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The Ludicrous Claim That Indian Farming Is Too Mechanised

Delhi is suffering from the usual winter smog. This is not, as it might be with say Beijing, because there’s too much coal burning going on, too much industrialisation. Rather, it’s because of, at least in part, the burning of the stubble of the paddy crop. Given this difference in cause the solution is of course different. On the road to which we find the entirely ludicrous claim that Indian farms are too mechanised. That they’ve reached their limit, in fact should retreat from where they are. Not just ludicrous, this is unspeakably absurd for to make that claim is to insist that the living standards of Indian farmers are never going to improve. Something we could in fact achieve, that improvement, by having fewer Indian farmers and more mechanisation.

The pollution thing:

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has some bad news for the citizens of Delhi – Air pollution is not going to come down anytime soon and it is best to stay indoors. The pollution watchdog on Saturday also maintained that people should avoid going for outdoor physical activities like jogging or cycling as the Air Quality Index (AQI) hit a ‘very poor’ 361 on Friday evening.

The abysmal plunge in the air quality has resulted in deteriorating health of thousands of those who are ‘at risk’ due to pre-existing medical conditions. The situation is also grimmer for children, pregnant women and the elderly.

We may well like the economic activity that leads to pollution even as we don’t like the costs of the pollution. So, what’s causing it?

Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana contributed to 32 per cent of Delhi’s overall pollution today, according to a report by the Centre-run System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research (SAFAR).

The report, which analyses the impact of pollutant PM2.5, showed that the highest contribution since October 11 by stubble burning was seen on Friday at 36 per cent.

Such burning of the waste is already illegal:

Farmers in Punjab continue to burn paddy stubble every winter despite a ban on the practice. Jacob Koshy and Vikas Vasudeva report on the compulsions that drive farmers to adopt this method of clearing their fields and the efforts by the State administration to wean them off it.

Well, yes, we all know about legal and illegal when people really want to do something.

So, what to do about this? Which is where we get to the absurd claim of over-mechanisation:

The stubble burning phenomenon in Haryana and Punjab is linked to three unlikely factors: the (relatively) large size of landholdings of farmers in these states; the (consequent), high level of mechanisation; and, only in Punjab, a water conservation law that shortens the harvest window, HT’s reporting has shown.

OK, larger land holdings means that more mechanisation takes place. It’s easier to justify machines when you’ve more land to work them over. Machine cutting of rice paddy leaves stalks which are best dealt with by burning. And the restrictions upon irrigation time mean that all the farmers are planting the same strain and varietal thus harvesting at the same time, burning stubble at the same time.

Interesting – trying to solve one environmental problem causes another. Almost as if there’s a circle of life or something.

But then this claim:

These relatively large land-holdings mean farmers can afford to use machines, at least for some critical functions.

Crop-residue burning has intensified over the past decade because of multiple reasons, said Manpreet Singh, a farm engineering specialist at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.

The use of mechanized harvesters, which result in loose straw, is one of the key reasons, he said.

Punjab’s high farm mechanisation levels have now become counter-productive.

According to a report by the Environmental Information System (ENVIS) Centre, Punjab, farm mechanisation in the state has reached its “saturation point” and therefore “no more viable, both economically and environmentally”.

This is to make two horrible errors. The first is this technical one:

The state also has seen a boom in sale of mechanised harvesters.

The harvesters are designed to shave off the grainy part of paddy, leaving loose straw in their wake. Farmers find it cheaper to clear the residue by burning.


To curb the practice, the Centre last year announced funds totaling ₹1151.80 crore (₹ 591.65 crore for 2018-19 and ₹560.15 crore for 2019-20) to subsidise the use of additional farm equipment, such as the straw management system or SMS.

These smaller machines, which can be attached to mechanized harvesters, shred the residue, eliminating the need to burn them.

That is, we can solve part of Delhi’s pollution problem by greater mechanisation of the Punjab’s farms. Meaning that the Punjab’s farms aren’t over-mechanised, are they?


But then there’s the larger and more theoretic error. The maximum possible living standard of a farmer – sustainably, without begging for assistance from others – is the value of the crops he produces. And it’s simply not going to be possible to have a grand lifestyle on the output of 5 acres. That’s what in the US or Canada they call the corner of a field. Even in the UK it’s two orders of magnitude below something that would produce a living as a landholding.

We would, of course, like all Indians to have grand lifestyles. Which will indeed happen, 8% GP growth rates annually do that pretty well in time. But part of that is going to have to be there being fewer farmers. And thus larger land holdings – which will be more mechanised. This is actually a useful definition of economic development – when we’ve not got people trying to scrape a living out of 5 acres of paddy but perhaps 1 % of that number running 500 acres apiece while the other 99% are off in the factories and service industries building a civilisation.

And no, while you can indeed claim that India has, and has had, a number of vibrant civilisations it’s not village life that encapsulates them. Maybe in Gandhi’s more fevered dreams but in no one else’s.

To claim that India’s farms are overmechanised is ludicrous. The truth being that they’re not large enough to be mechanised the more that they need to be. For that’s the only method that will improve the standard of living of those Indians who are no longer farmers – that is, near all Indians when the country gets rich.

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5 years ago

For listeners in the North, 5 acres is about 20 terraced houses.

5 years ago
Reply to  jgh

Those would be right proper grand houses at ¼ acre each.

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