Spirit of Innovation

Let’s study what is fast becoming a worrisome reality in India – Indian agriculture is facing a crisis. Village after village, farmers are looking at selling their land and moving away from farming as a livelihood.
Poor availability of funds, unscientific farm inputs, poor support price structure for farm produce and almost no farm insurance are some important reasons that lead to crippling debts, that force farmers to see farming as non-remunerative.
Also, without mechanization, farming is hard, back-breaking work. This has resulted in most farmers’ children quitting farming for other vocations. Farmers get more money by selling their land to builders, malls and factories, than they would ever get from farming. This has put more pressure on farm land, thereby requiring technologies to increase the productivity, so that shrinking farm land can feed billion plus people of India in the future.
India, though one of the biggest producers of agricultural products, has only an average farm productivity of only 33% compared to farms world over. This productivity needs to be increased so that farmers can get more remuneration from the same piece of land, with less labour.
Precision agriculture may provide a way to do it.
Precision Agriculture
Precision agriculture (PA), is the application of precise and correct amount of inputs like water, fertilizer, pesticides etc. at the correct time to the crop, to increase productivity and maximize yields.
PA originated in U.S. and European countries where the use of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) allows precise mapping of the farms. This, together with appropriate software informs the farmer about the status of his crop, which area of the farm requires water, fertilizer and pesticide etc. PA includes the practice of sub-surface drip irrigation for precise water and fertilizer application to the crops, the use of heavy farm machinery for sowing, harvesting, weeding, baling etc. Heavy farm machinery currently uses a significant quantity fossil fuels which may not be economical for small farmers.
Robots, Drones & Precision Machinery
PA with the help of robots and autonomous farm machinery will make perfect sense in small farms as they can also run on renewable fuels like bio oil, compressed biogas and electricity produced on farms by agricultural residues. Autonomous farm machinery capable of no-till sowing, weed removal, harvesting and other farming operations are ideal for small farms in India.
Similarly, drones which are unmanned aircrafts extensively used in wars, have started being used in Japan and U.S. for insecticide application to the crops. Many of these robotic machines and drones are small in size and are excellent for small farm applications.
Precision agriculture (PA) in U.S. and other countries has shown tremendous increase in productivity, lowering of inputs and thereby, increased remuneration to the farmers. It has also helped to improve the quality of land with no-till farming and less water usage.
To the critics of mechanization and PA, I urge them to open their eyes to farm machinery leasing agencies in rural areas. These companies or enterprises lease mechanized drones for spraying, robotic crop harvester equipment, including drip irrigation systems, to the farmers. They also provide trained manpower to run these machines.
These already exist on a limited scale in India. A few agencies undertake wheat harvesting using combines and spraying of crops and charge farmers on a per – hour basis. With the unavailability of farm labour, farmers find this concept economical and attractive. In Western Maharashtra, more and more farmers are depending on mechanization offered by such agencies.
With increasing demand, these leasing enterprises will increase and as PA develops and increases they will get more structured and available on demand. In the days to come, these leasing companies may form the backbone of Indian agriculture by providing the necessary advice and manpower to the farmers on precision agriculture.
Critics of mechanization seldom recognize that traditional farming requires timely availability of labor, water and fertilizer. These things are no longer predictable. Precision Agriculture as discussed above can help in this matter.
The most important component in taking PA forward will be in creating a huge resource of engineers, scientists and agriculturists to develop various components of the technology. Without excellent manpower and consequently good R&D, PA will not succeed.
There is need for excellent engineers from institutions like IITs, NITs, etc. to design machinery like robots and drones for PA. This can be facilitated by establishing a new branch of engineering called agricultural mechatronics or robotics, where faculty and students from almost all branches of engineering will interact and collaborate to develop smart systems for PA.
Another way forward is when scientists from ICAR institutes, engineers from the academic world, industry and farmers work together in developing PA. Industries develop the machinery and set up leasing agencies. This will result in more job creation and more students will join the agricultural mechatronics stream.
PA will also provide a platform for industrial corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity, since improving the livelihood of India’s rural poor through high-tech farming can qualify as a CSR activity. The Government of India can facilitate in this process by giving soft loans and sops to the industry to incentivize agriculture and PA activities.
High-tech PA therefore can help in bringing next green revolution to India and can produce tremendous rural wealth in a sustainable and environmentally sound way.
Farmers and farms are the backbone of any country as they are producers of food, fuel (agricultural residues) and wealth from the land. They should be helped by all members of society and developing PA is a step in the right direction.