In this article we will discuss about agricultural labourers in India:- 1. Growth of Agricultural Labourers 2. Types of Agricultural Labourers 3. Economic Conditions.

Growth of Agricultural Labourers:

Before the advent of the British, an outstanding feature of the Indian economy was “the self-subsisting and self-perpetuating” character of its villages. The village itself consumed most of the food stuffs and raw-materials produced within itself while its need for handicrafts was met by the local artisans.

Each farmer carried on the cultivation of his farm with the help of his own family members. In such a society, there was little room for the existence of an independent and distinct class of landless labourers.

That is why landless elements were very insignificant in Indian villages till about the middle of the 19th century. Munro reported in 1842 that “there were no landless peasants in India” while a decade later, George Campbell found that “as a rule, farming was not carried on by hired labour.”


The establishment of British rule brought about certain fundamental changes in the self-sufficient village economy. The old production relations changed, separating the cultivators from the means of production. The peasants, dispos­sessed and pauperized, swelled the ranks of agricultural labourers.

The number of agricultural workers rapidly grew from 12.5 million in 1881 to 42.2 million in 1931 and 49 million in 1951. The increase was particularly marked between 1921—31 when their number jumped from 28 million to 42 million.

The census commission (1931), surprised at the increase, tried to explain it away by pointing to the differences in the census methods. The reality is that the world depression and the consequent fall in agricultural prices compelled the small farmer to sell his land which was thus concentrated in the hands of the non-cultivating owners.

Notwithstanding the differences in the census procedure, there is no doubt that over the last half century, the proportion of agricultural labourers was on the increase. Even as late as 1891, this class formed 13% of the agricultural population of the country.


In the fifty years that followed, the process of growth was so quickened that, by 1951, agricultural labourers formed 30.4% of the agricultural population and 22.7% of the total population of the country.

Showing the number of agricultural labourere

However, this large population of agricultural workers was not equally distributed all over the country. Their proportion was the highest in Madras, Bombay and Central Provinces and the lowest in the Northern Provinces of the Punjab, the N.W.F.P. and the United Provinces. The eastern region occupied the middle position.

The explanation for this does not lie, as the census commission (1901) holds, in the proportion of the depressed classes. Rather, the nature of the land tenure system, the period of association with the British administration and the availability of alternative sources of employment were the Chief deter­minants of the proportion of agricultural labourers to the total agricultural popula­tion in any part of the country.


The most important feature of the evolution of the class of landless labourers was the dispossession of the peasants of their lands. Therefore, their proportion was the highest in the ryotwari areas of Madras, Bombay and the central provinces where, in contrast to the Zamindari or Mahalwari areas, land could be easily transferred by sale or mortgage.

The disparity between the Mahalwari north and the Zamindari east can be explained by the fact that the British administration and its land settlements together with the disintegration of the traditional Indian village community started much earlier in the eastern Zone than in the North.

Causes of Growth:

Nanawati and Anjaria have advanced the view that it was brought about by the increase of population. Such a view, however, can not explain the regional differences in the proportion of agricultural workers. In reality, the growth of this class was primarily brought about by the decay of the village handicrafts, the increasing indebtedness of the peasantry, and land mortgages.

As Gadgil has explained, the import of manufactured goods led to the decline of Indian handicrafts and forced the cottage worker to turn to land…… the only available occupation. Most of the persons displaced from cottage industries had to work as agricultural labourers.

With the introduction of the new land settlements, the cultivator “who had never before handled a coin in his life, was required to pay to the govt. twice a year a fixed sum of money, crop or no crop.”

In the early days, when commer­cialisation of agriculture and circulation of money had just begun, the farmer, though not poor otherwise, was very poor in terms of money and had often to seek the help of the money-lender for paying his revenue instalment.

Besides the heavy and rigid revenue demands of the govt., uncertainty of crops caused by natural calamities added to the farmer’s needs for borrowing. It is well to remember in this connection that between 1860—1908, famine or scarcity prevailed in one or the other part of the country in twenty out of forty nine years.

Yet another factor added to the farmer’s troubles. With the commercialisation of agriculture and the development of grain markets in the country side, the Indian farmer “entered the orbit of world prices.” Thus, to the uncertainties of rainfall for which he could curse his past misdeeds and pray to God, were added the fluctuations of world agricultural prices which brought about wide changes in his income.

His needs alone, whatever their intensity or urgency, could not have landed the farmer in debt had the govt. not placed, in his hands, a valuable asset against which credit could be easily raised. The Royal Commission on agriculture points out that in the pre British days, “land had been practically unsalable……… it had no market price for no one would buy it or make advances upon it as security.”


The British made land transferable. This together with the establishment of law courts, which enforced such transfers, increased the value of land as security for monetary advances.

Helped by these four factors…….. heavy cash revenue demand, famines, world price fluctuations and the transferability of land….money lenders who were pre­viously “humble servants and accountants now turned into virtuosos in unscrupulous profiteering” and began to dominate the countryside.

As the Famine commission of 1901 puts it, “The rigidity of the revenue system forced them (farmers) into debt, while the valuable property which they held, made it easier to borrow.” The result was that the cultivators sank deeper and deeper into debt and their land passed out of their hands. It was through this process of the dispossession of the peasantry that the large and distinct class of landless labourers was born.

According to Dr. R.K. Mukerjee, another factor that contributed to the growth of landless labourers, was the economic transition through which some of the criminal tribes and castes of India passed. In most tribal areas, the original system was one of a village head-man and ryotwari tenure, the village lands being regarded as the property of the community rather than of individuals.


However, under the land revenue policy of the British Govt., only a limited number of persons were given proprietory rights which they gradually lost as traders and money-lenders exploited the ignorance and improvidence of these simple and primitive people.

Most of them were converted from tenants into landless labourers. This happened to the Gonds and Bhils of the Central provinces, the Karwas in U.P. and Mundas in Chhota Nagpur.

Of course, the dispossession of the peasantry and the growth of the agricultural proletariat did not proceed without a fight. The peasants waged many bitter and bloody struggles against the policies which uprooted them.

In this connection, mention may be made of the Santhal Rebellion (1854); the great support given by the U.P. Peasantry to the war of Independence in 1857; the Indigo Rebellion (1860); the Deccan Riots (1874); Rampa Rebellion on the Godavri Hills in 1835; Pabna and the Bogra outbreaks in Bengal in 1871.

Types of Agricultural Labourers:


Agricultural Labourers may be classified into the following four broad categories:

1. Bonded or Semi-Free Labourers:

This class, described by Wadia and Merchant as ‘Agrarian Serfs’ consisted of those who worked under-conditions of virtual slavery. According to the Royal Commission on Labour, the cause of their bondage was the need on their part to secure advances of money.

Being unable to offer any security, “he agrees to serve the man from whom he has borrowed.” The money is not repaid, nor is it intended to be repaid; but the borrower remains a life long bond slave of his creditor. For his work, he merely receives an inadequate dole of food and, to all intents and purposes, is in the position of a medieval serf. These bonded slaves could be purchased, sold or even mortgaged.

The worst feature of this bondage was that the debt was never repaid and sometimes even the next generation was also bonded. Besides, the labourer was not allowed to migrate a long distance from employment when the master himself could not provide him with work.

This kind of bonded labour could not have existed in an essentially non­monetary traditional economy of India. In the ancient economy, the village menials and domestic servants were guaranteed subsistence either by allotting them small piece of land or by giving them the claim to a certain portion of the produce of each cultivator.

However, the disintegration of the village community destroyed the traditional arrangements and forced the village menials to accept the worst conditions of work for securing a living. In the words of Dr. Patel, “it was this compulsion that forced the menials to accept bondage.” Thus, the traditional slaves were liberated only to be re-enslaved.


The bonded labourer was known by different names in different parts of the country. He was called Izhava in Kerala, Bhagela in Hydrabad, Kamiya and Janour in Bihar and Gobri in U.P. Region-wise, they were mostly to be found in Madras, Bombay, Madhya Pradesh, Chhota Nagpur and Bihar—precisely the areas where, due to a much larger proportion of landless labourers, opportunities of securing a livelihood were more scarce. According to Dr. Patel, in 1931, there were between 2—3 million bonded labourers in India.

2. Dwarf-Holding Labourers:

This class included small landowners, tenants, sharecroppers and part-time farmers. They differed from other agricultural workers in that they did ‘not depend upon farm work alone’. The small income from their main occupation compelled them to seek farm work.

Instances were there where the head of the family continued in the main family occupation while other members, including women, took to agricultural work. According to Dr. Patel, there were about 32 million dwarf-holding cultivators in India in 1931. They were mostly found in Bengal, Bihar, U.P. and the Punjab.

The characteristic feature of dwarf-holding labourers was that they mostly suffered from disguised unemployment. They kept themselves self-employed on their tiny holdings but without adequate earnings from cultivation.

On the other hand, they could not migrate to far off places for any long period as their personal holdings required timely operation. The women and children of such families sometimes got agricultural work in the neighbourhood during peak seasons but such employment was for short periods only.

3. Under-Employed Landless Labourers:

Bonded labourers were attached to landowners while the dwarf-holding labourers were tied to land. The most important cause in both cases was the lack of alternative means of employment.


However, when their ties with the landowners or land were broken, they were pushed into a type which may be called the under-employed landless labourers. These labourers were liberated but as Thomas and Ramakrishanan point out, their independence was of little value; it was insufficient compensation for the loss of a sheltered existence.

These labourers formed a large floating reserve of man power who migrated from place to place in search of some sort of work, industrial, agricultural or even unskilled casual work. Some workers followed one crop from one area to another over Ion distances for a comparatively lengthy period of employment; others followed any crop in the same area or different areas.

Generally, these labourers travelled in family groups or in gangs. It was found that the landless labourers of Bihar and U.P. migrated to different districts of Bengal during the jute harvesting season.

In Madras, landless labourers migrated for groundnut picking, or for harvesting paddy or for work on the plantations 40—80 miles away. Wages were paid in kind or cash though there was a definite tendency to replace grain wages by cash.

The cause of the under-employment of this kind of labour is not difficult to understand. As most of the cultivators in the country were small cultivators, they did not generally need hired-help except at the time of harvesting.

That is why most of such labourers were employed only during the harvesting season. For the rest of the year, they were under-employed or completely unemployed. The under-employed landless labourers predominated in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Central provinces.

4. Full Time Land-Less Labourers:


This class comprised Plantation labour and employees of capitalistic and well-to-do farmers. Since most of the plantations are situated in very thinly- populated areas, it was, at first, very difficult to attract sufficient labour. This led the planters to adopt a system of recruitment before which even the horrors of the slave-trade paled into insignificance.

The virtual absence of contact with the world outside, the lack of a strong labour union and the existence of complete unity and understanding among the Plantation owners combined to reduce the Plantation labour almost to the status of bonded or semi-free labourers. No wonder R.P. Dutt describes them as ‘Plantation-slaves.’

The second category included agricultural workers who were employed by well-to-do capitalist farmers whose aim was to secure profits rather than live on rents from land. They were employed on a more or less long term basis in those areas which supplied dairy products, fruits, vegetables and such other products to cities and big towns or where modern methods of irrigation had been developed.

According to the second Agricultural Labour Enquiry (1956—57) there were 16.2 million agricultural labour families of which 57% or 9.2 million families were landless.

Mention may also he made of ‘BEGAR’ or forced labour. Although the constitution of India guarantees protection against forced labour, The Agricultural labour Enquiry Committee found that forced labour in some form or other was being exacted in many parts of the country. This kind of labour generally prevailed among attached workers.

In order to retain them in service for a long time, the landholders usually advanced loans or allotted plots of land free of interest or rent. “The inability of the workers to repay the advances led to certain practices of exacting labour either at nominal wages or even without them.”

Economic Conditions of Agricultural Labourers:

Agricultural workers as a class were extremely poor, perhaps the poorest in the Indian society. Living on the margin of subsistence and with a low vitality, these long suffering serfs were the first victims of disease, pestilence and famine. The fact of their poverty is borne out by the extent of unemployment amongst them.


Although no reliable estimates are available of the regional and crop to crop unemployment in the country but there is no doubt that labourers remained un-employed for a substantial part of the year.

According to Dr. Lorenzo, the cultivator of the sub-montane districts of U.P. had 177 days full employment and 188 days complete leisure. For the eastern Deccan, Keatinge ascertained that a family with four hands to work on its 30—40 acres of dry crop land was occupied for only half the year.

In Madras, the number of days when the agricultural labourer was not able to find work was between 120—200 days, while in the Punjab, an ordinary peasant with 3—4 acres of land found work for 157 days in the year.

What was true of the regions was true of the country as a whole. The survey conducted in 1956—57 found that all agricultural workers, on an average, found wage-paid employment for about 7 months in a year, some kind of self-employment for less than two months and total un-employment for more than three months.

It should not, however, be thought that all the workers were employed for all the days during which employment was available on land. Rather, it was found that, on an average, 16% of the farm workers were employed in a month and every worker was un-employed for seven days per month.

The fact of the extreme poverty of agricultural labourers is further brought out by their extremely low wages. Though small variations were to be found from district to district, the most common rate of wages, as furnished to the Famine commission of 1880, were 12—18 paise for men, 9—12 paise for women and 6 paise for children between 12—15 years of age.

So long as food-grains were cheap, this pitifully small wage was sufficient to meet the requirements of bare subsistence for the labourer and his family. But when prices rose, this wage was hardly sufficient to buy food for two persons in a family of four or five.

In the circumstances, the wage earner was placed in a desperate situation, the only escape from which was for other members of the family to work with him and supplement the family income. But this meant an increase in the labour force and forcing down the rate of wages of male workers.

This, together with the seasonal nature of agricultural, employment, led the agricultural workers to engage themselves in such occupations as cutting, transport and sale of grass and firewood, and repairs of huts and houses.

The next three decades saw a rise in both nominal and real wages; nominal wages almost doubled between 1891—1911 while real wages rose by 1½ times during the same period. This led B.M. Bhatia” to conclude that the economic condition of the rural labourer had greatly improved.

Such an optimistic con­clusion, however, is unwarranted because these wages relate only to the well organised sector of economy where payment was made in cash and not to the vast majority who received wages in kind.

Besides, these wage-rates were paid to ‘free labourers’ excluding bonded labourers and other socially depressed classes. Above all, these wages make no allowance for the fact that agricultural labourer was not employed continuously throughout the year. Therefore, there is no basis for the conclusion that agricultural labourers, as a class, gained during this period.

Conditions were no better in the inter-war period. Prof. N.G. Ranga’s investigations in south Indian villages, undertaken in 1926, indicated that 5 out of nine families among Panchamas suffered from under-consumption of cereals. Thomas and Krishanan’s Resurvey of South Indian villages suggested that only 2/3 of the income necessary for subsistence was earned by the landless labourer.

Worst, however, was the condition of bonded labour. The ‘Gobri’ of Gorakhpur and Deoria districts of U.P. was allowed, as part of his wages, to collect the undigested grains contained in the cow-dung. He thus got 20 seers or at the most a maund of grain from 5—6 heads of cattle during the season.

The second world war substantially increased the wages of agricultural labourers but the in­crease in the cost of living was still greater.

According to the congress Agrarian Reforms Committee, during 1939—47, the rise in agricultural wages varied be­tween 260—360% but it was more than offest by the greater increase in the cost of living ranging from 356—764% in different parts of the country, leading to a further deterioration in the condition of agricultural workers.

The lot of this long-suffering class saw no improvement even in the post-In­dependence period. If any thing, the position further worsened. This can be seen from the fact that in 1950-51, 45% of the families of agricultural workers were in debt; in 1956—57, the proportion had risen to 64%. While the average debt per family per annum was only Rs. 47/- in 1950—51, it had increased to Rs. 88/- in 1956—57.

The standard of living of agricultural workers compared most unfavourably with that of other rural families as well as industrial workers. The per capita annual expenditure of the rural families in general was Rs. 204/-while that of the families of agricultural workers was only Rs. 107/-.

In the case of rural families, 74% of their total expenditure went to food and 26% for other requirements but 85% of the expenditure of agricultural worker’s families went to food and only 15% for other amenities.

That the industrial worker is exploited is universally recognised, but the income of the agricultural workers was much less than even the wages of the industrial workers. It varied between 24% in Bombay to 59% in Bengal of the industrial wages.

It is clear that the agricultural worker was worse off not only than the industrial worker but also than other sections of the rural population.

Dr. Sitaramyya aptly sums up the position of the agricultural worker when he observes:

“A series of intermediaries has come into being between the govt. and the ultimate cultivator who spends the day between slush and mud, who works now with a starving stomach and now with half appeased appetite, who knows no rest in storm or sunshine, who often has no dwelling site which he can call his own.He grows our paddy but starves. He feeds our milch cows but never knows anything beyond Canjee and water; he fills our granaries but has to beg each day’s ration for the rest of the year. He digs our wells but can’t touch them for his use. He clears our tanks but must keep off them when they are full. He is a perpetual hewer of wood and drawer of water for those who fatten on his labour and rise to wealth and plenty on his skeleton.”

Against this gloomy background, the only ameliorative measure that the govt. could think of was that “at the centre, as well as in the states, there should be special cells for watching closely the progress of development programmes which have particular bearing on the welfare and development of agricultural workers and studying the special problems which confront them-in different parts of the country.”

Thus, a ‘weeping wound’ in the agrarian system of India was left unattended.