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Agricultural Revival and Reaping the Youth Dividend

M Vijayabaskar ( is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies. Sudha Narayanan ( teaches at the Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research. Sharada Srinivasan ( is with the University of Guelph.

In recent years, “youth” has emerged as a distinct category of population to be governed in India. Policy efforts to realise the “demographic dividend” amidst an agrarian crisis have however not met with success as suggested by reports of jobless growth on the one hand and poor quality of employment generated outside agriculture on the other. What are the prospects of improving youth livelihoods within agriculture? Can the youth revive the prospects of agriculture? Improving incomes within agriculture while also paying sufficient attention to caste and gender relations that shape labour hierarchies, access to land, youth preferences and mobility aspirations is critical to imagining a future that sustains agriculture and youth livelihoods.

This paper is part of the research “Becoming a Young Farmer: Young People’s Pathways into Farming” funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canada.

Globally, there is a growing concern about a generational crisis in farming: the average age of a farmer is rising, and young people are apparently disinterested in farming and are leaving the countryside. Questions about the future of farming, and whether there will be future generations of farmers, have emerged as key policy issues in several countries (IFAD 2010; Jöhr 2012; Qualman et al forthcoming; White 2012). This paper argues that these are timely questions in the Indian context as well, for a number of reasons. About 54% of India’s population is under 25 years of age and by 2019, the median age of Indians will be 29 years. As per Census 2011, close to 34% of India’s rural population belongs to the age group 15–34 years. In 2012, an estimated 56.6% of rural youth in the age group 15–29 years continued to rely on agriculture, forestry, or fishing as a source of livelihood (GoI 2013a). While the presence of a sizeable young population is believed to offer a demographic dividend (GoI 2013b), policy efforts to realise the dividend have not met with success. This is evident from reports of jobless growth and poor quality of employment generated outside agriculture. Poor prospects for livelihoods within agriculture, its declining importance as a sector in the national income, and aspirations of rural youth and their parents to find avenues in non-farm sectors suggest that, like elsewhere, agriculture today is an unlikely option for the young in India.

While youth as a distinct social and demographic category has come to occupy a significant place in the recent policy imagination in India,1 and the problem of low productivity in agriculture continues to occupy policymakers, the two are rarely brought together in research and policy.2 We argue that these issues need to be addressed together to render visible to policymakers, the dilemmas of youth who are dependent on low-return agriculture, their aspirations for social and economic mobility, the prospects for agriculture, and the means to tackle rural poverty.

While a lot has been written on agriculture in India, the purpose of this article is to revisit the relevant ones to bring the question of youth in agriculture into focus. We ask: what do we know about young people in farming in India? In spite of a large share of rural youth involved in farming, there is limited research or policy attention on the issues and challenges they face around farming, non-farm opportunities, succession, and intergenerational transfer of resources and knowledge. One problem is that data are not always available by age, making it challenging to draw inferences specific to young farmers, and this is even more so with respect to young women farmers.3 We draw upon statistical data and scholarly material to examine the situation of young farmers in India. Although the paper implicitly understands a farmer as someone with access (ownership, shared, renting, etc) to land (or a productive resource), who invests a large part of her time and labour in farming, actual definitions vary.

We adopt a youth studies perspective to understand the generational dimensions of social reproduction of rural communities, the lives of young people within the agrarian economy, and their paradoxical (apparent) turn away from farming in this era of mass rural un(der)employment (Cuervo and Wyn 2012), and youth subjectivities. A youth studies perspective also provides an important reminder of the need and the right of young people to be properly researched, not as objects, but as subjects (Beazley et al 2009; Srinivasan 2014). In doing so, the paper also engages with developmentalist and policy discourses that view movement of people out of agriculture as a transitional imperative (Chenery 1979; Lewis 1954), even as global sustainability discourses place the family farm as a bulwark against incursions of industrialised and corporatised agriculture (McMichael 2008; FAO no date). Despite the realisation that conventional routes of labour transition out of agriculture are not available to many, policy initiatives to make agriculture attractive for youth livelihoods have been few and far between. To be clear, the purpose of the paper is not to argue that all (rural) youth undertake or remain in farming, but it is to make a case for improving the livelihood prospects within agriculture, in a context of changing youth aspirations. We argue that a clearer understanding of issues is essential to frame a nuanced approach to support the role of youth in agriculture and the role of agriculture in youth livelihood strategies.

Profile of Farmers in India

Agriculture and allied sectors on which 54.6% of India’s workforce relies, have registered a rapid decline as a share of national income, accounting for only around 16.1% of the gross
domestic product (GDP) in 2014–15.4 Evidence from two National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) rounds suggests that over the decade spanning 2002–03 and 2013,5 the median as well as mean age of the head of an agricultural household has increased by around two years, indicating a decline in younger household heads. However, the change does not seem rapid (Table 1).

Heads of agricultural households need not be full-time farmers; other members of the household could be participating in farming, even if they are not identified as farmers themselves or as being engaged in full-time farm work. Data at the individual level may therefore be more relevant to gauge the extent of youth participation in farming (Figure 1a, p 10). In 2002–03, an overwhelming proportion of those below 25 years of age in farm households did not participate in farming. It is only among the age group 25–60 years that the proportion of household members engaged in farming exceeds those not farming. Unfortunately, the 2013 survey does not explicitly capture similar information to enable comparison. There are clear differences across social groups (Figure 1c, p 10). A greater proportion of youth among the Scheduled Tribes is likely to farm than those from the Scheduled Castes/Other Backward Classes; young people from other general castes are, comparatively, much less likely to be farmers. These differences seem to disappear among the older cohorts, but only beyond 65 years. Gender gaps exist, and the proportion of women who participated in farming is consistently less than those of men in farming (Figure 1b, p 10). It seems that while the generational crisis in farming is not yet evident in terms of the average age of a farmer, there is a distinct pattern of rural youth, even in farm households, being disproportionately disengaged from farming.

In terms of education, in 2012–13, it was less likely that someone who is illiterate or completed primary school or less, would be a farmer and it was more likely that someone whose educational attainment was high school or beyond is a farmer, relative to 2002–03 (Table 2). This might reflect a general trend that more people are now studying more, so that farmers in 2012–13 are on average more educated than they were in 2002–03. This trend seems to undermine conventional understandings about Indian agriculture that attributed its relatively lower productivity to lower literacy levels of farmers.

There is also an indication that there is a lower preference for formal training in agriculture among youth (Census of India 2011; Figure 2 (a, b, c)). Among the younger cohorts, technical training in agriculture accounts for the lowest share of all those with technical degrees, while those with engineering degrees is much larger among the younger cohorts relative to older cohorts. The preference for training in engineering over training in agriculture is likely a reflection of the declining importance of agriculture. While this pattern is the same for men and women, the difference between cohorts in the proportion trained in agriculture relative to engineering is larger for men. The gender gap appears larger for agriculture than for other disciplines, including engineering.

Staying In, Exiting and Entering Agriculture

An oft-cited statistic from the NSSO 59th round survey of farm households (2002–03) is that as much as 40% of respondents said they would quit farming if they had a choice.7 Although the survey did not focus on youth, it suggested that in general, low profitability and risk associated with incomes were the main reasons cited for preferring to exit from farming. Researchers have noted that this preference is higher among resource-constrained farmers (Agarwal and Agrawal 2017; Birthal et al 2015). Exit preference was also correlated negatively with the age of the farmer-respondent (Agarwal and Agrawal 2017). But who leaves, who stays behind, and who enters is, however, quite complex and not always captured in macro-level data (Sharma and Bhaduri 2009). Micro-level studies suggest that there are significant differences in patterns of youth engagement with farming across space, caste, and class.

Sharma (2007) and Sharma and Bhaduri (2009) offer some insights based on what is perhaps the only survey on the youth question in Indian agriculture. Sharma’s (2007) study based on a sample of 1,609 youth in the age group 18–30 years from across 13 states found that part-time farming is a rising trend, especially among small- and medium-scale farmers who tend to combine farming with non-farm activities, including urban activities based on seasonal migration. Youth from large landholding families tend to be full-time farmers given the economies of scale that large landholdings afford. While youth from small and marginal farm families are mobile, given the limited prospects in farming, such families are also able to lease in more land.

Sharma (2007) also points out that those who report to be full-time farmers were older than part-time farmers and youth showing no involvement in farming were younger then: both with a mean age of 24.4 years. This could imply that perhaps as one grows older and has one’s own family, many return to full-time farming. The other possibility is that youth return to take up farming when non-farm options are unattractive. Djurfeldt et al (2008) argue based on evidence from Tamil Nadu that with education and industrial employment opportunities, landless and large landowning families exit farming at a faster rate, which results in less skewed distribution of land and rural incomes. Leasing in or buying of land then becomes possible for small and marginal landowning families, thus consolidating family farming. Sharma (2007) and Sharma and Bhaduri (2009) suggest that part-time farmers and youth not involved in farming are generally from the higher castes, have a higher number of years of schooling, and are more skilled. These youth are also generally from villages close to urban areas, indicating the impact of urbanisation on de-agrarianisation (see also Djurfeldt et al 2008). These patterns seem to be stronger in regions with a low value of agricultural production per capita and in villages close to towns. While proximity to markets is a key factor affecting returns to farming and in turn in retaining youth in rural areas, it also has the effect of enabling youth to take up more non-farm activities. As Krishna (2017) poignantly demonstrates, villages that are at a distance of more than 5 km from a town or a city tend to be much poorer than those that are located closer to urban settlements.

At the individual or household level, the pattern is stronger among castes higher in social hierarchy, better educated and youth with non-farm skills. Interestingly, both small and marginal landholders and the large landholders show an inclination to withdraw. While small and marginal farmers are perhaps, at least in part, being pushed out of farming, big farmers appear to take advantage of non-farm opportunities, being better off in terms of education and access to capital.

In Bundelkhand, Narain et al (2016) found that the marginal farmers were more likely to want to exit farming than the medium landholding size class. Somewhat differently, in Gujarat, Patel (1985) studied the aspirations of youth to emigrate and found that neither the rich nor the dismally poor showed a propensity to emigrate, albeit for different reasons; it was people in the “middle” who were mobile. She attributed this to pressure on land. Given the difficulties of land reform, the pressure on land made the surplus population restive (Patel 1985). Given that the study is somewhat dated, it is possible that the profiles of who wanted to leave and who stayed are today different from that in the 1980s.

Jeffrey (2010) in his ethnographic work in Uttar Pradesh describes the emergence and experiences of the “educated unemployed,” a generation of youth from rural landowning families. Better-off landowning families increasingly send their children away for urban education and jobs, a phenomenon noted by Balagopal (2011) in the context of coastal Andhra Pradesh in the 1980s. Many of these youth, however, cannot find jobs in the current context and given their newfound (educational) status are reluctant to engage in farming. At the same time, in relatively developed states, such as Tamil Nadu and Punjab, where youth withdrawal from agriculture may be occurring at a faster pace than in other states due to urbanisation and other related processes, we are beginning to witness a small stream of well-educated, urban middle-class youth turning to farming as a lifestyle choice or as an enterprise (Shandal 2016).8 Within agriculture, field research shows that youth tend to find certain activities more attractive than others (such as dairy, poultry, orchards and horticulture); these are areas where returns are relatively higher. However, youth in rural areas believe that cultivation of field crops is the least difficult to enter, given that one does not require costly investments upfront, if land is available (Umunnakwe et al 2014). Studies on contract farming and contemporary supply chains suggest that on average younger farmers are more likely to participate in new marketing forms (Singh 2012). Overall, it appears that certain subsectors within agriculture appeal more to youth than others, but access to such avenues may be limited.

Village studies provide evidence for entry of segments of lower castes into farming. For example, Rao and Nair (2003) conclude that in Andhra Pradesh, the landownership pattern among caste groups has undergone a significant change—while the dominant castes have lost land, the backward castes and Scheduled Castes are reported to have gained land. Sharma (2007) notes that in Bihar, the traditional farming castes like Bhumihars were selling land, which was increasingly being acquired by backward caste groups such as Yadavs. While such land transfers can be seen to be socially progressive, the low returns to agriculture particularly in relative terms and the growing crisis in the sector (Vasavi 2012; Deshpande and Arora 2010) may warrant a different reading of this phenomenon, wherein the lower castes are trapped in low-return occupations. Movement out of agriculture is also tied to non-economic aspirations. Agricultural labour is ascribed low status in the caste-based division of labour, historically associated with Scheduled Castes and other castes lower in caste hierarchy. Upward mobility, as Tilche (2016) notes in her study of the Patidars, is therefore associated with movement out of such manual work. Farm work may therefore not be appealing.

Structural and Policy Issues within Agriculture

Existing studies thus identify several recurring themes that emerge in the context of youth entry and continuation in agriculture, some better understood than others. A few of these can be characterised as structural conditions associated with agriculture. Unremunerative agriculture constitutes one of the strongest push factors prompting exit. Research has confirmed the negative effects of green revolution such as depletion in quality of soils, increase in the use of purchased inputs, and extensive extraction of groundwater through private investments (Reddy and Mishra 2009), which have led to a process of capital intensification of agricultural production without commensurate increases in yields and/or returns. Accompanying these agroecological factors are a series of policy shifts such as reduced public investments in research and development, and a lack of technological breakthrough in rain-fed and drought-prone agriculture, which accounts for 60% of cropped area. For much of the post-reform period, terms of trade were against agriculture except for the period 2004–05 to 2010–11, when high world prices led to prices of agricultural produce remaining higher relative to non-agricultural produce (Dev and Rao 2015).

Unviable size of holdings: The shrinking size of landholding has been a major structural factor contributing to smallholder vulnerability. The average size of landholding has declined by half, from 2.28 ha in 1970–71 to 1.16 ha in 2010–11 (NABARD 2014). There has also been a steady increase in the share of marginal and small landholdings at the national level and at present this segment accounts for 85% of all operational landholdings in the country, although accounting for only 44% of total area being cultivated. Marginal landholdings increased from -9% of lands cultivated in 1970–71 to 22% in 2010–11. Trends indicate that within each farm size category, marginal, small, medium, and large, the landholding size has declined implying that there has been no consolidation of holdings in any size category.

This reduction in operational landholding size has been partly driven by a successive division (subdivision) of inherited land in the countryside. Other factors, such as distress sales, that we discuss later, have also been observed. Notwithstanding the evidence that smallholders in India might be more productive or efficient (Gaurav and Mishra 2015, for example), there is ample evidence that smallholdings in India are smaller than the threshold size and hence unviable, a point recognised explicitly by the Government of India (2016: 15):

The results of the 70th Round NSS show that positive net monthly income—i e, difference between income from all sources and consumption expenditure—accrues only to the farmers with landholdings of more than 1 hectare.

While the continued non-viability of small-scale farming and of fragmentation of land, push children from such families to move out of farming in search of urban employment, they pose an obstacle even to those (youth) who might be inclined to farm. Entry options into farming among lower-caste youth that we noted earlier, may not therefore necessarily constitute upward mobility in a phase of relative decline in incomes from agriculture.

Rural Land Markets and Land Use: An important factor that contributes to reproduction of marginal landholdings and hence to agrarian distress, is the nature of emerging land markets. While unviable landholdings are constraining, there is little evidence of land consolidation either due to buying or leasing. A major factor that may have prevented owners of unviable landholdings (or for new entrants into farming) from accessing additional land is the rise in costs of rural land, especially in relation to returns from agriculture. As Chakravorty (2013) demonstrates, there has been an increase in the levels of activity in rural land markets since the late 1990s, followed by a tremendous increase in rural land prices during the last 10 years or so. Rising values of land due to growth in real estate activity consequent to higher incomes and demand for real estate from overseas Indians, attract buyers who invest in land and keep prices high. Investment of black money is another major source of demand for land (GoI 2012). The expansion in credit for housing in post-reform India too has increased effective demand for land and given the inelastic supply of land, generated price increases. As a result of such demand, Chakravorty (2013) contends that rural land prices in states such as Punjab are higher by 20–30 times (one of the highest in the world) compared to prices that would reflect
agricultural productivity. Rural land values are therefore determined more outside of agriculture. Under such conditions of financialisation of land, active land markets may not always generate outcomes that are welfare enhancing for small and marginal farmers (Vijayabaskar and Menon 2017). One consequence of rising land prices is that farmers have limited capacity to expand their farms, and young (and new) farmers are put at a huge disadvantage. These entry barriers are even more acute for women, who typically do not have access to land of their own. Although laws provide for inheritance, it seems to be the norm that women do not stake a claim in order to preserve their relationship with their brothers, often justifying their stand by rationalising that if they did stake a claim, the already small landholdings would become non-viable (see Agarwal 1994).

In the absence of proper insurance markets and anticipation of rising prices, land is seen as an important hedge against risk and hence property owners do not want to sell, even if their own capacity to invest in land to improve returns is limited. Sharma and Bhaduri (2009) found that more than 60% of their respondents revealed that, while complete withdrawal from farming was high on their agenda, selling land was the last option. The ties to land are maintained possibly because one cannot completely rely on non-farm opportunities, but also because of social meanings ascribed to owning land apart from expectations of land price increases. More than a third of their young respondents mentioned that they would like their children to continue farming not only because there was a lack of opportunities elsewhere but because that is what they had done for generations. In these instances, land does not pass to more efficient farmers; it is not the case that its sale offers an exit option for farmers. Demand for land is therefore not tied to desire to pursue farming as also pointed out in a study of rural Telangana (Jakimow et al 2013).

In extreme cases, however, in the absence of effective policy interventions to address price and production risks, farmers end up relying on distress sales as micro-level studies of rural land markets reveal (Krishnaji 1991; Sarap 1995, 1998). Farming households also respond to risks by diversifying their livelihood options. Rather than invest in land to improve or stabilise returns from agriculture, they may consider investing in their children’s education or access non-farm employment, and hence a possible future career outside agriculture. Even before the onset of agrarian crisis and a relative decline in agricultural incomes vis-à-vis incomes from other sectors, agricultural surplus was being invested outside agriculture rather than towards expansion in agricultural investments (Balagopal 2011). But diversification has seldom meant economic mobility or reduced vulnerability for most rural youth.

Diversification sans mobility? The Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households for the crop year 2012–13 conducted by the NSSO indicates that 57.8% of households have at least one member who is self-employed in farming. Although a large share of households continue to rely on agriculture, many do not rely exclusively on agriculture and only 68.3% report farming to be their main source of income in that year. On average, agriculture accounted for only 60% of the income for farm households. While income from crop cultivation and animal husbandry account for 48% and 12% of income respectively, as much as 32% of income in the household is derived from wages (computed using data from the NSSO 70th round). These suggest that the rural is no longer synonymous with agriculture.

Over the past two decades the contribution of the non-farm sector in rural GDP has grown significantly—from 37% in 1980–81 to 65% in 2009–10—accompanied by a marked increase in the share of non-farm employment over the same period (Papola 2013; Reddy et al 2014). However, the quality of employment outside agriculture has been poor, marked by either poor wages or incomes. In 2009–10, regular employment constituted only 20% of all jobs in the non-farm sector (Himanshu et al 2013). In terms of sectors, a bulk of employment generation has been in the construction sector which accounted for 35.74% of all jobs created during 1990–91 to 2015–16 (Bhattacharya 2018). Two aspects of the employment boom in construction are worth noting. First, it tends to employ men in larger numbers and relatively more mobile men at that. Second, employment is insecure and casual for most jobs. Thus, while the rural non-farm sector is no longer a “residual” employer, it offers “decent” exit options only for a few (Jodhka and Kumar 2017). Studies also suggest that occupational mobility is lowest in agriculture and allied occupations, and half of all children of farmers end up being farmers themselves (Motiram and Singh 2010). While the ratio of non-
agricultural productivity to agricultural productivity has increased from 3.97% to 5.83% from 1983–84 to 2011–12, the construction sector has a labour productivity that is only 58% higher than that in agriculture indicating the poor quality of exit via this sector.

To enable upwardly mobile pathways out of agriculture, rural households are investing considerably in education. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2014–15, 24.3% of youth in the age group of 18 to 23 years are in some form of higher education compared to 19.4% reported in 2010–11.Such investments have, however, not been backed by adequate openings in the job market. Despite having registered one of the highest growth rates since 2000, the growth in India continues to be accompanied by growing concerns of joblessness (GoI 2018),9 especially among the educated and those from rural households. According to a survey by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India (2013a: 43):

Every 1 person out of 3 persons who is holding a degree in graduation and above is found to be unemployed based on the survey results …for the age group 15–29 years. In rural areas the unemployment rate among graduates and above for the age group 15-29 years is estimated to be 36.6 percent whereas in urban areas the same is 26.5 percent.

This clearly indicates an emerging crisis in employment with available employment opportunities not commensurate with rural youth aspirations (Cross 2009; Jeffrey 2010; Jeffrey et al 2005a; Jeffrey et al 2005b; Jeffrey and Young 2012). Young men from rural farm backgrounds often engage in “timepass,” and enroll in one course after another waiting for their preferred employment to materialise (Jeffrey 2010). This is also tied to quality of education and first generation learning in the absence of social networks in landing them jobs (Jakimow et al 2013). Apart from the inferior status assigned to farm work as discussed earlier, the desire to move out of the rural areas is, therefore, also tied to a lack of access to quality education or to networks that facilitate access to better non-farm options. Such aspirations are belied by a lack of commensurate employment for the educated, continuing to be in farming in a context of growing income differentials between agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. In this context, micro-level studies (such as Anandhi et al 2002; Srinivasan 2015) point to a growing crisis of masculinity among rural young men, who unlike older generations of men, are not able to assert their identity based on farming. The unattractiveness of farming is further fuelled by the desire of rural women to marry out of farming (Bourdieu 2008; Srinivasan 2015). Overall, youth aspirations in rural areas are therefore often not built around farming but around strategies for a way out of agriculture.


The paper pieced together information from secondary sources, highlighting that scarce attention was being paid to young farmers in policy and research, in order to address the question: what do we know about young farmers in India? The paper, however, does not pretend to have answers to all questions. With an agrarian crisis, an ageing farming population, and a bulging youth population, can the youth revive the prospects of agriculture in India? And can agriculture revive hopes of the youth? The agrarian crisis, precipitated by the non-viability of small-scale family farming (low productivity, poor market returns, low soil fertility, water scarcity, high levels of indebtedness), lack of public investment, and the continued dependence of a significant share of population on agriculture for their livelihoods, is in reality also a demographic crisis as (rural) youth have not been able to effectively move out of or move into agriculture in economically secure ways. If India is to reap dividends from the demographic youth bulge, revival of rural employment and in particular, of prospects in agriculture will be crucial. Likewise, prospects in agriculture cannot be revived without addressing the youth question.

A youth or generational perspective demonstrates that we do not know much about youth in agriculture—their aspirations, variations across regions, how they access resources (land, knowledge and skills), challenges they encounter and so on, necessary to offer workable strategies. The article not only highlights the need for greater visibility of young farmers in research and policy but also more importantly for an intersectional approach on reviving agriculture, tackling rural poverty and youth livelihoods.

Agarwal and Agrawal (2017) note that governments tend to assume farmers would be better off in cities while emergent farmers’ movements presume that all farmers would want to farm. The evidence on farmers’ preferences for exit is clearly more nuanced. Further, rural households are already showing through their adaptation strategies on what may be viable. Increasingly, households are combining incomes from self-cultivation with incomes from non-farm employment and business. Declining employment elasticity in agriculture (Majumdar 2017) also implies that households can undertake agriculture without much labour expenditure allowing pluri-activities. Creating non-farm employment in rural areas would enable youth to forge livelihood pathways in the countryside and in turn contribute to the revival of agriculture (Chand et al 2011). Similarly, ruralisation of manufacturing as noted by Ghani et al (2012) may also contribute to a “high road” to rural diversification. Efforts are necessary to quell the growing rural–urban disparities in access to quality healthcare and education that further accentuate vulnerabilities emanating from the agricultural sector.

Possibly in response to the realisation that all is not well with the non-agrarian economy in terms of employment, the government has launched a new project, “Attracting and
Retaining Youth in Agriculture” (ARYA) supported by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and implemented by Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK), a public institution meant to provide technical support to agriculture.10 The National Commission of Farmers (NCF), constituted in 2004, was tasked with recommending measures to address agrarian distress. One of the sub-tasks was to suggest strategies to attract and retain youth in agriculture. In each of the six reports that the NCF submitted between 2004 and 2006, there is an explicit recognition of youth aspirations to move out of agriculture. The commission, however, restricted itself to suggesting a role for youth employment in custom hiring and skilling for animal husbandry.

A sectoral and an economistic approach to integrating youth into farming may not work, given the complex set of factors that render the agrarian rural economy inferior. The challenge may also involve revalorisation of agricultural work without valorising caste. While improved returns may provide some incentives, in the absence of a reversal of social norms around labour in agriculture, such policies may be socially regressive. In addition, the gender-neutral category of youth implicitly refers to young men. This often leads to the neglect of young women in policies directed towards the youth. Inheritance laws and social norms around land rights also marginalise young women from policies that focus on youth participation in farming. The family farm as conceived in the conventional sense cannot be the unit of organising production; a flexible arrangement that can transcend sectors but spatially located in the rural will have to be envisaged. Further, exploring new forms of collective organisation of the agrarian economy may potentially weaken caste hierarchies, status and patriarchal relations that undergird the family farm (Agarwal and Agrawal 2017).

Finally, there is a strong push from youth themselves to revive farming as evident, for example, in a growing number of urban youth embracing farming on their own volition. Political activity around access to land has also witnessed a rise recently, for example, Jignesh Mevani’s land to Dalits agenda (Outlook 2018) and the “Land March” in Maharashtra (Dhawale 2018).

If visions of sustainable agricultural futures are to be realised, and if young people are going to have a place in that future, the problems that the youth face in agriculture have to be given more serious attention than has been the case in recent research and policy debate. This would entail a move away from viewing agriculture not merely as a source of surplus labour but as a sector that generates social values around land and work, which cannot be reduced to monetary valuations.


1 Since 2000, several policies have been directed at “solving” the youth problem on the one hand and “utilising” the youth potential for national economic goals on the other. The first National Youth Policy was formulated in 2003 followed by the 2014 National Youth Policy. In 2008, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports split into two separate departments—the department of youth affairs and department of sports. Under the 12th Five Year Plan (2012–17), the Planning Commission appointed a Steering Committee for Youth Affairs and Sports with emphasis on skills, employability and addressing socio-psychological issues among youth.

2 The separation may not be unique to the Indian context. The World Development Report (World Bank 2007) focusing on agriculture hardly mentioned youth, while the World
Development Report (World Bank 2006) focusing on youth hardly mentioned agriculture.

3 Apart from the Census of India, the major source of nationally representative data on farmers is the National Sample Surveys (NSS) 59th Round in 2002–03 and 70th Round in 2013 that collected data on farm incomes. The other rounds of NSSO collect decadal data on land and livestock and debt and investment but are not focused on farmers. Rich data exist on district level cropping patterns, area, production and yield of different crops, prices, input use, etc, and the quinquennial agricultural census collects information on operational holdings. Evidence on young women farmers is even more scarce, since most data is at the household level, with the male head of the household presumed to be the “farmer.”

4 The figures are for the share of agriculture and allied sector in total employment as per the Census of India, 2011 (GoI 2016: 35). At 2011–12 constant prices (GoI 2016: 4).

5 The 2002–03 was collected for “farmers” and the 2013 data were collected for agricultural households. For the 2013 survey, NSSO defined an agricultural household “as a household receiving some value of produce more than INR 3000 from agricultural activities (for example, cultivation of field crops, horticultural crops, fodder crops, plantation, animal husbandry, poultry, fishery, piggery, bee-keeping, vermiculture, sericulture, etc) and having at least one member self-employed in agriculture either in the principal status or in subsidiary status during last 365 days” (GoI 2014: 3). The income cut-off was not applied as a criterion for sampling in 2002–03. Further, the definition used for “farmer household” in 2002–03 made possession of agricultural land as a necessary condition for inclusion whereas it was dispensed with in the 2013 survey’s definition for an “agricultural household.”

6 These figures combine data from two visits to each household in two different seasons for each year. There are some differences in coverage of households but these are not adjusted for while computing these estimates. Estimates use sampling weights.

7 The NSSO 59th Round data, a nationally representative survey of farmers, is unique in recording if farmers are content being farmers. The survey asks: “Do you like farming as a profession?”

8 See Karthik (2017) and Raju (2017). Tamil Nadu, for example, has a vibrant organic farmers’ movement. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (2012) in Coimbatore maintains a portal of farmer members of organic farmers’ associations.

9 See also Paroda et al (2013) for proceedings of a symposium focused on youth in agriculture in South Asia.

10 See also Paroda et al (2013) for proceedings of a symposium focused on youth in agriculture in South Asia.


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