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View from India: Smart farming and tractors can transform agriculture

Agriculture in India can be transformed, but only if several elements come together. First, every part of the farming sector requires a technology overhaul. Second, it needs connectivity, with tractors and other forms of transport being the growth drivers. Finally, government support is essential.

What’s needed is to take a look at the new frontiers in technology, and make them viable for agriculture. This will lead to ‘smart farming’.

Sensors and drones are sought after for their data imaging qualities. When applied in farming, the images shed light on essentials like requirements for fertilisers and water. Being ultra-high-tech images, they reveal details very minutely. Based on the outcome, soil fertility maps can also be created.

Of course, basics about the plant and livestock can be revealed through big data. Then details like plant growth and seasonal impact, livestock performance on fields can be fine-tuned using data analytics.

Like in other industries big data and analytics in agriculture also leads to risk management and decreasing operation costs.

Then take the case of GPS (Global Positioning System) applications. GPS is a valuable tool for farmers to work in challenging weather conditions like rain and even fog. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) can be tapped for the betterment of agriculture. For instance, AI robots can be developed for assisting tasks like harvesting crops.

Internet of Things (IoT) is known for improving productivity. Seen here, its usage can result in lowering waste, automating the irrigation system and improving water usage. IoT can be used to create smart greenhouses to control climatic conditions and reduce manual intervention. Cloud servers will help access the system and process the data.

The use of technology in agriculture knows no bounds. Moving on, we require web-mobile platforms that connect buyers with farmers directly. Entrepreneurs can customise e-commerce B2B platforms accordingly.

Seen realistically, as the farming sector gets high-tech, the rural economy will scale up. In the long term, farming can open out many job opportunities for a cross-section of people. We need professionals to orient and train farmers towards the usage of agri-products. Their dependence on chemicals and pesticides needs to be lowered. Then there are issues related to backend operations and digitisation that need to be addressed. This can help build a local workforce. 

A strong workforce, digital networks and good yield will make the agro industry look promising and attract investors.

In the case of tractors, policy support would help tractor makers log volume growth for the fourth straight fiscal, provided monsoon is normal yet again. This has been outlined in a report from CRISIL Research.

The report states that the domestic tractor sales are expected to log double-digit growth for the third consecutive year in fiscal 2019. This means it will increase by 10-12 per cent to just short of 8 lakh (800,000) units. 

The report titled ‘Straight drive for four’ indicates that a normal monsoon could ensure a growth of 4-6 per cent. A lot is expected from various state and central government schemes that will be rolled out after the general elections. Once these schemes fall into place, they could add 1-3 per cent growth.

A growth of 6-8 per cent in fiscal 2020 will result in a robust CAGR of 12-14 per cent for fiscal 2017-2020. Interestingly, farm loan waivers have played a key role in both the earlier periods – in Kerala and Tamil Nadu during 2005-2008, and in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh in 2010-2013. And so far in 2017-2020, as many as seven states have given farm loan waivers including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

As per the report, higher availability of tractor financing, better on-year farm profitability for major kharif crops in marketing year 2018, scarcity of farm labour and increase in the usage of tractors in construction activities are some of the demand determinants that will continue to provide support to tractor demand at a pan-India level in fiscal 2020. Kharif crops or autumn crops are domesticated plants like rice that are cultivated and harvested in India during the monsoon season, which lasts from June to November depending on the area. The kharif season varies depending on the crop and location.

In addition to schemes aimed at improving irrigation, road construction and crop insurance, the central government in its interim budget for fiscal 2020 announced the PM-KISAN scheme, a fixed-income support of 6,000 rupees to all small and marginal farmers in three equal instalments.

This seems promising.

The farming scenario needs to be upgraded. Up-to-date farm equipment along with regular crop sowing will help create a demand for tractors.

For tractor sales to increase, we need sound road infrastructure within the rural regions along with rural-urban linkages. The emphasis should be on road network, highways and connecting bridges. Since the last few years, the Government of India has initiated rural road networks. This is being executed through national schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana.

Other rural infrastructure initiatives like irrigation and hydro-power projects have also been undertaken to boost overall growth.

Besides tractors, E-rickshaws are beginning to grace urban roads. It would be nice if we can promote their usage in the rural areas. Though they have a fragmented presence in the rural belts, they need to be clustered together in an organised manner. If this mode of transport is pursued in the rural region, its allied services will open up employment opportunities, apart from giving rise to a new breed of drivers and mechanics.

Tractors and E-rickshaws, along with technology can open a new chapter in the agro India story.

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