Revealing India’s actual farmer population

Synopsis: Various surveys put the total number of agricultural households at a different number. The actual number of farmers deriving a significant share of their income from agriculture only is far less and this has policy implications.


The last Agriculture Census for 2015-16 placed the total “operational holdings” in India at 146.45 million.

The Pradhan Mantri-Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-Kisan) scheme has 110.94 million beneficiaries who got their Rs 2,000 income support installment for April-July 2021.

And now, we have the National Statistical Office’s Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households (SAAH) report for 2018-19. It pegs the country’s “agricultural households” at 93.09 million.

In short, India officially has anywhere from 90 million-plus to almost 150 million farmers.

Why this wide variation in the number of farmers?

This wide variation has largely to do with methodology.

The Agriculture Census looks at any land used even partly for agricultural production and operated/managed by one person alone or with others. The land does not have to be owned by that person (“cultivator”), who needn’t also belong to an “agricultural household”.

The SAAH report, on the other hand, considers only the operational holdings of agricultural households. Members of a household may farm different lands.

While the Census treats each of them as separate holdings, the SAAH takes all these lands as a single production unit. It does not count multiple holdings if operated by individuals living together and sharing a common kitchen.

Accounting for only “agricultural households”, while not distinguishing multiple operating holdings within them, brings down India’s official farmer numbers to just over 93 million.

The authors of this article, using their methodology, estimate that India’s “serious” farmer population adds up to 36.1 million, which is hardly 39% of the SAAH estimate.

If the actual number of farmers deriving a significant share of their income from agriculture per se is only 40 million — as against the official, also popular, consensus range of 100-150 million — a range of policy implications follow.

What are the policy implications of a lesser number of farmers?

Firstly, one must recognise that farming is a specialised profession like any other. Not everyone can or needs to be a farmer. “Agriculture policy” should, then, target those who can and genuinely depend on farming as a means of livelihood.

Minimum support prices, government procurement, agricultural market reforms, etc will matter mainly to “full-time/regular” farmers. Even PM-Kisan would be more effective if directed at these farmers, whose quantum of income support can be enhanced to encourage them to remain in or expand their agriculture business.

Secondly, land size matters. The SAAH report reveals that the 50% farm income dependence threshold is crossed at an all-India level only when the holding size exceeds one hectare or 2.5 acres. This is clearly the minimum land required for farming to be viable, which about 70% of agricultural households in the country do not possess.

Thirdly, What should be done for this 70%, who are effectively labourers and not farmers? Their problems cannot be addressed through “agriculture policy”. A more sustainable solution lies in reimagining agriculture beyond the farm. Crops may be produced in fields, but not everyone needs to engage in cultivation.

The scope for value-addition and employment can be more outside than on the farm like, grading, packaging, transporting, processing, warehousing and retailing of produce or supply of inputs and services to farmers. All these activities legitimately fall within the realm of agriculture, even if outside the farm. Agriculture policy should aim not only at increasing farm incomes but also adding value to produce outside and closer to the farms.

Source: This post is based on the article “Revealing India’s actual farmer population” published in The Indian Express on 4th Oct 2021.

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