Opinion: Bornali Bhandari and Laxmi Joshi.
Farm mechanisation drive hit by limited R&D.
The recently released NCAER White Paper on ‘Making India a Global Power House in the Farm Machinery Industry’ reveals there is a mismatch between what the organised Indian industrial sector is producing and what the small and marginal Indian farmers want at an affordable price. One of the challenges on the supply side is limited research and development (R&D) in the non-tractors farm machinery (NTFM) sector.
Medium-to-large firms form a relatively small proportion of the overall industry and are the only ones that are likely to do R&D. The industry is dominated by small producers and village craftsmen at the bottom, who survive by copying successful products or assembling cheap imports.
While total R&D has gone up, the composition has shifted towards the private sector. Though the number of patents filed in agricultural engineering is growing, its share in the total is still very small.
The R&D programmes in India have so far mainly served the rice-wheat cropping system. The range of the equipment is not wide enough to facilitate agricultural diversification. Equipment for the mechanisation of hill agriculture and horticulture is not commonly available. There is little innovation, particularly in operations like irrigation, plant growth and post-harvesting.
There is limited academic-industry collaboration in this field. India lacks an efficient system for transfer of new designs/technology developed by research institutes to manufacturers/fabricators. Initiatives like the Technology Development Board (TDB) under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) exist but with limited impact. There is a need to develop links between research institutes and industry.
R&D programmes should focus on the development of appropriate farm machinery for medium, small and marginal, and women farmers. It should develop region- and crop-specific machinery which also addresses recovery and management of crop residue.
Innovations in light farm machinery, solar-powered equipment and smart/precision farming may be encouraged. Agricultural universities and Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutes that have sufficient manpower and R&D facilities for mechanisation should be identified and assigned the responsibility for R&D in different agro-economic zones.
Similar to the Bayh-Dole Act of the US, India needs to enact a law that enables universities, non-profit research institutions and small businesses to own, patent and commercialise inventions developed under government-funded research programmes within their organisations.
Interface for academics and industrialists through Technology Transfer Offices by the DST can be strengthened. Industries can use public academic lab facilities for a small fee. R&D projects can be co-funded by universities and private partners. The Start-up India scheme should be implemented at ICAR institutes. Incubation cells to encourage entrepreneurship should be developed.
Technoparks can be established in new or existing clusters where institutions, private firms and individual faculty can work together on research projects. Research-linked incentive (RLI) is another tool to encourage innovations in light farm machinery and precision farming.
Both research and entrepreneurship ecosystems should be created and encouraged in Industrial Training Institutes. District-level patent offices need to be opened and strengthened, and the patent offices of State agricultural universities need to cater to the needs of the local communities. Corporate partnerships, like Maruti Suzuki Innovation is doing in the auto sector, will also help. Imparting some amount of engineering knowledge to more farmers can spur innovation.
Bhandari is a Professor, and Joshi is a Fellow, at NCAER. Views are personal