Indian agriculture could reap some benefits from the COVID pandemic

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Indian agriculture could reap some benefits from the COVID pandemic

Arun Kumar Shrivastav

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have done India’s agricultural sector some good. After a government estimate put foodgrain production in 2021-22 to be 10% higher than the previous year, the latest figure suggests tractor production in 2021 has hit an all-time high, breaking through for the first time the million.

But wait, the world is very close to mass adoption of electric tractors and self-driving tractors. The struggle between man and machine is finally resulting in cleaner technologies and automation, promising to make life less stressful.

First, the age-old image of India’s tattered poor farmers is seeking change, albeit on a tiny scale. The record production and sale of tractors over the past year indicates the upward trend of mechanization in Indian agriculture.

However, it is clear that the pandemic and the long periods of confinement have forced more people to take up farming.

Domestic tractor sales were strong in the first half of 2021, while the second half saw steady export growth. It seems that more people got into farming and invested in farm equipment, including tractors, during the first half of 2021-22, when the pandemic was at its peak. The trend seems to have spread to other countries where Indian manufacturers export tractors.

From 0.86 million in 2020, tractor production in 2021 increased to 1.06 million. The domestic market accounted for about 90% of total tractor sales with 9,03,724 units, 13% more than in 2020, when total domestic sales were 8,02,670 units. The export market grew by 61% to 124,901 units in 2021 from 77,378 in 2020.

The Indian tractor market witnessed more robust growth from January to November, when it recorded a growth rate of 16% with 8.59 lakh tractors sold during the period. Overall sales numbers moderated due to a drop in sales in December, when tractor production and sales fell 30%.

The strong performance of the agricultural sector during the pandemic has raised a sense of hope and optimism in affected neighborhoods. On December 15, Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari said battery-powered electric tractors were on the anvil and would cut costs across the agricultural spectrum.

Finally, the agricultural sector will benefit from the transition to electric vehicles.

“If a farmer has to deliver 300 kg of vegetables to the market, he has to bear a cost of 200 rupees. In the next few days, I will be launching an electric tractor in the market,” Gadkari said at the HDFC Ergo General Insurance EV Summit in mid-December. It seems to be powering smaller capacity electric tractors for now.

With diesel prices hovering around Rs 100 per liter across the country, the use of diesel-powered agricultural machinery such as tractors entails huge costs for farmers, making farming expensive and unsustainable.

Currently, the only electric tractor in the Indian market is Tiger Electric from Punjab-based Sonalika Tractors. Launched in December 2020 and priced at Rs 6 lakh, Tiger Electric is powered by an 11 kW motor and has a lifting capacity of 500 kg. It can be used in various agricultural applications such as rotavator, sprayer, grass cutter and transport carts.

However, Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) and TAFE, which account for 60% of the tractor market in India, were conspicuous by their lack of enthusiasm for electric tractors. M&M is believed to be working towards this and is expected to launch its electric tractor in 2026 under its Swaraj brand. Another major tractor maker, Escorts, said it had received the necessary permits to manufacture electric tractors, but gave no timetable for bringing its electric tractor to market.

Another exciting frontier in the tractor business is an autonomous tractor and John Deere unveiled one recently. Autonomous tractors are controlled by a computer with a touch screen device to feed input data.

John Deere has been testing its self-driving tractor on a 2,000-acre corn and soybean farm in Minnesota, USA for the past few years. The company showcased the autonomous tractor on January 5 during the CES 2022 press conference.

Indian agriculture, which provides direct employment to over 50% of the population, has been painfully slow to adopt modern farming technologies and practices. As the world shifts towards self-driving tractors, Indian agriculture still depends on cattle to plow its fields. Despite sufficient food grain production, Indian agriculture suffers from an image problem. Farmers in Costa Rica wear hats and boots on their farms. They look well fed and healthy unlike the Indian farmers in a few torn pieces of clothing.

Hopefully tractor sales will at least double and self-driving tractors will debut in India in the new year. (API Service)

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