From factory to farm: Mechanisation in agriculture is growing but availability of and access to farm machines needs to improve

Newspaper: Business Standard
Date: 9th October 2013
Edition: New Delhi

The viability and export competitiveness of Indian agriculture are gravely endangered due to the steadily worsening labour shortage and rising agricultural wages. Production costs are rapidly escalating, eroding profit margins in agriculture. The need, therefore, is to replace, to a suitable extent, the human and animal workforce with machines to reduce costs, enhance productivity and efficiency and save time to raise more than one crop in a year. Simply stated, mechanisation, besides improved technology, is the key mantra for producing more from less land to keep agriculture economically viable.

Fortunately, this has begun to happen. The rising demand for farm machines is spurring the growth of the farm machinery industry. The annual turnover of the farm machinery manufacturing in the organised sector is estimated to have crossed Rs 50,000 crore. The unorganised sector, comprising small and village-level farm equipment makers that are relatively far bigger in size, is also doing roaring business. The industry is reckoned to be growing at a healthy rate of nearly 5 per cent a year.

The available data indicate that over five million tractors and other self-propelled machines, nearly 19 million pump sets and innumerable other devices and equipment are currently being used in India. Interestingly, the monetary benefits accruing to the farmers from the mechanisation of farm chores are worth over Rs 100,000 crore, according to Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Director-General S Ayyappan. Nearly 87 per cent of the total operational energy for farm operations is now derived from machines. "There is a close correlation between the degree of agricultural mechanisation, energy use and agricultural production and productivity", Ayyappan maintains.

However, most of the 2,500 small-scale manufacturers and over 15,000 tiny units churning out farm devices are located in agriculturally progressive regions such as Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Terai area of Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The relatively backward regions that also need selected mechanisation of farm work are at a disadvantage in this respect. This issue needs to be tackled through well-conceived policy interventions.

Indeed, the use of farm animals for field work is turning unattractive for various reasons, including their high maintenance cost and limited working capacity. Bullocks and buffaloes, for instance, can pull loads equivalent only to roughly about 10 per cent of their body weight. This can be boosted 15 to 30 per cent by using improved yokes and harnesses and allowing the animals to rest at suitable intervals. The traction machines, on the other hand, can produce a far higher output in much shorter time frame depending on their size and rated capacity. A pair of bullocks, for instance, may take nearly five days to plough one hectare of land. In contrast, a tractor can do the same job in just five hours. Besides, the use of machines helps reduce drudgery of farm work that distracts educated youth from farming.

A worrying aspect of the current trend of farm mechanisation, however, is the disconnect between the availability and physical access to farm machines. The time lag between the designing and fabrication of a new device by the agricultural engineering research centres and its availability in the market, too, is rather long. This apart, since over two-thirds of the farmers are small landholders, tilling less than two hectares each, their capacity to invest in farm machinery is limited. These are the aspects that ICAR plans to address in the 12th Plan.

The most practical option to improve the access of small cultivators to farm machinery is to promote the system of custom-hiring whereby the machinery owners can either perform the jobs on the other farmers' fields on charge or hire out the machinery to them. The other option being considered is to set up farm equipment resource centres or farm machinery banks at the village level to make the needed contraptions available to the tillers on hire. The research centres plan to train village artisans in repairing mechanical devices. Such initiatives could speed up the pace of farm mechanisation. The goal really is not a total automation of farm work but to use machines to supplement human effort and make farming more efficient and productive.

From factory to farm: Mechanisation in agriculture is growing but availability of and access to farm machines needs to improve