It is one of the primary objects of the Five Year Plan to ensure fuller opportunities for work and better living to all the sections of the rural community and, in particular, to assist agricultural labourers and backward classes to come to the level of the rest. One of the most distinguishing features of the rural economy of India has been the growth in the number of agricultural workers, cultivators and agricultural labours engaged in crop production. The phenomena of underemployment, under-development and surplus population are simultaneously manifested in the daily lives and living of the agricultural workers. Agricultural workers constitute the most neglected class in Indian rural structure. Their income is low and employment irregular. Since, they possess no skill or training, they have no alternative employment opportunities either.
Labour is the most important input in increasing production in traditional agriculture. In the early stage of development, since land was available in plenty increase in labour supply led to the clearing of more land for bringing it under cultivation. Agricultural labourers are socially and economically poorest section of the society. Agricultural labourers households constitute the historically deprived social groups, displaced handicraftsmen and dispossessed peasantry. They are the poorest of the poor in rural India. Their growth reflects the colonial legacy of under development and the inadequacies of planning intervention in the past.
The poverty syndrome among agricultural labourers needs to be read against such a background of prolonged rural under development, assetlessness, unemployment, low wages, under-nutrition, illiteracy and social backwardness constitute the poverty syndrome among agricultural labourers. These reinforce each other so as to constitute a vicious circle of poverty.
The Indian agriculture, however, has its own characteristics:
- Subsistent in Character:
Despite eleven five year plans, in greater parts of the country, Indian agriculture is subsistent in character. The cultivators and farmers grow crops mainly for the family consumption. It is only in the controlled irrigated parts of the country like Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, and Kaveri delta where agriculture has become an agri-business or is market.
- Heavy Pressure of Population:
The Indian agriculture is characterized by heavy pressure of population. About 70 per cent of the total population of the country is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture.
- Predominance of Food Grains:
In both the Kharif (summer) and the rabi (winter) seasons, grain crops occupy the greater proportion of the cropped area.
- Mixed Cropping:
In the rain-fed areas of the country, mixed cropping is a common practice. The farmers mix millets, maize and pulses in the kharif season and wheat, gram and barley in the rabi season. In the areas of Jhuming (shifting cultivation), ten to sixteen crops are mixed and sown in the same field.
- High Percentage of the Reporting Area under Cultivation:
In India, about 55 per cent of the total reporting area is under cultivation of crops and pastures. This is much higher when compared with about 4 per cent in Canada, 12 per cent in China, 15 per cent in Japan.
- Small Size of Holdings and Fragmentation of Fields:
Over 70 per cent of the holdings are either small or marginal, i.e. less than one hectare. The small size of holdings is mainly due to the law of inheritance and other socio-cultural and economic factors.
Labour policy in India has been evolving in response to the specific needs of the situation in relation to industry and the working class and has to suit the requirements of a planned economy. The legislation and other measures adopted by Government in this field represent the consensus of opinion of the parties vitally concerned and thus acquire the strength and character of a national policy, operating on a voluntary basis.
The first Agricultural Labour Enquiry Committee of 1950-51 regarded those workers as agricultural workers who normally worked for 50 per cent of more days on the payment of wages.
The second Agricultural Labour Enquiry Committee, 1956-57 accepted a broad view and included all those workers into agricultural labourers who were badly engaged in agriculture and allied activities like animal husbandry, dairy, piggery, poultry farming etc.
The first committee again classified the agricultural workers into two different categories such as:
- attached labourers are those workers who are attached to some other farmer households on the basis of a written or oral agreement.
- landless labourers who exclusively work for others.
- tenants who work on leased land but work most of the time on the land of others;
- sharecroppers who also work as agricultural labourers.
Condition of agricultural labours:
They remain largely unorganized, and as a result their economic exploitation continues. Their level of income, standard of living and the rate of wages have remained abnormally low.
Agricultural Wages and Income:
In India, the agricultural wages are very low. The First Agricultural Labour Enquiry Committee in its report mentioned that the per capita annual income of agricultural labour families was as poor as Rs 104 in 1950-51 and the annual average income of the household was Rs 447.
After the introduction of improved farming methods and mechanization of the level of income of middle and rich farmers increased but at the same time due to fall in the demand for labour real wages declined.
Employment and Other Working Conditions:
In India the agricultural labourers are facing severe unemployment and underemployment problem as there is no alternative sources of employment. Although the system of bonded labour is abolished but according to NSS (32 round) about 3.5 lakh bonded labourers still exist in India.
Factors Responsible for the Poor Conditions of Farm Workers:
Agricultural labourers in India are totally unorganised as they are ignorant, illiterate and widely scattered. Thus, the farm workers have no capacity to bargain for securing a fair wage level.
(ii) Low Social Status:
Farm workers mostly belong to depressed classes and thus they are lacking the courage to assert their basic rights.
(iii) Seasonal Unemployment:
As the agricultural operations are seasonal thus the farm workers are often facing the problem of seasonal unemployment and under-employment. Farm workers on an average get employment for about 200 days in a year.
(iv) Absence of Alternative Occupations:
In the absence of alternative occupation in the rural areas the farm workers are not getting alternative jobs when they suffer from seasonal unemployment.
(v) Growing Indebtedness:
Agricultural labourers in India are highly indebted. As the level of wages is very poor thus the farm workers have been borrowing from landlords and become bonded labourers ultimately.
Thus, considering these above factors it can be said that the agricultural labourers in India are living in inhuman conditions and in the absence of organized status they are deprived of all the basic amenities of life.
Measures Adopted by the Government to Improve the Conditions of Farm Workers:
In order to improve the conditions of agricultural labourers in India both the central as well as the state Governments have taken various steps since independence. These measures are as follows:
(i) Abolition of Bonded Labour:
In order to remove agrarian slavery after independence Indian constitution has undertaken legislative measures to abolish the practice of bonded labour. Accordingly, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 was passed and about 2.51 lakh bonded labourers were identified and freed in different parts of the country.
(ii) Minimum Wages Act:
In 1948, the Minimum Wages Act was passed and the state Governments was advised to fix the minimum wages accordingly. But due to some practical difficulties most of the states could not fix minimum wages till 1974.
(iii) Distribution of Landless Laborers:
After passing legislation for fixing ceiling on land holdings, state Government acquired surplus lands and distributed it among the landless labourers. About 74 lakh acres of land were acquired as surplus land and out of which 45 lakh acres were distributed among 41.5 lakh landless labourers. But most of these lands distributed are found unsuitable for cultivation.
(iv) Provision for Housing Sites:
Various states have passed necessary legislations for providing housing sites to agricultural labourers. The Second and Fourth Plans have undertaken various steps for this purpose. Again under Minimum Needs Programme and 20-Point Programme, high priority is being accorded to rural house site-cum-house construction scheme.
(v) Various Employment Schemes:
For providing alternative source of employment among the agricultural labourers various schemes have already been launched by both the central and the state Governments. These schemes include
- Rural Works Programme (RWP),
- Crash Scheme for Rural Employment (CSRE),
- Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) by the Government of Maharashtra,
- Food for Work Programme (FWP),
- National Rural Employment Programme (NREP),
- Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme (RLEGP),
- Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY) etc.
(vi) Special Agencies:
During the Fourth Plan two special agencies —
Small Farmers Development Agency (SFDA)
Marginal Farmers and Agricultural Labourers Development Agency (MFALA)
were developed for conducting Various works like irrigation, land leveling, soil conservation, dairy development, piggery development, poultry breeding etc. During the Fifth Plan both agencies were merged into a single programme.
(vii) 20-Point Programme:
The Government introduced the 20-point economic programme in July 1975 in which steps were taken to improve the economic condition of landless workers and other weaker sections of the society in the rural areas.
These steps include speedy implementation of ceiling laws and then distribute the surplus land among the landless, making provision for housing sites for landless labourers, abolition of bonded labour, liquidation of rural indebtedness.
Suggestions for Improving the Conditions of Agricultural Labourers:
- Implement the Minimum Wage Act seriously
- By improve their bargaining power
- Create alternative sources of employment by developing small scale and cottage industries in the rural areas.
- Improve- the conditions of agriculture by adopting improved intensive methods and multiple cropping.
- Improve the working conditions of agricultural labourers.
- Promote cooperative farming.
- To introduce social security measures for the agricultural workers.
- Introduce compulsory insurance on marginal contribution.
- Institute old age pension schemes for the agricultural workers by the government.