India 1960-2010: Structural change, the rural non-farm sector, and the prospects for agriculture

This paper looks at past and likely future agricultural growth and rural poverty reduction in the context of the overall Indian economy. The growth of India’s economy has accelerated sharply since the late 1980s, but agriculture has not followed suit. Rural population and especially the labor force are continuing to rise rapidly. Meanwhile, rural-urban migration remains slow, primarily because the urban sector is not generating large numbers of jobs in labor-intensive manufacturing. Despite a sharply rising labor productivity differential between non-agriculture and agriculture, limited rural-urban migration, and slow agricultural growth, urban-rural consumption, income, and poverty differentials have not been rising. Urban-rural spillovers have become important drivers of the rapidly growing rural non-farm sector—the sector now generates the largest number of jobs in India. Rural non-farm self-employment has become especially dynamic with farm households rapidly diversifying into the sector to increase income.

The growth of the rural non-farm sector is a structural transformation of the Indian economy, but it is a stunted one. It generates few jobs at high wages with job security and benefits. It is the failure of the urban economy to create enough jobs, especially in labor-intensive manufacturing, that prevents a more favorable structural transformation of the classic kind. Nevertheless, non-farm sector growth has allowed for accelerated rural income growth, contributed to rural wage growth, and prevented the rural economy from falling dramatically behind the urban economy. The bottling up of labor in rural areas, however, means that farm sizes will continue to decline, agriculture will continue its trend to feminization, and part-time farming will become the dominant farm model. Continued rapid rural income growth depends on continued urban spillovers from accelerated economic growth, and a significant acceleration of agricultural growth based on more rapid productivity and irrigation growth. Such an acceleration is also needed to satisfy the increasing growth in food demand that follows rapid economic growth and fast growth of per capita incomes.