Last week, the government released the results of the Socio Economic and Caste Census for 2011 (SECC). This exercise, based on a comprehensive door-to-door enumeration across the country, throws up valuable insights into the socio-economic status and living conditions of rural households. We identify five major ones.
While india is overwhelmingly rural, rural isn’t as much agricultural. Out of the country’s total 243.95 million households, 179.16 million or nearly three-fourths are in rural areas. However, only 30.1 per cent of rural households depend on cultivation as their ‘main’ source of income. A majority — 51.14 per cent — derive sustenance from manual casual labour (MCL). While that may also include working in farms, it helps dispel a common perception that agriculture ‘supports’ around two-thirds of India’s population and contributes barely 15 per cent to its GDP. Not only is this assumption of Bharat being synonymous with Krishi misplaced, one would, in fact, argue in favour of rural becoming even less agricultural. The rising fragmentation of holdings makes it difficult for farmers to support themselves, leave alone those reliant on MCL. The latter, in particular, need alternatives to transplanting paddy or picking cotton that can provide seasonal employment at best. Getting people out of farms will, moreover, spur mechanisation and consolidation of holdings, leading to increased agricultural productivity in the long run.
56.25% of rural households own no agricultural land, which is consistent with the earlier 51.14 per cent figure relating to MCL-dependency. The two, indeed, virtually go together. Bihar, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have landlessness ratios between 65 and 73 per cent. The proportion of households in these states for whom MCL constitutes the main source of income also ranges from 58 to 71 per cent. This close association holds true for communities as well. The incidence of landlessness is the highest among the Dalits or scheduled castes. 67.27 per cent of rural Dalit families also report MCL as their primary income source, as against 51.14 per cent for all households. When landlessness and MCL-dependency extends to well over half the country’s rural population — and even more to less privileged social group — it is obvious that creation of gainful non-farm employment should receive top priority in public policymaking.
There is evidence that such non-farm job generation did happen over the past decade. National Sample Survey reports show India’s total agricultural workforce to have registered a decline from 259 to 228 million between 2004-05 and 2011-12 — the first time in history — even as the size of those engaged in non-farming sectors rose from 198 to 239 million. Among other things, it helped raise rural wages and living standards, which is captured in the SECC data. 17.43 per cent of all rural households have two-wheelers, 11.04 per cent own refrigerators and 68.35 per cent mobile phones. The corresponding penetration levels are even higher in states like Punjab: 40.95, 66.43 and 79.51 per cent. Among Dalits, too, the ownership of two-wheelers and mobiles is 11.27 per cent and 66.64 per cent, respectively. Dalits in Punjab hardly own any land, yet 27.78 per cent families there have two-wheelers, 45.70 per cent refrigerators and 75.26 per cent mobiles.
Consumer durable ownership, while symbolising rising aspirations, may represent only superficial progress. According to the SECC data, only 17.34 million or 9.68 per cent of rural households have members with salaried jobs — and mostly in the government and public sector undertakings (10.95 million). Another 2.89 million (1.61 per cent) households operate non-agricultural own account enterprises. The bulk of rural households have no regular income source, being engaged in cultivation or MCL-dependent. The increase in rural incomes and purchasing power witnessed during 2004-2013 was basically the result of high crop prices and rising real wages. Both these positive factors have shown reversal in the last one year or more. The contraction in rural incomes is also reflected in declining sales of tractors, agri-inputs, two-wheelers and a host of FMCG/consumer durable products, following a decade-long period of impressive growth.
Last but not the least is the fact that deprivation levels in rural India are still far too high. The SECC data points to the main earner in 74.49 per cent of all rural households drawing a monthly income below Rs 5,000. This ratio is even more for the likes of West Bengal (82.47 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (83.52 per cent), Odisha (87.88 per cent) and Chhattisgarh (90.79 per cent), not to speak of Dalits (83.56 per cent) and Adivasis (86.57 per cent). True, the numbers are for 2011. Besides, there may be a tendency for survey respondents to under-report incomes for fear of losing entitlement benefits. But even after adjusting for these, one can safely assume that the earnings of three-fourths of rural India are nowhere close to what can guarantee existence beyond basic survival.