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Punjab's big toys

Devinder Sharma, Mar 29, 2013 : 22:39 IST
Agriculture is being viewed as a machine-deficit sector, and more the machines sell more will be the reduction in farmer suicides.

Every Monday, second-hand tractors start arriving early in Kotkapura grain market in Punjab. By around noon, the grain market turns into a tractor mart. A large number of tractors, of different make and size, are available for a bargain. Many of these are procured by middlemen who market these second-hand tractors in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. You may be thinking that most Punjab farmers are now fed up of tractors and that is why they are keen to dispose these four-wheelers. No, the reality is that most of those who come to sell have actually acquired a new tractor, much bigger in size, and of course flashier.

For several decades now, tractor has been a status symbol for Punjab farmers. Unless they own a tractor, irrespective of the fact whether they need it or not, they don’t feel they too have arrived. With over 5 lakh tractors existing in Punjab, once the status symbol has now turned into a symbol of suicide. But still farmers have not given up on tractors. Like the neo-rich in the cities, farmers too have developed a fetish for latest brands. Not many regret the big wheels.

The craze for big machines has in fact grown. Not everyone of course does it as a style statement. While a large number buy tractors as a necessity, there are some small farmers who often purchase tractors out of social compulsions as it comes in easy instalments and at affordable low interest rates. They buy tractors, even if costs Rs 5 lakh and more, and sell it in a few weeks and from the money they get they buy a small car to be given as dowry for their daughter’s marriage. Many others of course are lured by the marketing blitz and want to join the ranks of progressive farmers since tractor has been promoted as a symbol of pride.

A tractor alone is not of much use to a farmer. It is the heavy implements, which comes as attachments that are important. So it is the total package -- implements, along with the tractor – that adds on to the growing indebtedness on the farm. In neighbouring Haryana, the subsidy for land leveller has been increased from Rs 50,000 to Rs 75,000; on multiple crop planter from Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000; on happy seeder from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000; on straw reaper from Rs 40,000 to Rs 60,000 and on zero till machine from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000. More the expensive implements mean more indebtedness. But this does not mean I am against mechanisation on the farm. What I am asking is the justification in selling the expensive and sophisticated implements and machines to farmers who are already in economic crisis.

Under pressure

With every second farm household in Punjab owning a tractor, and considering the average farm size is less than 4 acres, tractors have become uneconomical. But still, more than 20,000 tractors are being purchased every year. These new tractors are really big machines, ranging from 60-90 horse power, the kind of huge tractors that were available in erstwhile Soviet Union. Generally, the minimum land area required to ensure a tractor remains economically viable is 10 acres. But over the years, under pressure from the industry, governments have reduced the requirement to just 2 acres.

The arrival of huge tractors in Punjab therefore defies any economic logic. I am told some tractor manufacturers are now planning to bring in tractors with 105 horse power. And so when you hear the next time a story of growing indebtedness on the farm in the frontline state of Punjab, just be sure a tractor is more often than not, the primary reason.

In Punjab, despite heavy mechanisation, two farmers are killing themselves every day. Somehow the feeling is that more machines you sell, more sanity would prevail on the farm. Agriculture is being viewed as a machine-deficit sector, and more the machines sell more will be the reduction in farmer suicides. Primarily for this reason, agricultural universities in southern states are now signing MoUs with tractor manufacturers.

Agreed, farm sector faces a terrible paucity of farm labour. But will the sales of all kinds of implements and huge tractors replace farm workers and thereby take out farmers from the crisis? Has it helped Punjab farmers tide over agrarian distress? It hasn’t. So why are state governments blindly promoting tractors? Why can’t state governments instead urge the formation of cooperative societies which help in leasing farm implements to farmers or encourage custom hiring tractors and farm machinery?

I am not suggesting setting up another public sector cooperative, but am seeking support for encouraging social entrepreneurship. It is here that I would like to provide the example of Zamindra Farm Solutions in Fazilka in Punjab.It provides big machines as well as farm implements on lease. Over the years, its membership has grown to over 4,000 farmers. Similarly, I know of several small village cooperatives in Punjab which provide implements for a rent. It is time such initiatives are aggressively promoted and encouraged. It is time to save farmers from getting deeper into a fatal debt trap.

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