Agricultural Wages, Labor, and Employment since 1757

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AGRICULTURAL WAGES, LABOR, AND EMPLOYMENT SINCE 1757 Agricultural labor has always represented the largest occupational group in India. It has also seen the deepest concentration of poverty in the region. British colonial India introduced the beginnings of India's modern economy, with a larger role for capital, information, and the market than in earlier periods. Did these changes improve the economic conditions of India's peasants? In one view, colonial policies intensified landlessness and poverty, but the overall picture remains controversial.

Employment: Broad Trends

According to the Indian censuses, between 1881 and 1931 the share of agriculture in the workforce and the share of landless laborers in the agricultural workforce both increased. Together, these two trends suggest a "deindustrialization," or a progressive shifting of workers in British India from declining industry back to agricultural labor.

On closer look it is revealed that these processes had a pronounced gender bias, since it was mainly women who experienced the pronounced shift from nonagricultural to agricultural labor in the early twentieth century. The labor-peasant ratio increased dramatically for women but more modestly for men. Changes in industrial organization from households to factories drove many women, formerly employed in household industries, into agricultural labor markets. At the same time, in these latter markets, long-term contracts were replaced by casual or spot transactions, offering easy entry and exit to women. Men could more easily gain access to urban-industrial labor markets. This hypothesis is indirectly validated by data on the decline of household industry and qualitative data on institutional changes in the market for agricultural labor.

Conditions of Work

Conditions of labor varied greatly by region, ecology, crops, and social history, yet, throughout rural India, "labor" conveyed some invariable features. There was, first of all, an indeterminate margin between "labor" and "peasant." Small tenants and cultivators routinely supplied wage-labor, as did peasants without secure titles to the lands they held. Such people often preferred to record themselves as "tenants" or "cultivators" rather than as laborers.

The census divided agricultural work into a few broad categories, such as plowing, sowing and transplanting, weeding, and reaping. Usually, the same person performed all these tasks, though sowing and reaping were seasonal tasks that required extra hands. Transplantation of paddy was generally women's work, as was carrying the crop to the threshing floor. Sowing, weeding, and harvesting were done by both men and women, whereas plowing was exclusively men's work. Cotton and groundnut picking and tea and coffee plucking were done by both men and women. Women's work had one constant characteristic in the early twentieth century, in nearly every environment in which women worked: the worksite had to be one to which they could bring their children.

Wages varied according to gender, task, area, and season. Wages tended to be higher in irrigated land, in lands near cities, in the hills, and in areas with relatively high emigration. Migration, both internal and overseas, was a powerful influence on the labor market of colonial India. The prospect of migration did not necessarily mean access to higher wage rates, but it did mean access to more employment as well as reduced risks. A great deal of overseas migration, especially for South Indian laborers, was seasonal and shortterm. In these cases, the wage incentive was probably stronger. With longer duration and long-distance migration, the elevation of economic and social status was marked. Returnees were known to make powerful impressions at their places of origin.

Rural wage "contracts" in the early twentieth century fell in two broad classes: time and piece. Within time, there were daily-wage earners in the peak season, and laborers on annual contracts available for both farm and nonfarm work. Those bound by annual contracts were called "farm servants" in British India's census, and those under daily wage or piece-rates were called "field laborers." All these categories were internally heterogenous. Among the so-called farm servants were some who received product-wage payments, fixed for long intervals by custom. They were not only on annual contracts but were bonded to the plot of land, or to a master or village, and were available for general labor. In the early twentieth century, such serfdom was in general decline, as were product-wages and general labor. At the same time, a new type of long-term contract began to appear, that of debt-bondage. The debtors promised to repay a loan by supplying labor services. They were not necessarily bound for life to particular employers or plots of land, nor were they always available for general labor.

Rural laborers have never been exclusively agricultural laborers. Indeed, in most parts of India, agricultural operations rarely provided more than 180 to 200 days of employment in a year, if that. A whole variety of occupations engaged those who were primarily laborers in the agricultural seasons. The 1901 census listed the following nonfarm occupations for the chamars of North India: "provision and care for animals, menial service, dealing in food and drink, weaving, working in metals, wood, glass, stone, canes, bamboos, leaves, etc." In this respect, there was no significant change in the economic profile of laborers between the early and the later colonial period. There was, however, a significant change in the conditions under which farm and nonfarm works were combined. Whereas earlier there was an element of compulsion, or corvée, in the supply of nonfarm labor by specific castes, that element weakened over time, and the choice of occupations became more deliberate and more flexible by the end of colonial rule.


Agricultural wage data come from two main sources: the government of India's Prices and Wages in India, covering the period from 1873 to 1923; and the sizable Report on the Enquiry into Rise of Prices in India (1914). These data sets are not readily usable, however, for wages can vary according to individual capacities, contractual status, and peak or lean season. In the Indian case, wages in kind also create a problem. Rural wages typically contained both cash and a "product" (later called "perquisite") component.

For the longer part of the nineteenth century, wage data are fragmentary and unsystematic. Collating what exists for several major regions, historians have noted the absence of a clearly discernible tendency in real wage, though in some cases a rising tendency after 1840, continuing until the mid-1870s, has been observed. But the two decades thereafter saw a steady fall in real wages, derived from monetary stagnation together with rising prices.

There was sustained upward pressure in food prices in the 1880s, because of exports as well as a depreciation of the currency. Yet the Indian nationalist argument that these circumstances intensified a subsistence crisis seems far-fetched. By all indications, real income in agriculture was increasing, as were food availability per capita, agricultural production, migration, labor demand, and employment. Except for two famines, the last quarter of the nineteenth century hardly fits a theory of rural crisis. The 1914 report suggests that, in the 1890s, money wages rose sufficiently to register a healthy increase in real wages. Prices and peasant incomes rose, while customary wages apparently did not.

All regions of India shared in a rise in wages from 1900 to 1912. In some cases a mild rising trend continued until 1920 or 1925. Not surprisingly, the fastest growth in the last phase was in Punjab, Madras, and the United Provinces—the regions that experienced the "Green Revolution" in the early twentieth century. The first half of the 1920s saw no significant change in money or in real wages. From the second half of the 1920s through the 1930s, as prices began to fall precipitously, money wages were pushed down. Real wage decline started within a few years. Real wages at the end of the period (1935–1936) were usually below those at the beginning of the trend (1929–1930). World War II brought massive inflation, further depressing real wages, though some adjustments in money wages did occur after 1941.

Studies on wage trends in the 1950s and the 1960s reported very little increase in the low averages that were established during the mid-1930s. The deadlock was broken only after the "Green Revolution" of the early 1970s. These studies generally find a positive correlation between labor productivity and real wage growth across space. Not surprisingly, the regions where acute rural poverty, landlessness, agricultural stagnation, and wage stagnation persisted—Bihar and West Bengal—exploded in violent rural unrest around 1970.

One of the striking features of real wage data are its sharp fluctuation, a feature that persisted well into the independence period, reflecting variations in the quality of monsoonal rainfall. Money wage adjustments happened less frequently, and sometimes not at all if the rainfall improved quickly. The most disastrous fall in real wages, therefore, occurred during years of famine.

Tirthankar Roy

See alsoIndustrial Labor and Wages, 1800–1947


Bardhan, Kalpana. "Rural Employment, Wages and Labour Markets in India: A Survey of Research." Economic and Political Weekly 12 (25 June, 2 July, 9 July 1977): A34–A48, 1062–1074, 1101–1108.

Kumar, Dharma. Land and Caste in South India. Delhi: Manohar, 1992.

Prakash, Gyan, ed. The World of the Rural Labourer in ColonialIndia. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.