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A Longitudinal Study of Three Decades

Punjab’s Agricultural Labourers in Transition

Agricultural labourers are undergoing a socio-economic transition due to the intensified capitalisation of agriculture. The change in structure of rural employment in Punjab, over a period, has two prominent facets: shift of agricultural labour to non-farm sector, and conversion of permanent/attached labour in agriculture to casual labour. This longitudinal study, in 1987–88 and 2018–19, presents the transition in agricultural labour households in the state. While the agricultural labour households, solely depending on meagre income from the agricultural sector are struggling, the ones shifting to the non-farm sector are switching over to menial jobs. Rural agro-industrialisation for overall improvement in the employment situation along with enhanced wages, liberal institutional credit and debt waiver specific to workers are vital aspects that need attention.

The green revolution facilitated food self-sufficiency for ­India, and was imperative at the time for a food deficit nation. Characterised by the capital-intensive mode of production, it modernised agricultural practices while increasing the capital–land ratio. Combined with the ­existing abundance of labour in the rural economy, this modernisation generated a boom in the agricultural sector that sustained for a few decades. Soon, the growing capitalisation constrained gainful employment opportunities for labour, leading to unemployment and disguised unemployment. The surge in capital intensity in the agricultural sector caused ­reduction in the elasticity of labour, thus squeezing out the labour absorption capacity of agriculture (Devi et al 2013: 278). It is pertinent here to note that agricultural labour constitutes about 27% of the total workers in India (GoI 2011). The need for modernisation of agriculture and resultant creation of surplus labour is often explained as a facet of the normal course of economic development. It is generally propounded that this army of labour becomes the labour pool for other sectors of the economy—secondary and tertiary. The Lewis model of transition caters to the aspects of modernisation in agriculture and the resultant movement of surplus labour to other sectors, primarily from agriculture to industry and rural to urban (Lewis 1954). However, in India, though capitalisation of agriculture—often perceived as an indicator of development—did lead to the displacement of labour from agriculture, it could not be accommodated in other sectors, with sustained and ­rewarding livelihood opportunities. Consequently, labour is succumbing to poverty (Dutta 2019: 36).

A discussion about progressive agriculture in the country generally encompasses the model of agriculture in Punjab, as it pioneered the green revolution for India. As a ramification of modernisation that was brought about by the green revolution, agricultural labour in Punjab underwent a transition. Agricultural labour comprises a significant 16.3% of the total workers in the state (GoI 2011). Permanent agricultural labourers in the state had transformed to casual labourers, mainly due to ­reductions in the demand for labour. This can further be attributed to the mechanisation of major farm operations, monoculture of wheat–paddy crops and inflow of migrant labour in the state (Rangi et al 2004: 961). Further, agricultural labourers managed only short periods of employment. Hence, their problem to a large extent is that of unemployment rather than underemployment. The availability of abundant labour and decreasing demand for agricultural labourers has engendered a worrisome employment situation, especially in the rural economy. Based on the per hectare labour use in a crop year, demand for labour in the state fell from 479.3 million person-days in 1983–84 to 421.93 in 2000–01 (Sidhu and Singh 2004: 4134).

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Updated On : 7th Jul, 2020

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