformation was the shift of agricultural labourers engaged in the farm sector to the non-farm sector,” said Mr. Singh.
He says that the transition of the workforce had also changed the level and pattern of consumption expenditure of these households. “The proportion of expenditure budget spent on comforts, durables and services has increased… however, consumption being more than income points towards inevitable indebtedness. In order to tackle the problem of lesser earnings of agricultural labour relative to their expenditures, it is imperative to increase their real wages. The amount of debt of an agricultural labourer household that was ₹5,068 during 1987–88 has increased to ₹8,178 at constant prices in 2018-19. Evidently, the role of non-institutional sources of lending, especially landlords or employers in the case of these households, continues to be significant. The poor, illiterate and destitute labourers often fall prey to these lending sources that charge high rates of interest. The crucial role of non-institutional sources of credit in the lives of these households is argued as unavoidable, as these asset-poor households can’t provide collateral to the institutional sources of lending,” said Mr. Singh.