Workers on a construction site at Bhendi Bazar, in Mumbai.(HT File Photo)
Workers on a construction site at Bhendi Bazar, in Mumbai.(HT File Photo)

Breaking down India’s non-agricultural workforce

According to the 2011 census, 45% of India’s total workers are employed in the non-agricultural sector. This number excludes those who work as either cultivators or agricultural labourers
By Roshan Kishore | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUN 18, 2018 10:46 AM IST

Employment generation (or the lack of it) will probably be the biggest issue in next year’s general elections. India’s employment challenge is broadly perceived as one of moving agricultural workers to remunerative jobs in the non-farm sector, and rightly so. With a declining share in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and a relatively stagnant share in employment, farming incomes have been under squeeze. Unlike farming, the non-agricultural sector is much more heterogeneous. It comprises the extremely skilled computer programmer as well as the construction labourer who has migrated to escape absolute penury in farming. Who are India’s non-agricultural workers? Recently released statistics from the 2011 census allow us to answer this question in a lot of detail.

This two-part data series will use these statistics to provide a snapshot of India’s non-agricultural workforce.

According to the 2011 census, 45% of India’s total workers are employed in the non-agricultural sector. This number excludes those who work as either cultivators or agricultural labourers. The share of non-agricultural workers among men is 50%, which is 15 percentage points more than that among women.

Unless otherwise stated, all calculations used in this series will be based on the number of both main and marginal workers. Census of India defines a main worker as one who is employed for a majority (six months or more) of the preceding year. A marginal worker is one who has been employed for less than six months either out of choice, or paucity of work. The share of non-agricultural workers is 50% among main workers, which is 18 percentage points higher than the figure among marginal workers.

This is to be expected, as many workers who do not have regular employment might find some work during the peak agricultural season.

To be sure, there is an element of ambiguity about the 2011 census statistics on India’s non-agricultural workers. This is because of a divergence in the basic trend in growth of the non-agricultural workforce between the 2001 and 2011 Census and 1999-00 to 2011-12 National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey on employment and unemployment.

This was first pointed out in a 2016 paper published in the Review of Agrarian Studies by Jayan Jose Thomas and MP Jayesh of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Their basic findings were summarised in a 2016 Mint piece by Pramit Bhattacharya. While the total number of people employed in agriculture decreased by 15.5 million between 1999-00 and 2011-12 according to NSSO data, it actually went up by 28.9 million between 2001 and 2011 according to Census data.

While we will come back to this issue in the second part of this series, our analysis will focus exclusively on Census statistics.

There are significant state-wise variations in the share of non-agricultural workers in India. The share of non-agricultural workers is around one-fourth in states such as Bihar and Chhattisgarh, while it is almost two-third in a state such as Punjab. The divergence in share of non-agricultural workers seems to have a strong relation with the well-being levels across states.

This can be seen from Chart 1, which shows that states with a higher share of non-agricultural workers also have a higher per capita Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP).

Living in a particular state is not the only factor that influences one’s chances of being a part of India’s non-agricultural workforce. As has been discussed above, men have a greater likelihood of ending up as non-agricultural workers. Age seems to play a role as well.

Census data shows that the share of non-agricultural workers is the highest among workers aged between 20 and 59 years, and lower among younger and older workers. This pattern holds across the gender-divide. The gender gap in the non-agricultural workforce is the highest in the 20-59 year age group (Chart 2).

As is to be expected, the share of non-agricultural workers increases with an improvement in the educational status of workers. What is interesting, however, is that the share of non-agricultural women workers surges ahead of that of men with an improvement in the educational status (Chart 3).

What is also surprising is the fact that religion too seems to be playing a role in determining one’s share in the non-agricultural workforce . According to Census statistics, the share of non-agricultural workers in the total workforce is the lowest among Hindus and the highest among Jains.

The share of non-agricultural workers among Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, too, is higher than the national average. These comparisons are based on statistics for main workers as religion-wise figures on marginal workers are not available. There also seems to be a variation in the gender gap across religions when it comes to participation in the non-agricultural workforce.

Sikhs are the only religious group among whom the share of women is higher than men among non-agricultural workers. Muslims have the second lowest gender gap in non-agricultural employment among all religions (Chart 4).

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