Indian Agriculture Sustained by Mechanisation, Constrained by Deforestation

With the application of modern agricultural implements and machinery for ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, processing including crushing (particularly of sugarcane) and cutting (particularly of fodder) and decorticating (particularly of groundnut), and reclaiming the land with tractors, now Indian agriculture has appeared to be in the era of aviation with the use of helicopters and advanced equipment for spraying not only liquid insecticides but also liquid fertilisers. The Agricultural Engineering Division of ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research), with a mission to develop and introduce need-based and region-specific engineering technologies to achieve sustainable enhanced productivity and profitability of different farming systems, covers the thrust areas of:

1) Development of precision machinery for carrying out efficient agricultural operations;

2) Increase of work efficiency for human, animal and mechanical systems;

3) Energy management and utilisation of conventional and non-conventional energy sources;

4) Utilisation of surplus agricultural residues for decentralised power generation; and,

5) Reduction of post harvest losses and value addition to agricultural produce, processing and utilisation of by-products.

Achievement in Farm Mechanisation

India is the largest manufacturer of tractors in the world, accounting for one-third of the global production, and achieved a lot in farm mechanisation. Even the Ministry of Agriculture is giving a major thrust to farm mechanisation through its various schemes. Dr K Alagusundaram, Deputy Director General, Agricultural Engineering Division, ICAR, enlists the following achievements in farm mechanisation in India:

• Development of improved machinery such as laser land leveller, self-propelled sprayers, precision seeders and planters, transplanters for rice and vegetable seeding, multi-crop thresher, harvesters for cereals and sugarcane etc, for efficient farm operations and resource conservation;

• Development and introduction of gender-friendly tools for reduction in the drudgery of women farm workers, and recommendations for minimising accidents in agriculture;

• Development and application of renewable energy technologies such as solar refrigerator, low cost solar cookers, solar water heaters, high efficiency cook stoves, pyrolysed briquetted fuel, bio-mass gasifiers, biogas plants, biphasic digestion of agro residues, animal-operated agro-processing units, utilisation of agricultural residues for decentralised electricity generation;

• Developed region and commodity specific equipment and processes for post harvest loss reduction and value addition such as soybean dehuller, extrusion-expelling pilot plant,

pilot plant for soy flour and oil, jute plant ribboner, accelerated and eco-friendly retting of jute, jute stick particle board and diversified uses of jute;

• Improved technology developed for cotton ginning, variable speed double roller gin, improved micro spinning system, process for flame retardant finish for fabrics, cotton-coir composites, pulp and paper, particle board and corrugated boxes from cotton plant stalk, biogas from textile mill waste;

• Molecular characterisation of lac insects and lac pest management done;

• Processes developed for producing shellac, bleached lac, dewaxed and decolourised lac dye and wax from lac factory effluents; perfumery compounds, natural dye and lac wax based emulsion formulations for extending shelf life of fruits and vegetable;

• Surface, sub-surface and vertical drainage technology for vertisols to improve land utilisation, artificial ground water recharge through bore wells, automated surge flow system for furrow irrigation and other technological interventions developed and introduced for increasing farm productivity;

• Entrepreneurship development for the manufacture of agricultural implements and different processing technologies through technology transfer, training and human resource development.

The Real Question

Dr Alagusundaram accepts that natural resources of the country are shrinking with ever increasing phenomenon of climate change, therefore Agricultural Engineering has a critical role in higher agricultural production, post harvest management and rural employment generation. He underlines the importance of periodic need assessment through surveys, operations research and liaison with the line departments, private, public and non-governmental organisations, entrepreneurs and other interest groups which will be carried out for finding timely solutions for several such issues like strategies to find diversified and value-added products interaction with various constituents of National Agricultural Research System and developmental organisations to infuse efficiency in R&D, planning, monitoring etc.

However, the question arises; how long can the mechanisation sustain the Indian agriculture or make it capable to meet out the ever increasing food demand of a country in the situation of frequent climate change along with shrinking natural resources. The North Eastern Region Vision 2020 statement signed and released by Falguni Rajkumar, Secretary, North Eastern Council, highlights the problem of soil erosion and paucity of water.

It mentions that soil erosion, especially in hill areas, is of crucial importance because in the hills agricultural productivity is constrained not only by the paucity of water but also by soil degradation. Further, India’s new Climate Economy report states that in India the depletion of natural capital takes a wide range of forms – erosion and degradation of agricultural soils, rapid depletion of groundwater resources, deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, and air and water pollution which cause increased illness and premature death, that is, to say which deplete the country’s human capital. According to the report, these depletions and damages are typically not captured in standard measures of economic welfare such as GDP and are often overlooked by policymakers. (India: Pathways to Sustaining Rapid Development in a New Climate Economy, Key Environmental Trends – depletion of Natural Capital, Local Pollution and GHGs;, report/India)

Deforestation Harms Agriculture

The dense mountain forestation tends to promote soil conservation and maintain groundwater level which is the primary requirement for crop production in the farms. The roots of trees in densely forested mountain ranges bind the soil and enable it to remain stationary in heavy rainfalls and also exert capillary action force on groundwater to enable it to ascend or not decline or to maintain a particular level. Due to immovability of soil in heavy rainfall, as a result of binding action of tree roots in dense forests, its quantity and quality – particularly mineral contents – remain conserved. And the same is true for conserved ground water too, which is well mineral enriched and easily available at a little depth in the wells for irrigation purpose. In this way, dense forests facilitate agriculture business by providing the essential quality natural resources, soil and water, in ample quantity. The continued deforestation in India since the initiation of 20th century, which accelerated till post independence period, harmed not only forestry but also agriculture business.

To compensate the agricultural losses due to deforestation, the policy of synthetic insecticide application was followed in India. Well known for the contribution to agricultural crop safety and chronic contagion control, the man-made insecticides and pesticides are also known for polluting environment – water and food. This situation is evident in India, where age-old insect controlling techniques like bio-control promotion and use of natural insecticide – mainly neem, (azadirachta indica) leaf juice – became obsolete since mid-20th century when synthetic insecticides DDT and BHC were imported in 1948 and indigenous production of both was initiated in 1952. However, as the consequence of synthetic insecticide application on farms, the groundwater, soils and crops in India got polluted. Therefore, it can be concluded that despite sustained by mechanisation, Indian agriculture is constrained by deforestation, unfortunately, going on in the country in the form of conversion of mountain forest tracts into mining and horizontally expanding housing zones.