Smart farmers

Background

Indian agriculture on modernisation track since 2014

India is one of the largest producers of food grains globally. Though its agriculture is very small-scale, yield from farming is low and the pressure on land is enormous. This needs to change with the help of digital precision technology.

India’s agricultural policies have seen a major boost since the Modi government came to power in 2014 and decided to focus on doubling farmers income by 2022. The government has also set an ambitious food grains production target of 291.1 million tons for 2019-20, an increase of 2.6% compared to the previous year, citing a favourable monsoon in the current season.

Is India on the right track?

The government has chalked out plans to achieve the goal; from agriculture productivity, soil health cards, crop insurance, irrigation, total mechanisation, technology, animal husbandry and allied activities. But is it on the right track, many ask. The Consortium of Indian Farmers Associations (CIFA), India’s apex professional farmer’s organisation engaged in effective policy level interventions on behalf of farmers from all over India, has said recently that in order to double farmers income, the government needs to implement a consistent export/import policy and proactive market intervention to attain fair prices for agricultural produce.

Usage of arable land

India is one of the largest producers of food grains globally, and its output in 2017-18 went up by 17.62 million tons compared to 2013-14. Though India has over 157.35 million hectares of land to cultivate, yields from farming are low and the pressure on land use is enormous. Additionally, farmers usually get a poor price for their produce, often as a result of falling behind in repaying loans. To ease this, government must reform the land leasing system in the country with the cooperation of the state governments, so that private parties can invest in agriculture land legally.

Farm mechanisation

Under this scheme, the government is increasing custom hiring centres (CHCs) in the country, where farmers can rent any high end agriculture equipment. The government also launched the multilingual mobile app ‘CHC-Farm Machinery’. It helps the farmers to rent farm machinery and implements through a CHC in their area.

Currently 133,723 pieces of agricultural machinery available for rent are registered on this mobile app. 2,300 CHC’s have been established in 2019-20. During that period 32,808 pieces of machinery have been distributed, and a total of 8,662 CHCs have been established under the Crop Residue Management Programme.

New era in Indian farming

The government needs to focus on how farmers can get good prices, and also help them to tap global markets without middlemen, says farmer Shivprasad Madhukar Lakhe from Nanded at a farm event in Pune. On his 20 acres he grows turmeric, and he also leased 5 acres to sow chickpeas.
Though precision farming technologies can increase productivity, huge investments are required. The government should start farmer training & awareness programmes at village level and display drones and latest farming tools. This will help farmers to understand the technology and its usage better.
“Currently there is no awareness, though some private players are selling agri drones and providing other services.” When asked about sustainable farm practice, Lakhe says he has been using drip irrigation to save water, and to increase turmeric crop productivity. He wants to move towards vertical farming, so he can optimise and farm more efficiently.

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Farmer Shivprasad Madhukar Lakhe and his family. - Photo: Jagdish Kumar
Farmer Shivprasad Madhukar Lakhe and his family. - Photo: Jagdish Kumar

Stubble burning problem

In order to tackle the increase in stubble burning in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and NCT of Delhi, the government has started supporting farmers with 50% subsidy on cost of farm equipment required for in-situ management of crop residue, apart from setting up India’s first ethanol plant at Panipat, Haryana state, which will convert paddy straw into ethanol.

The burning of stubble has caused health problems in these states. Due to this practice, the air quality index has touched dangerous levels, compelling state governments to advise citizens to wear masks during October and November. This has become a repetitive phenomenon for the past few years.

Precision farming

Precision farming may also help to reduce stubble in the fields: Internet of Things, big data, drones and robotics have a big role to play in driving precise solutions for every field. For 2019-20 the government has set aside USD 85 million (€ 77 million) for farm mechanisation, along with USD $ 1.7 billion (€ 1.5 billion) to support over 90 million farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme (PM-KISAN).

South India leads in precision farming

Farmers of Southern states Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, are adopting various precision agricultural methods to boost crop yields. With precision agriculture farmers can increase their revenue by 35% to 60% per acre. It can also counter water pollution from agriculture, Accenture Interactive India’s Achal Sharma said on the sidelines of the World AgTech Congress in Delhi recently.

Sharma also said that precision digital agriculture is currently very much in demand. It presents significant potential in enhancing food productivity while at the same time providing sustainable management of resources. According to a TechSci Research 2018 report, India’s precision agriculture market is growing at an average of 10% and was valued at $ USD 85 million. The report states that increasing demand for data related to the condition of crops, local weather predictions and soil will further boost precision agriculture.

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Indian farming is modernising fast, but many (small) farmers are still unaware what precision farming can do for them. Prices are also a bottleneck. - Photo: Shutterstock
Indian farming is modernising fast, but many (small) farmers are still unaware what precision farming can do for them. Prices are also a bottleneck. - Photo: Shutterstock

Varying level of mobile connectivity

However, high cost and lack of awareness about technologies and their advantages present a major challenge. Speaking about the challenges in Northern and Western India, Sharma said that the varying level of mobile connectivity is a major concern.

Other than the government, many private players are already operating in India’s precision agriculture market, including John Deere, Trimble, SatSure, Fasal, Aibono, AgCode, Cropin, Intello Labs, Tech Mahindra Limited, Jain Irrigation Systems Limited, etc. These companies are providing weather tracking and forecasting, crop scouting, field mapping and yield monitoring, among others services.

Opportunities

With Indian agriculture and allied sectors on the verge of adopting new technologies such as IoT and agri drones, foreign companies can play a very important role in supplying these new technologies to farmers. Though there are many India companies active, close to 267 million farmers need to be catered for. This enables private and foreign entities to expand their footprint in this part of the globe.

However, their technologies also need to be affordable. To cater for them, government, industry, and research institutions have to form a consortium, so that agritech start-ups can flourish and meet the demands of Indian farmers.

Indian agri sector

Small and marginal holdings (less than 2 ha) account for 85% of the total operational holdings, farming 157.35 million ha or 44% of the total operated area. The average size of holdings for all operational classes (small & marginal, medium and large) has declined over the years: down to 1.16 ha in 2010-11 from 2.82 ha in 1970-71.
In 2018-19 India’s tractor sales went up 10.24% at 878,476 units, compared to 796,873 in 2017-18. The largest arable crop is rice (44 million ha), followed by wheat (29.65 million ha). India’s wheat yield rose annually by 1.8% from 1983 to 2013, for rice this was 1.71% annually. This is slow compared to China.

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