The Indian farmer has always cut a tragic figure, his fate at the mercy of the elements and the largesse of government, his back-breaking toil and poverty reduced to a romantic ideal by those who don’t know kharif from rabi. Once in a while the farmer makes the news, usually as an angry, helpless collective demanding in desperation either waiver of loans, compensation for the fickleness of weather or better remuneration for produce. The farmer is also resurrected at election time, because in the cold mathematics of votes people who till the land matter more than those who don’t. The results of the recent Assembly elections have sparked a familiar frenzy of loan waivers, with the Congress—which now rules the three heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—daring the BJP and the prime minister to follow suit. The bill from seven states that have announced farm loan waivers is more than ₹3 lakh crore, an amount these governments can’t afford and banks can’t absorb.

The problem is that a loan waiver does no good. It is a bandaid, useless when applied to a wound too deep and too far gone to heal. An increase in the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of select crops to over 50 per cent of costs at best provides short-term relief. It buys time, starts another cycle of credit and bust, another set of cheques that can be cashed by political parties during elections.

The reality is that farming as it is practised in India is unsustainable and unviable for most. In the last five decades the number of farms has more than doubled as has the absolute number of people dependent on agriculture. In the same period the average landholding has more than halved. The agriculture census estimates that in 1970-71 there were 71 million farms with an average size of 2.28 hectares. In 2015-16, average landholding was down to 1.08 ha. More than two-thirds of holdings are marginal (less than a hectare) or small (1-2 ha). There is a growing demand for land for non-agricultural uses, further reducing prospects of an increase in arable area. According to a NITI Aayog report on doubling farmers’ income, since 2004-05 more than 10 lakh ha of farm land has been diverted to non-agricultural uses. Fragmentation of land and disputes, combined with contentious land records, harms farm production

Somewhere in the five-yearly cycle of elections and quick answers, the  question of survival of half of the country’s workforce keeps getting lost.

National Sample Survey Organisation estimates (2011-12) on farm income show 22.5 per cent—almost one in five—farm households’ income to be below the poverty line. Jharkhand with 45 per cent leads the list. Even states high on human development indicators like Tamil Nadu have 17.5 per cent farm incomes below the poverty line.

If India has to move to a middle income country from a lower middle income country, two things must happen: 8 per cent growth or more for at least 30 years and a faster migration of people from agriculture to manufacturing and service sector jobs. But migration out of agriculture has been glacial. Some 54 per cent of the workforce (260 million) labours on the land, yet it contributes only 16 per cent of GDP.
The biggest long-term challenge to agriculture comes from climate change, a fact that should give sleepless nights to policymakers. At least 52 per cent of the net sown area—73 million ha out of 141 million ha—is unirrigated and rainfed, and therefore most vulnerable to changing climate patterns. The 2017-18 Economic Survey estimates that in the medium term this translates to an annual loss of 15-18 per cent in farm incomes, rising to 25 per cent for unirrigated areas. This should be coupled with the fact that the water table is severely depleted; the Survey states that India pumps more than twice as much groundwater as China or the United States.

A five-part Fountain Ink series published last year on the challenges facing Indian agriculture had highlighted the sharp deterioration in soil quality, the decline in micro-nutrients in food because of rising carbon dioxide levels, and the unsustainablity of chemically-intensive cultivation.

The prime minister has set an ambitious target of doubling the real incomes of farmers by 2022. It is possible but it requires nimble-footed multipronged policy initiatives that no government is known to have taken. On the larger threat of climate change, the government’s cupboard of fixes is bare. Somewhere in the five-yearly cycle of elections and quick answers, the very question of survival of half of the country’s workforce keeps getting lost.