By Arun Kumar Shrivastav
The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have done some good to the Indian farm sector. After a government estimate put the food grain production during 2021-22 to be 10 per cent higher than the previous year, the latest figure suggests that tractor production in 2021 has soared to a record high, crossing a million-mark for the first time.
But wait, the world is very close to the 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 and living less stressful.
First, the centuries-old image of impoverished Indian farmers in tatters is looking to change although at a minuscule scale. The record production and sale of tractors in the last year indicate the rising trend of mechanization in Indian agriculture.
However, there can be no denying that the pandemic and the long periods of lockdown have forced more people into farming.
Domestic sales of tractors were strong in the first half of 2021 while the second half saw steady growth in exports. It seems more people have taken to agriculture 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.
Against 0.86 million in 2020, tractor production in 2021 rose to 1.06 million. The domestic market accounted for about 90 per cent of the total tractor sales at 9,03,724 units, which is 13 per cent higher than 2020 when the total domestic sales were 8,02,670 units. The export market grew by 61 per cent to 124901 units in 2021 from 77,378 in 2020.
India’s tractor market has grown more robustly from January to November when it registered a growth rate of 16 per cent with 8.59 lakh tractors sold during the period. The overall sales figures moderated because of a fall in sales in December when tractor production and sales dropped 30 per cent.
The strong farm sector performance during the pandemic has brought a sense of hope and optimism in relevant quarters. On December 15, Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said the battery-powered electric tractors are on the anvil and they will bring down the costs across the agricultural spectrum.
Finally, the farm sector is going to benefit from the transition to electric vehicles.
“If a farmer has to deliver 300kg of vegetables to the market, he has to incur a cost of Rs200. 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. He seems to be green-lighting electric tractors with smaller capacity for now.
As diesel prices have been hovering around Rs 100 per liter across the country, the use of diesel-powered farm machinery such as tractors is incurring huge costs to farmers, making agriculture expensive and unviable.
At the moment, 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 11kW motor and has a lift capacity of 500 kg. It can be used in various farm applications such as rotavator, spraying, grass cutting, and hauling trollies.
However, Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) and TAFE which account for 60 per cent of the tractor market in India have been conspicuous by their lack of enthusiasm in electric tractors. M&M is believed to be working in this direction and is expected to launch its electric tractor in 2026 under its Swaraj brand. Another major tractor maker, Escorts has said that it has received necessary clearances to manufacture electric tractors but has not given any timeline when it’s going to bring its electric tractor in the market.
Another exciting frontier in the tractor business is a self-driving tractor and John Deere has unveiled one recently. The self-driving tractors are controlled by a computer with a touchscreen device to feed input data.
John Deere has been testing its self-driving tractor at a 2000-acre corn and soybean farm in Minnesota, US, for the last few years. The company presented the self-driving tractor on 5 January at CES 2022 Press Conference.
Indian agriculture which provides direct employment to over 50 per cent of the population has been painfully slow in the adoption of modern farm technologies and practices. While the world is moving to self-driving tractors, Indian agriculture is still dependent on cattle to plow its fields. Despite sufficient food grain production, Indian agriculture suffers from an image problem. Costa Rica farmers are in hats and boots on their farms. They look well-fed and healthy in sharp contrast to Indian farmers in a few pieces of torn clothes.
Let’s hope tractor sales jump at least to double, and self-driving tractors make their debut in India in the New Year. (IPA Service)