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August 5, 2014

The facts about farm machines

The Union and state governments run several schemes under which cheaper finance and even subsidies are offered for the purchase of agricultural equipment. Madhya Pradesh's "Yantradoot Yojana", under which agricultural implements are made available for farm work on rent, can serve as a model for other states even for Bihar. This scheme has resulted in a 40% spurt in the output of wheat and 25% in gram. The rural youth, notably the educated ones, who are not interested in manual farm work, can run such custom hiring ventures or work with us happily in similar services offered from ERGOS

For individual ownership, suitable machines and equipment are being developed by various farm engineering research institutions and agricultural universities. Most of these are designed to improve the efficiency of farm operations, reduce costs and minimize toil. Their promotion, too, would require financial support from the government since many resource-starved small and marginal farmers cannot afford them.

However, most small- and medium-sized machines available in the market are often of poor quality and lack adequate safety features. These are generally made by medium and small manufacturers that disregard specified standards. This issue needs to be addressed to reduce maintenance costs and ensure the safety of operators.

The growing shortage of agricultural labour and rising wage rates are not the only reasons for the accelerated mechanization of farm operations. Factors such as time-saving, efficient input application, transportation of farm inputs and produce, and reducing drudgery also stimulate demand for farm machines. The development and mass production of multi-utility mechanized devices to suit the requirements of different categories of farmers are the need of the hour.

Many trends in farm mechanization have been rather peculiar and, thus, hard to justify. Large and medium farmers' fondness for bigger tractors is one of them. This has led to over-mechanization in many cases, with farmers acquiring tractors of far higher horsepower than required by the size of their farms. Though tractors are also used for purposes other than farm work, such as for haulage of farm inputs and produce and as personal transport, they remain idle for most part of the year. Investment in such machines is, therefore, ill-advised. However, this preference for bigger machines persists because they become status symbols in  villages - just as large cars have in urban cities.

What is also odd is the low demand for power tillers - virtual mini-tractors. These are ideal for small and marginal farms, which account for nearly 85 per cent of total landholdings. Their use is confined mainly to a handful of crops - paddy - and that too primarily in the north-eastern states. Power tillers' limitations in on-road use and their ergonomic constraints may well explain their poor popularity.

Therefore, it is not surprising that while the tractor industry has grown substantially, reaching a production capacity of over 500,000 machines a year, the power tiller sector has remained under-developed, churning out only about 30,000 units annually. Interestingly, the age-old desi hal (animal-drawn wedge plough), too, has not gone out of use. Many marginal and tiny farmers, tilling holdings below one-hectare, still use this simple contraption made by village artisans.

Agricultural productivity is directly correlated with farm power availability. However, the energy input in Indian agriculture is still meager compared to developed countries. Besides, over half of the power derived from mechanical and electric sources is utilized mainly for stationary operations, notably water-lifting. Only 35 per cent of the available mechanical power is used for draught or traction in farm operations. This content needs to be stepped up substantially to raise crop output.

Unlike large tractors, giant high work-output machines such as harvester-combines and multi-purpose seed planters continue to have a place in modern agriculture. But this is only if they are used for custom-hiring by service providers and not exclusively for individual use. These machines can either be hired out to individual farmers or operated by service providers  on farmers' fields. This system is already gaining ground in many regions and needs to be encouraged.

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