Foreign influence

Instead of designing a low-priced indigenous tractor, industry copies models used abroad

Published: Sunday 31 October 2004

Foreign influence

Small tractors have changed th (Credit: REUTERS)Tractors came to India in the 1960s, imported from the US and European countries, mainly the erstwhile Soviet Union. But these countries had large land holdings; most tractors made there were of medium to high horsepower. In a country where landholdings were not so large, such tractors came to be replicated, unthinkingly. India also imported tractor kits that could be assembled. In 1961-1962, about 880 such tractors were assembled from kits purchased from British and German firms.

Imports stopped in 1977 (see box: Tracks through time). But industry's fascination -- or should we call it a case of new winw in old bolttles? -- with foreign models continued. It preferred to rely on foreign design and engines, and making medium and high horsepower tractors. More power meant higher cost. However, this aspect of tractor development did not deter manufacturers. The rich farmer was targeted. What helped was government had no policy to veer them towards small and medium farmers.

Therewas just one fully indigenous tractor: Swaraj, manufactured by Punjab Tractors Limited (PTL). Developed in the late 1960s as a 20 hp tractor by a laboratory under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, official disinterest put piad to the effort: for instance, when public sector Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) branched into making tractors, it preferred a Czech design; who wishes to risk a deliberately untested technology? Finally, the Punjab State Industrial Development Corporation (PSIDC) was persuaded to manufacture it in 1974 (see box: Solitary effort).

PTL sold about 500 tractors. But the market was dominated by medium and heavy tractors. "While our original mandate was for a 20 hp tractor, this wasn't viable in itself. So, we had to go in for 30 hp or above models, which commanded much higher prices," says Chandra Mohan, former chairman and managing director of PTL. Thus ended India's sole experiment with a small indigenous tractor. The company, however, did very well and emerged as one of the biggest tractor manufacturers with almost 20 per cent market share.

Power tillers were also introduced in India in the 1960s. Of 8-13 hp range, they suited small farms. Initially, there were seven power tiller companies in India, but two apart, all closed down because of low demand from farmers: at Rs 1.3 lakh and upwards, farmers found them prohibitively expensive. Besides, tillers lacked versatility. After all, the tractor can also transport farm produce. Or, people.

Chinese wisdom
India could take a lesson or two from China, which too, began by importing tractors in the 1950s from European countries. But by the 1970s, it developed affordable, indigenous small tractors ideal for the majority of its farmers. This coincided with the Communist nation's redistribution of farmland among peasants: small holdings; less family labour to plow.

The Chinese chose to innovate. Their tractors employ a single cylinder, horizontal engines easy and cheap to maintain. The transmission mechanism was simplified so that V belts could be used (belts used for power transmission; they run in a pulley whose groove is V-shaped). This enabled the engine to also operate pumps and electrical generators. The use of V belts also reduced the number of components required in the tractors. It also reduced cost, something Indian tractor makers haven't done. For, they never innovated.

In China, the 15-24 hp tractors proved highly efficient, especially for rice cultivation. About three million were produced in 2000. Catering to a real demand. What happens in China is, truly, the reverse of what happens in India: in 1996 in China, almost 2 million small tractors were sold.

Can this happen in India?
Indian tractor manufacturers say the demand for small tractors in the country is low. Therefore, they find, developing low horsepower engines are unvaible. What they do -- it is a travesty of industrial research -- is merely de-rate powerful engines for small tractors, so-called. Naturally, the cost of small tractors (including maintenance) as compared to medium horsepower tractors cannot reduce. Naturally, farmers consider them poor value for money and never pick it up.

Amazingly, in a country where the majority of farmers are small farmers, developing an indigenous small tractor has never been a priority with Indian policy makers. "As far as I know, there is no serious research effort in the country to develop a low-cost tractor," says Srivastava. To promote small tractors (so-called), government introduced in 1993 a subsidy of Rs 30,000 or 30 per cent of the price (whichever was lower) on tractors below 25 hp. Only a minuscule number were picked up. Buyers were usually rich farmers, using such tractors to spray orchards. "Several manufacturers like Swaraj and Ford introduced low horsepower tractors, but they failed to become popular, even with the subsidy," adds Srivastava.

Some experts argue tractors in India are cheap. They say the price of an Indian tractor is roughly one-fourth of that available internationally. But prices alone do not reflect ground reality: for instance, says E V Thomas, professor of agriculture engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, the cost of a power tiller in Japan is comparable to the price of 3 tonnes of rice. In India, a farmer has to sell at least 25 tonnes of rice to buy the same equipment.

So how should small farmers cope? They have always depended upon draught animals. Can they meet the increasing demand of foodgrains with their yoked animals?

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