If one wants to delve into the dynamics of rural livelihood system, there is a need to observe the structural changes in the occupational status of the rural labour force. Agriculture seems to have lost its historic role in attracting the labour force.
l First, agriculture is now the primary occupation for roughly 60 per cent of the employed labour force; the share was about 70 per cent in 1988. In terms of secondary occupation also, agriculture does not appear to be as lucrative as before implying that, agriculture is failing to retain its dominance in employment generation in the rural areas.
l Second, when all agricultural activities are on a downside, the mind-blowing change has occurred in the case of agricultural labour. Arguably, the poorest of the poor in rural areas comprise the agricultural labour class. In the 1980s, one-fifths of the employed persons took up such occupation as primary activity; the share dropped to 13 per cent or so in recent years. Again, the occupation lost its appeal as a secondary occupation also.
l Third, while the sun was setting for agriculture in attracting labour, non-agricultural activities witnessed the sunrise and emerged as the linchpin of rural livelihoods. For example, the proportion of employed labour in this sector rose from nearly one-thirds in the 1980s to more than one-half now. But, the share tapered off after 2000 pointing to the stagnancy in the growth of these activities in post-2000 years. However, both as primary and secondary occupations, non-agricultural sector rose up as the occupational captain of the rural labour force.
l Fourth, it appears that a significant proportion of the poor labour force (in per capita income scale) have taken up non-agricultural labour. Possibly, in this case, they were pulled by relatively higher wage to make a decent life
l Finally, we refer our readers to another trend: the Multiple Occupation Index. It stood roughly at 132 in the 1980s, implying that 32 per cent of the employed population resorted to more than one occupation for economic solvency. In recent times, however, the index fell to 126 indicating that economic hardships declined to some extent. However, the rise of the index at that time possibly points to growing economic hardships arising out of inflationary pressure in the economy. By and large, it can possibly be argued that, economic vulnerability or economic risks of the rural labour force diminished over time, although internal and external shocks in later periods rocked the boat of livelihoods to some extent.
In conclusion, it can be argued that: (a) farming is still the dominant source of employment generation in rural areas, although the status has weakened somewhat over time; (b) the share of agricultural labour dwindled drastically; (c) rural labour force is now growingly engaged in non-agricultural activities; (d) the incidence of multiple index has reduced as compared to the base year and (e) relatively, full-time employment has assumed more prominence over the years.
The observations that we have made about the sun-setting of agriculture applies both to male and female labour force. That means, none of them appears to take up agriculture as a primary occupation. The male labour force has marginally shifted away from activities relating crop production; the females have largely rejected these activities. May be, economic hardships once forced the females to participate in crop production but, over time and with growing solvency, they no longer participate in field-level activities. However, a glance at occupational status over time shows that agricultural labour has been "missing" in rural areas with significant drop in its proportion. On the other hand, the proportion of female- agricultural labour force has increased from 4.0 per cent in the 1980s to more than 20 per cent. It could be that the female labour force replaced their spouses in the fields.
Second, both male and female labour forces are now more attracted to non-agricultural activities. In fact, as primary occupation, the share of male labour force doubled over time. Besides, traditionally a large part of the female labour force had always been involved in non-agricultural activities such as paddy husking by 'dheki', handloom, etc. But over time, the roles of these activities have changed. However, not only as primary occupation but also as secondary occupation, non-agricultural activities have stolen the march. The implication of this structural change in occupation needs mention: over time, rural livelihoods had increasingly tilted towards non-agriculture. The question is: where is the "missing" labour?
May be, a part of them went to the non-agricultural labour market lured by higher wages. This appears to be true when male labour force participation in non-agricultural labour went up from about 7.0 per cent to 20 per cent. Note that this proportion is close to the "missing" labour from agriculture. The other part of the "missing" labour went to business and service-related activities. Another important change to cite is the drastic fall of female labour force in business. It could be that, driven by economic hardships in the past, they were forced to take up out-side home activities to pursue livelihoods. But, over time, economic hardships relatively eased to pull them back into household work. In this context, we can especially mention construction work where the share of female labour force is now 8.0 per cent as against 16 per cent in 1988. We presume that those who left construction and business have engaged in homestead-based agricultural activities.
And finally, the multiple occupation indexes for males have come down from 140 to 137 - indicating an increase in economic security somewhat. Remarkable improvements have, however, occurred in the case of female labour force with the index falling from 160 to 130 - implying catching up with the males over time.
The writer is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.