The young in our villages are fleeing to the cities in droves. The question is why.

Scholarly papers talk about agricultural labour being under-employed. But it is under-pay which is the real issue, rather than under-employment. MGNREGA has raised real wages for agricultural and manual workers, but it has not stopped migration to cities. This is not because there is not enough work, but because the wages and incomes are low compared to the city.

A recent study in The Journal of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies ( on the features of rural unemployment in India calculated the additional days required to attain an annual wage that equalled the official poverty line of the respective area.

For example, after getting 309 days of employment in a year in a village in UP, the people needed another 290 days to reach the level of the official poverty line!

A Central government employee works for 205-210 days a year — for which he gets well paid. The manual worker works more days than the Central government employee. So, is it an issue of less work or less income?

Leaving agriculture

Young people are leaving agriculture and villages for jobs in cities.

Policymakers see this as a positive development. They have been telling us that there are too many people in agriculture, and they need to be shifted out to cities and non-agricultural occupations.

In India, too, due to continued losses in agriculture and much higher wages and salaries in cities, young people are deserting villages, often leaving old people to manage on their own.

And this is a vicious cycle. As more people leave the village, there are less hands to work in the fields, machines take the place of men, and lands are given in lease or left fallow. As there is no work for those remaining in the village, more workers migrate and villages get depopulated faster.

Although this is not showing up in statistics on migration as yet, it is already happening in regions with low population densities such as Uttarakhand, and Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh. In my hamlet, for instance, there is no one below 40 years of age!

Timely intervention

How do these trends affect agriculture? Agricultural work is group work and is seasonal. It cannot be done by an individual as and when he decides, at whatever time he or she chooses. During critical operations more hands are needed and at other times they may not have much work.

Often the farmer needs to employ both family labour and hired workers. But if workers are not available at such critical times, the work simply cannot be done.

For example, I harvested groundnut a few days ago. It has to be harvested at one go and brought home. You can’t harvest it little by little and leave the plants in the fields; you will lose them to pigs, dogs, cattle, birds and thieves. So you have to employ hired workers.

The groundnuts have to be dried immediately at the homestead or in the common drying ground for about three days to one week, till completely dry. Otherwise they will spoil.

When it is raining someone has to keep watch. During the same period the plants that have been plucked have to be bundled and stacked for fodder for the summer. They make good fodder for cattle. If we delay this by even a few days the leaves will fall off and only rotten stems and stalks will remain.

This is also the season when gardens and fields are ploughed, in the interval between rainy days; you have to wait and watch for the soil to be right for ploughing. Miss this by even a few days and you will have to wait till the next rains. Due to the paucity of workers I had to forgo ploughing my gardens in time.

Invisible work

On a rainy day, there is no work in the fields; on those days you do something else: make ropes or pickles or shell groundnuts for future use. Then there are always the cattle to be attended to; on rainy days they need to be stall-fed.

Just like us, cattle eat three times a day and a lot more than us. And there are children and old people; they too have to be fed three times a day. The problem is that all this “own work” as against “hired work”, whether it is done by men or women, is not considered work at all and is not factored into the wages. Women’s work is especially taken for granted. All the food processing and value addition at the homestead (the drying, threshing, sieving, de-husking, grinding, storing) and all the cooking (can anyone eat uncooked rice and uncooked brinjal?) she does for the household remains invisible.

This is because agricultural work is seen by educated people and the policymakers as unskilled work. This is a combination of colonial and brahmanical legacies that look down on manual work and skills as less valuable than theoretical knowledge.

Vicious cycle

There is a lot of talk about non-agricultural employment opportunities lacking in villages. This is another vicious cycle. Less people will also mean less non-agricultural work opportunities. In vibrant and functional village communities there will always be marriages, funerals, festivals, meetings, construction, repairs and maintenance activities; there will be public utilities like schools, hospitals, veterinary services, transport services, repair shops, flour mills, artisanal workshops, hotels, tea shops and so on.

But if the villages get depopulated, these services also disappear for lack of demand. For instance, in my village the public transport bus service used to make six trips a day; today it makes not even one! Two primary schools have been closed. The veterinary service has been discontinued. There used to be four petty shops, now there are only two. Potters, washermen, bamboo workers have all disappeared. Agricultural workers go in batches, often for several days, to whichever village there is work on contract basis. The women cannot go because of the children, old people and livestock at home.

Less workers and high labour costs in agriculture have led to mechanisation. But the days of cheap oil are over. Fortunately we have a large labour force which can work as well as the machines, or better. But not when they are crushed to work for 600 days a year just to earn poverty line wages!

No amount of half-hearted employment schemes will stop people from crowding the cities unless incomes in agriculture and in rural areas rise on par with other sectors.

Farmers and agricultural workers are demanding a farmers’ income commission, similar to the Pay Commission for government employees. Political parties may jump at this demand and announce a cash transfer to farm families. But farmers and farm workers do not need doles. They need recognition as a core sector, and they need to be treated with dignity, and given parity in income with other sectors.

(The author is a farmer in Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh.)