Labour scarcity, rising wages hitting Indian agriculture hard

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Courtesy: Asian Development Bank

India’s agriculture sector has experienced a sharp drop in the availability of labour in the past decade despite contributing significantly to the overall growth of the economy, research by ICRISAT has shown.

In 2013-14 the agricultural and allied sectors contributed to 13 percent of India’s total GDP. Yet, the agricultural workforce fell by by 30.57 million with numbers dropping from 259 million in 2004-05 to 228 million in 2011-12, the research centre said.

The drop is in large part due to increased opportunities in the non-farm rural sector with the service and manufacturing sectors wooing the shrinking labor force with higher wages and more regular incomes, it said.

“…farmers have responded to this twin challenge in three complementary ways: by replacing human and bullock labor with machinery, increasing cultivation of less labor intensive crops and increasing the use of herbicides to control weeds,” according to Dr Uttam Deb, Principal Scientist, Economics, Markets, Institutions and Policies, ICRISAT.

For example, farmers in Maharashtra’s Vidharba region are focusing more on soybean and chickpea than their tradtioinal cotton crop.

Farmers in this region have traditionally cultivated cotton which up until 2006-07 occupied three-fifths of the total cropped area.   Now they have switched to soybean cultivation which occupies 70 percent of the total crop area in the rainy season. This is also supplemented by growing chickpea in 14 percent of the crop area.

“The benefits of this shift are tangible: cotton growing requires around nine months for production and is harvested over four or more pickings. Soybean on the other hand requires only 80 to 105 days depending on the varieties used for cultivation,” ICRISAT said.

The dramatic shift in cropping patterns during the period 2007-8 to 2014-15 resulted in per hectare labor use in cotton production reduced by 43 percent (from 153 person-days to 87 person-days). During the same period labor use in soybean production was reduced by 58 percent (from 55 person-days to 23 person-days) and in pigeonpea production by 52 percent (from 48 person-days to 23 person-days), due to the increased reliance on machinery for tillage, harvesting and threshing operations and the introduction of herbicides to control weeds.

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