In April of this year, India officially overtook China as the most populous country in the world when its population reached a whopping 1.426 billion people. Almost 75% of that population depends on the agriculture sector as a means of income, although said sector only makes up 15% of India’s economy, due to the growth of other industries. Though they make up a majority of the country, a significant portion of Indian farmers are poor, with 20% living under the poverty line in 2019. As a result of the considerable number of agricultural workers living within its borders, India is home to the largest tractor market in the world.
Fossil fuels power most of the machinery that the domestic tractor industry has manufactured, and the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates that diesel-powered tractors in India consume almost 8% of all the country’s fuel per year, close to the amount of all of its buses. In recent years, however, India’s tractor industry has imported and produced electric tractors, with Sonalika manufacturing the country’s first electric tractor in 2020. Introducing electric tractors in India on a widespread scale would offer several benefits to some of the country’s most impoverished residents.
Health Benefits Over Diesel
The primary benefit that electric tractors offer Indian farmers over diesel-powered tractors is their ability to help mitigate the issue of air pollution. Though the focus is often on cities when talking of poor air quality in India, air pollution in many rural areas of India is practically as high as levels in urban regions. The 2022 State of Global Air Report revealed that 1.6 million people in India died due to air pollution in 2019. What’s more, research shows that premature death due to air pollution alone is three times as common in rural areas compared to urban areas.
Expanding the use of electric tractors in India would help address this disparity as they are emission-free. Non-electric tractors, on the other hand, contribute to air pollution, and the ICCT approximates that diesel-powered tractors in India released “about 25 kilotonnes of particulate matter and almost 300 kilotonnes of nitrogen oxides as of 2020”. Electric tractors would lower the amount of pollution that rural Indians endure, making the air cleaner, safer and preventing deaths.
Another health benefit of electric tractors is that they are significantly quieter than non-electric tractors. Many tractors that run on fossil fuels have loud engines that can reach 100 decibels, a level that is capable of causing hearing damage after 15 minutes of exposure. Electric tractors, on the other hand, do not depend on an engine for power and therefore can operate at volumes that are much safer for farmers’ ears. Electric tractors would protect Indian farmers’ hearing and prevent them from needing hearing aids in the future or from being unable to afford any medical devices and instead being forced to take on the risks of working with hearing loss.
Although it’s true that the current price of electric tractors in India can often be twice that of diesel-powered machinery, which can be a barrier to the adoption of electric farm equipment, the ICCT calculates that the 10-year cost of owning and using an electric tractor is almost the same price as a traditional tractor. The reason for this is that electric tractors are 90% efficient in converting thermal energy to mechanical energy, whereas diesel-powered tractors are less than 30% efficient in completing the same task. Farmers who own electric tractors, then, can get more bang for their buck when it comes to powering and using their machinery, and end up spending less on energy in the long run.
Electric tractors also require less maintenance because they do not rely on an engine to run, meaning fewer parts could become damaged and require repair or replacement. This feature would allow farmers to save money and give them peace of mind regarding the durability of their electric equipment.
Regarding the financial downsides of non-electric tractors, diesel fuel is subject to frequent price fluctuations and is affected by geopolitical events like the ongoing Ukraine war. Electric tractors do not suffer from this risk of volatility in terms of the price of charging up machinery, and therefore provide farmers with a greater amount of financial security.
While there are currently no up-front incentives offered to buyers of electric tractors in India, the good news is that India’s government currently has several policies in place for electric on-road vehicles that it could easily extend to electric tractors. One of these policies is the FAME II scheme that, if applied to all zero-emission equipment in India, would provide subsidies that would lower the price of electric tractors to near, or even below, that of diesel machinery. The Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV), India’s association of electric vehicle manufacturers, has already called on the Indian government to extend subsidies to electric off-road equipment in their Union Budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year.
While India’s national and individual state governments have implemented measures to fight air pollution, talks of lowering emissions have often overlooked rural areas. As electric tractors in India become adopted more and more, the nation’s farmers and other rural residents will finally be able to rest — and breathe — easy knowing they are reaping most of the benefits.
– Sofia Oliver