Why can't India design ergonomic farm equipment? asks Surinder Sud.
Consider these startling facts. Nearly 45,000 agricultural workers lose their lives every year working in the fields and 755,000 others suffer various kinds of injuries, many of which can be wholly or partially debilitating. The economic losses from such accidents are estimated at a whopping Rs 54,000 crore (Rs 540 billion) a year.
The annual average rate of mishaps in the agriculture sector works out to 333 per 1,00,000 workers, and the fatality rate is 18.3 per 1,00,000 workers.
About 64.7 per cent of these accidents are due to the use of farm machines and other contraptions and hand tools. The remaining 35.3 per cent of the tragedies are the result of miscellaneous accidents such as snake and animal bites, falling in wells, lightning, heat stroke and the like.
Moreover, in the case of deadly mishaps, 44 per cent are caused by tractors and tractor-operated implements while the rest are due to equipment like electric motors and pump sets (31 per cent), sprayers (13 per cent), power tillers (10 per cent) and grain threshers (2 per cent).
This appalling, though not surprising, state of affairs in Indian agriculture has come to light in a field survey conducted in nearly 1,600 villages in seven states between 2004 and 2007.
This massive operation was carried out by an "all-India coordinated research project on ergonomics and safety in agriculture" under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The states involved were Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal.
Ergonomics, simply stated, is the science of the relationship between workers and their working environment -- which includes the method of working, tools used and ambient conditions.
The application of this science is vital in designing farm machinery, tools and other equipment to increase farm productivity and reduce the drudgery of labour and minimise the risk of accidents.
However, the awareness of this scientific discipline is woefully lacking among farm equipment makers, many of whom are tiny or small-scale manufacturers, and also among farmers and farm workers.
This all-India research project is trying to address this deficiency by designing relatively safer and more user-friendly equipment and by conceiving strategies and farm systems for minimising accidents.
It also conducts training and demonstrations to promote these designs and safety methods. Several state agricultural universities, farm research centres and even some Indian Institutes of Technology are associated with this project whose coordinating unit is located at the Bhopal-based Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering.
Indeed, as the size of the Indian farm workforce swells, from the present huge 241 million, and the mechanisation of farm operations, especially the use of self-propelled devices, increases, the incidence of farm accidents may be exacerbated. This would enhance the importance of ergonomics in agriculture.
At present, Indian agriculture is not as mechanised as desired.
Nor is the level of mechanisation even remotely comparable with that of the developed countries.
The total number of farm machines in operation in the country is only about 150 million, which includes about 3.5 million tractors and other self-propelled contraptions.
Much of the farm work is done by hand tools like spades, sickles, hand hoes and others which number roughly about 400 million. However, to achieve the much-needed precision in farm operations to obtain optimum yields, and to save time and costly labour, greater mechanisation of agricultural chores is imperative.
Self-propelled equipment is, for obvious reasons, more likely to cause serious injuries to the operators and others. This is borne out by the findings of the survey as well. However, the other tools, too, are not wholly risk-free, if not used carefully.
The risk of getting injured is far greater if the equipment is badly designed or lacks appropriate safety features, which is mostly the case with India-made farm machines and equipment. "Due attention needs to be paid to the capabilities and limitations of agricultural equipment while designing and operating them to achieve higher productivity and enhanced safety and comfort of workers," asserts L P Gite, project director.
This sane counsel merits to be heard but also acted upon. The government, on its part, can amend the outdated Dangerous Machines Regulation Act, 1983, to make it mandatory for equipment makers to incorporate ergonomic features in their products. There is need also for suitable compensation for victims of such mishaps.