Once declared a “failure”, paddy transplanters are slowly making a comeback in Punjab, with an estimated 4,500 acres being covered using these machines in the current kharif season. The stimulus: A huge shortage of manual transplanting labour and costs skyrocketing to as high as Rs 3,000-3,500 per acre.
In 2009, the Punjab government had imported 450 paddy transplanters — these take the seedlings grown on trays/mats containing soil and nutrients, and mechanically replant them in fields — from China and Japan through private companies and distributed to farmers on a 40 per cent subsidy basis. But farmers dumped them, citing technical snags and maintenance problems, particularly with the Chinese-made machines. Moreover, they weren’t comfortable with preparing paddy seedlings on trays/mats, as opposed to conventional sowing in nurseries.
However, the sheer shortage and rising cost of manual transplanting seems to have impelled farmers to explore mechanical alternatives. The 4,500 acres covered by transplanters may be only fraction of the state’s total 30.42 lakh hectares paddy area this year, but agriculture department officials consider it as more than a small beginning.
There are two kinds of paddy transplanters. The first ‘walk-behind’ machines can be operated by just one person (plus a helper to load the trays) and costs Rs 2-2.5 lakh. The second is a ‘self-propelled’ transplanter that can accommodate three, including the driver, and comes for Rs 10 lakh. The walk-behind transplanter can cover 3-6 acres a day, assuming eight hours working time, while the self-propelled can do 10-12 acres.
“The capital cost is high. But in manual transplanting, you require 7-12 persons and they can at most cover 1-2 acres daily. Also, farmers this time have had to fork out up to Rs 3,500 per acre. While there is a subsidy of 40 per cent, we could probably increase it to 75 per cent in order to bring down the initial investment,” says Ranbir Singh Randhawa, district agricultural engineer for Amritsar and Tarn Taran.
In Badduwal village of Moga district’s Dharamkot tehsil alone, roughly 250 acres of paddy area was transplanted mechanically in this season. “Even after adding nursery preparation, my cost of sowing and transplanting would have been just Rs 600 per acre. Besides, I am saving on time and the hassles of hunting for labour,” notes Gurjant Singh. The 58-year-old has transplanted his own 40-acre holding using machine, apart from renting it out to two other farmers, who paid him Rs 3,000 per acre, including for setting the nursery on seedling trays.
Satnam Singh, 40, is of the opinion that transplanters also score technically over manual labour. “Punjab Agricultural University scientists recommend that at least 33 seedlings should be planted every square meter. Labourers, however, will do only 12-15, unless you go after them and provide food and other comforts. With transplanters, not only is the optimum planting achieved, but yields also go up by 2-3 quintals per acre,” claims this farmer from Rajjian village of Amritsar’s Ajnala tehsil, who has transplanted his 18 acres, plus the fields of four others, using his machine. He, too, has charged a rate of Rs 3,500 per acre, including for nursery preparation.
According to Rashpal Singh from Ramdas village in the same tehsil/district, the difficult part in using transplanters is to learn how to prepare the paddy nursery on mats/trays. “Once that is done, there’s nothing easier. A walk-behind machine consumes only five litres of petrol to cover three acre. Even if you add nursery preparation and labour of two people, the total cost will not exceed Rs 600-650 per acre,” he states.
Currently, there are an estimated 150 transplanters working in Punjab, which includes the 20-25 from the original lot imported in 2009. “One reason why these machines failed to click earlier was because they cannot work on uneven surfaces and laser-levelling of land, too, wasn’t common then. Also, labour was relatively cheaper and finding them was not so much of a problem. But today, farmers are even taking out dumped machines and using them after repairs”, points out Jasbir Singh Bains, director of agriculture, Punjab government.