Since September, Maharashtra has seen a resurgence in massive protests by the Maratha community demanding reservations in government jobs and educational institutions.

The protests escalated after the police baton-charged a group holding a hunger strike in a village in Jalna district in the state’s Marathwada region on September 1. The Marathas are seeking recognition as an Other Backward Classes community, reiterating their demand during the previous wave of protests between 2016 and 2017.

But why has a landed, traditionally dominant agrarian community mobilised so strongly for what is effectively downward social mobility, which is a demand to be recognised as one of the large groups of service castes, from being a Kshatriya or “warrior” caste group?

Data shows that the answer lies in an agrarian crisis: a sluggish market for non-agricultural jobs in a stagnant rural economy. A regional disparity in the availability of non-agricultural jobs alongside significant educational mobility with the stagnation of economic returns has fueled the agitation.

The caste groups currently categorised as Other Backward Classes see the Maratha demand as a threat and have launched a counter mobilisation. This has become a major political challenge ahead of the Lok Sabha elections across the country followed by state assembly elections in Maharashtra this year.

Stagnating rural economy, agrarian crisis

We used data from the CMIE Income Pyramid to examine the change in rural incomes between April 2022 to April 2023. This was the latest data set available. The income pyramid is a measure of household incomes by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, an economic think tank.

In April 2023, the average monthly income of a rural household in Maharashtra was Rs 22,342 but 50% of rural households had an income less than Rs 14,100 per month.

To put this figure in context, the Anoop Satpathy committee, appointed by the Ministry of Labour and Employment in 2017, fixed Rs 502 per day as the minimum wage in Maharashtra, barely enough to cover a balanced diet and minimal necessary expenses on house rent, fuel, education, clothing and footwear for an average family of 3.6 people.

Adjusting for family size as a proportion of 3.6 and for changes in the cost of living in April 2023, we find that 37% of households in rural Maharashtra did not obtain the minimum income level.

The average household income in rural Maharashtra increased from Rs 20,706 in April 2022 to Rs 22,342 in April 2023, a rise of about 8% in nominal incomes. However, the rural cost of living increased by 6% – a marginal rise of 2% over the year.

In addition, the household income distribution in rural Maharashtra is highly unequal, with a Gini coefficient of 0.56 for April 2023. This has remained constant since April 2022. This implies that for the lower income households, the income change, even in the best-case situation, would have been marginal. The Gini coefficient is a measure of income inequality.

The Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land Holdings of Households in Rural India 2019 by the National Sample Survey Office, reports the incomes of the average agricultural household in Maharashtra.

We reproduce it in table 1.

The average earnings of an agricultural household from crop production are not enough to cross the poverty line, as laid down by a committee headed by economist Suresh Tendulkar in 2011. This is the case even though the Tendulkar committee’s poverty line is significantly below the Anoop Sathpathy committee’s minimum wage criteria.

The table also indicates the importance of a source of income from outside agriculture for the sustenance of an average agricultural household in Maharashtra.

Wages Net earnings from crops Income from leasing land Income from Animal Husbandry Non agricultural income Total Poverty line*
Rs 4,324 Rs 3,790 Rs 34 Rs 597 Rs 847 Rs 9,592 Rs 5,569.28
Table 1: Monthly income, in rupees, of an agricultural household in Maharashtra from various sources kharif season 2019. Note: *Tendulkar Committee Poverty line for Rural Maharashtra for a family of 4.5, updated for 2019 prices

Employment outside crop production

We start by broadly estimating the labour force in Maharashtra. Extrapolating the population of Maharashtra based on the 2011 population census by the inter-census growth rate for 2001-’11, the estimated population of Maharashtra for 2023 is 12.6 crore. Assuming that 65% of this is the working age population, we get a figure of 7.3 crore people.

The 2022-’23 periodic labour force survey for Maharashtra estimates the labour force participation rate at 57%. In other words, 4.1 crore individuals are either working or looking for work. Of them, 45 % are estimated to be primarily engaged in agriculture.

This means that 1,87 crore individuals from Maharashtra are looking for jobs outside agriculture. According to the Annual Survey of Industries, 2019-’20 , the registered manufacturing sector provides a maximum of 15 lakh jobs in Maharashtra for the same period. Even these are now increasingly being filled with contractual appointments, as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: Organised Sector Employment in Maharashtra. Source: Various issues of the Annual Survey of Industries.

These figures together indicate the huge size of the labour force that is engaged in jobs outside the agriculture and industry, or more specifically the registered factory sector.

The Economic Census of 2013-’14 is another source of information for examining basic features of this employment. That year, the non-crop sector in rural Maharashtra employed about 600,0000 individuals. The enterprises employing them were small: 55% of them had only a single employee, while 80% of them had at most two employees. Eighty percent of these enterprises were self-financed and hence are likely to be low-capital intensity, low-productivity enterprises.

The irony is, over the years, the size of employment per enterprise has been falling, as can be seen in figure 2.

Figure 2: Employment per enterprise in Maharashtra, 1990-2023

The falling employment size per enterprise is a worrisome feature since most workers seeking employment beyond the agricultural sector look for jobs within a reasonable periphery, often within the taluka.

Additionally, such employment is becoming more regionally concentrated, increasingly in pockets in south-western Maharashtra. The central, northern parts of the state are becoming more dependent on agriculture, which, as seen above, is far from remunerative.

Figure 3: Women’s Rural non-crop employment in 2005 and 2013

Intergenerational educational mobility

The fifth National Family Health Survey, 2019-’21, provides information on intergenerational educational mobility across districts in Maharashtra. We use data provided by Anirudh Krishna and Sekhar Bonu in their article “Uneven Gains and Bottom-50 Districts: Intergenerational Educational Mobility in India”. Our computations differ from those by Krishna and Bonu.

Restricting our attention to households that have at least one child aged between 20 and 40 years in order to understand the highest educational attainment. We then calculated the percentage difference in years of education between sons and fathers and between mothers and daughters in law for every district in Maharashtra.

We converted the data into an index, ranging from districts with the least intergenerational change to the district with the maximum intergenerational change. Figure 4 shows the index for intergenerational mobility for men and

Figure 5 shows mobility for women. The darker shades indicate relatively lower mobility while the lighter shades indicate relatively higher mobility.

Figure 4: Intergenerational Educational Mobility Score for Men based on NFHS5, 2019
Figure 5: Intergenerational Educational Mobility Score for Women based on NFHS5, 2019

The highest intergenerational mobility is observed in the central Maharashtra districts of the poorer Marathwada region, in addition to the tribal district of Gadchiroli. This is pertinent because the strongest support for the Maratha reservations agitation has come from Marathwada. In fact, the movement originated in Marathwada.

The bottom line

What can be concluded from the analysis? The agrarian economy of Maharashtra has experienced marginal income gains at the most, while inter-household inequality remains high. This means that most income gains were probably obtained by households at the higher income level. Most households remain well below the minimum wage levels determined by the Anoop Satpathy committee.

On the other hand, agriculture, and especially crop production, has become non-remunerative and incapable of raising a household above even the abysmally low Tendulkar Committee poverty line. This makes employment outside agriculture critical for survival.

However, most of the non-agricultural employment remains concentrated in extremely tiny enterprises that are inadequately funded and hence suffer low worker productivity and offer low wages.

Even these opportunities are becoming increasingly geographically concentrated. The relatively backward areas of Marathwada and Vidarbha are the net losers while these enterprises are concentrated in the more prosperous south-west region of Maharashtra. However, the very areas that have become disadvantaged in employment have experienced the greatest intergenerational educational mobility.

This disjunction between upward educational mobility raising the aspiration levels on the one hand and the lack of decent employment on the other is creating mass support for the agitation for reservations in education and jobs for the Maratha community.

Amalendu Jyotishi, Neeraj Hatekar and Puja Guha are faculty members at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. This analysis is part of the work undertaken during the Development Dialogues with Data initiative at the university. The views expressed in the article are the views of the authors and Azim Premji University may not necessarily endorse the same. The writers may be contacted at

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