Rural unemployment in central India: Why Adivasi communities are worst-hit

The focus of MGNREGA has to be re-shifted to employment generation from asset building

By Dibyendu Chaudhuri , Parijat Ghosh
Published: Tuesday 03 January 2023
Photo: iStock

The year 2022 ended with 8.3 per cent of the job seekers in India being unemployed. The rate of unemployment in the urban area was 10 per cent and the rural unemployment rate was 7.7 per cent on December 31, 2022.

The data was released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) that calculates and publishes the country’s unemployment rate on a daily basis. The unemployment rate is a ratio of the total estimated unemployed persons to the total estimated labour force for a month. 

The rate of urban unemployment generally remains higher than rural. But the latter is considered more severe mainly because the causes of rural unemployment are more deep-rooted and hence, are more difficult to address, compared to urban unemployment. 

Factors such as decreasing land holding size, lack of infrastructure — especially irrigation infrastructure, lack of other job opportunities and continuous depletion of forest resources are considered the main reasons for rural unemployment. These are either irreversible or difficult to change overnight.

The central Indian belt is characterised by undulating terrain, absence of perennial streams, people’s dependency on the forest for daily life and lack of irrigation infrastructure, which make it the worst-affected region in terms of rural employment generation. This area is also the heartland of the Adivasi people.

Low holding size

Agriculture Census 2015-16 by the department of agriculture & farmers welfare, Government of India showed that the average size of operational holdings decreased to 1.08 hectares in 2015-16 from 2.28 hectares in 1970-71. The marginal (less than 1 hectare land) farmers constitute more than 68.5 per cent of the total cultivators and their average holding size is 0.38 ha.

This situation is even worse in the central plateau area. The percentage of marginal farmers is more within Adivasi communities — around 77 per cent in Jharkhand and 76 per cent in Odisha are marginal farmers, a recent report on the Status of Adivasi Livelihoods (SAL 2021) in the two states by PRADAN, a national-level non-profit, showed.

This minuscule amount of land can’t employ all the labour forces in the households beyond the Kharif (monsoon) season unless there are irrigation facilities for a second crop. Even in the Kharif season, the entire labour force of the household is not fully deployed. As a result, most marginal farmers look for wage employment as agricultural labour during the Kharif season as well.

Lack of irrigation facilities

Around 49 per cent of the net sown area in India is irrigated, the agriculture census report showed. For marginal farmers’ land, it is around 54 per cent. 

In the central plateau, however, the situation looks critical. Around 19 per cent of Adivasi lands in Jharkhand and only 7 per cent of Adivasi lands in Odisha have all-season irrigation facilities, SAL 21 showed. 

The usual irrigation models such as large dam or river lift irrigation schemes are either not feasible or not beneficial to marginal farmers. In-situ water harvesting, soil moisture conservation, small diversion structures, among others are some of the alternative solutions. 

There is, however, a need for developing context-specific irrigation prototypes for different areas within the central plateau.

Lack of other work opportunities

There has been a 48 per cent increase in the total production of food grains in the last 20 years, according to data shared by the Press Information Bureau, Union Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare March 3, 2020. Increased food production, no doubt, has created jobs in the agriculture sector in rural areas.

However, that increase in production has not at all been sufficient to absorb the entire rural workforce. Mechanisation and increase of rural population by 17 per cent during the same period have created more unemployment in the rural areas.

The lack of employment opportunities forces villagers to migrate to cities in search of menial jobs. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was enacted to give employment opportunities to rural employment seekers. But gradually, the focus of MGNREGA shifted to asset creation and as a result, it became more supply-driven rather than catering to the employment demand of job seekers in the rural area. 

The low wage rate of MGNREGA was another issue. In many states, the MGNREGA wage rate was lower than the state’s minimum wage rate.

Depleting forest resource

Forests have been a major source of employment for villages in central India. Apart from working for the forest department as labourers, villagers collect and sell various non-timber forest products from the forest. 

Since the colonial era, the forest department’s exclusive focus on timber species has negatively affected the non-timber tree species in the forests. The availability of non-timber forest products is declining, the SAL 21 report showed.

Need for long-term planning, sustained action 

Because of the above factors, rural unemployment in India is chronic, especially in central India. Changing this situation, therefore, needs careful planning and sustained action on a long-term basis.

A key strategy may be to create irrigation infrastructure and bring more areas of small and marginal farmers under a second crop. However, this needs long and intensive engagement to develop context-specific prototypes for water harvesting and irrigation in the central plateau region. 

Many civil society organisations such as PRADAN, SPS, FES and WOTR have been working on this for many years and have developed prototypes and models that can be replicated widely. 

Nevertheless, more work is needed on this front.

The focus of MGNREGA has to be re-shifted to employment generation. Asset creation can be a by-product and not the main aim. There have been demands from many corners to increase the days of work to 200 days from the current 100 days and increase the wage rate.

At the same time, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 has to be implemented in its right spirit. The Adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities should get the right to protect, regenerate, conserve or manage any community forest resource for sustainable use.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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