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Oct 31, 2004 | From the print edition

Today, it is accepted that farm mechanisation is an unavoidable imperative. For productivity must be increased. But -- given the majority of farmers in India are small farmers -- what should be the trajectory of mechanisation? Should small farmers go in for small tractors or continue to rely on animal power? Complex questions, find T V JAYAN and SOPAN JOSHI. Ignored, by the market. Not tackled at all, by government

-- (Credit: Surya Sen / CSE)Tractors in India are out of reach for the majority of farmers. The cheapest tractor costs Rs 1.8 lakh, almost as much as a new car. But while a car is a luxury, a tractor is not: it's becoming an imperative as the demand for food grains increases.

Barely two per cent of the 115 million farmers own a tractor, according to the 1995-1996 agricultural census. Yet, tractors cultivate almost one third of the country's arable land, states N S L Srivastava, agriculture engineer and joint director of Sardar Patel Renewable Energy Research Institute in Vidyanagar, Gujarat.

Since the two per cent farmers possessing tractors do not own one third of the country's arable land, how do we explain Srivastava's claim? We can do this in the light of two facts. First, most farmers possessing tractors are rich and own large land holdings. Second, tractors are available on hire. The hiring rates vary from region to region and also with the nature of work. For instance, the rate for ploughing is Rs 200-250 per hour or Rs 2,000-2,500 per hectare (ha).

But small farmers are unable to reap such benefits. For them, a low-priced, small tractor of 15-24 horsepower (hp) would be ideal. This need was recognised as early as 1970 when the National Commission on Agriculture (NCA) was set up. After a five-year study, NCA submitted a long report in 1976, which also recommended the type and quantity of tractors India should have by 2000: 2.08 million tractors and power tillers (a farm machine, with two wheels, to till the soil) below 15 hp, 0.12 million medium tractors of 35 hp and 80,000 65 hp tractors, which taken together would total 2.28 million.

This policy argued that 2.08 million tractors and power tillers below 15 hp were needed for small and medium farmers. Besides, they are considered more suitable for paddy cultivation -- the country's dominant food grain crop -- than medium (25-40 hp) and heavy (above 40 hp) tractors.

At the turn of the century, India had about 2.67 million tractors, which was more than NCA's projections. But categorywise, the numbers went awry: about 1.47 million tractors were in the 31-40 hp range, 0.65 million were of 40 hp and above and 0.68 million were of 30 hp and less. Only a part of the 0.68 million tractors below 30 hp would constitute small tractors for which NCA had projected a figure of over 2 million. Such a large gap was shocking and reveals the perfunctory approach of the government to small farmers. The quantity of power tillers sold was merely 70,000.

Some benefit
Tractor sales over the last five years
States Tractors sales during last five years Area under cultivation
(‘000 hectares)
UP 290,513 17,986
MP 144,049 22,111
Punjab 121,903 4,033
Rajasthan 95,450 20,971
Haryana 89,346 3,711
Gujarat 76,439 10,293
Bihar 72,467 10,743
AP 68,994 14,461
Maharashtra 66,876 20,925
Karnataka 43,163 12,322
Tamil Nadu 38,852 7,474
Orissa 14,473 5,296
Other states 65,210 15,181
Total 1,188,735 165,507
Sources: Economic Survey 2003-04 & Indian At A Glance 2004
The agricultural engineering community, in general, and the Indian tractor industry, in particular, were responsible for throwing NCA's calculations off balance. Instead of a small tractor, they came up with medium to heavy tractors, which benefited only the large farmers. As a result, tractors are concentrated in a few states, which were the main beneficiaries of the Green Revolution such as Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh (see table: Some benefit). Big tractors, like big cars, have become status symbols. This is partly why the tiny state of Punjab has maximum tractors (see box: Tractor crazy).

On the other hand, the crisis of the farmers' traditional tiller-the draught animals -- is also growing. Even though most farmers still rely on draught animals, their importance has been undermined by tractors, which deliver more power and so can work faster.

According to the NCA report, a man can provide a power equivalent of 0.07 hp, a woman 0.05 hp, a bullock/buffalo 0.40 hp, a camel 1 hp and a tractor at least 14 hp. This is significant because more farm power availability usually implies higher productivity. In 1951, the farm power available was just 0.25 kilowatt per ha (kW/ha), of which about 97 per cent came from draught animals. This has now gone up by almost 6 times to 1.40 kW/ha and the corresponding increase in food grain production has been four fold. The power came largely from tractors and farming implements, and also from electric and diesel motors used to pump water for irrigation.

Tractors also work best when the time for agricultural work is limited. "About 65 per cent of our cultivable area consists of dry farming or rainfed farming. If we are unable to do seedbed preparation and sowing in a timely manner, given the receding soil moisture, yields are less," says Srivastava.

However, about 70 per cent farmers still use draught animals. So it is logical to invest in increasing the efficiency of draught animals and the associated equipment such as yokes. But this demands more than anything else, that policy and practices begin to focus on the needs of the small farmer.

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