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In India, farmers can now hail a tractor with an Uber-like app

With nearly half of its population dependent on farming as a livelihood, a new app helps Indian farmers rent the machinery they need.

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    Farmers thresh wheat beneath a row of windmills in India's Duhle District. A new Uber-like smartphone app from Mahindra & Mahindra is designed to help Indian farmers find tractors for hire.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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An Indian company has adopted an Uber-like business plan to solve a problem unique to many Indian farmers: The lack of access to cheap tractors.

It used to be an informal and degrading process to rent tractors, according to The New York Times, where farmers are subjected to discriminatory treatment from equipment owners and prices that could be hiked during high-demand periods. Mahindra & Mahindra, a major Indian vehicle manufacturer, decided to ease access by allowing the farmers to rent tractors through an app or call center.

"One of the things that struck us was the toll it took on the self-esteem of the farmer," Rajesh Jejurikar, chief executive of the company’s farm-equipment division, told the paper. "It was, literally, like having to beg for it. He didn’t feel like it was his right."

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The problem the company tried to tackle goes beyond merely adding convenience to the farmers’ lives. More than 850 million Indians live in rural areas, according to The Economist, and nearly 60 percent of them are farmers, many of them live in poverty.

Compounding the situation are unpredictable rainfall and rising temperatures from global warming, forcing the already cash-strapped farmers to fork out huge amounts to pay for new technology if they want to survive.

"Agriculture in these parts is not just a livelihood, it's a way of life," Harpreet Singh, a farmer in the village of Birnaraya, told The Christian Science Monitor in 2014 in an article about farmers learning how to invest in technologies to help with irrigation and detection of infestations.

The cost of technology is not cheap, and the toll it has taken on rural farmers has led to the disturbing trend of farmer suicides, as Al Jazeera reported. After taking out huge loans to buy seeds, fertilizers, pay salaries, and acquire irrigation equipment, some have gone into debt and are unable to pay it off when the yields are low.

While there are many areas in the agriculture system that locals and experts point out the government should amend, the Uber-for-tractors solution would bring immediate a sense of relief to farmers who need tractors and have the app available to them. Through the smartphone app Trringo rolled out in September, farmers can place a request for a tractor either by submitting information through the app or arranging the rental through a call center. The cost is between 400 and 700 rupees (about $6 to $10) an hour. Buying a tractor in India would cost at least 250,000 rupees (about $48,000).

The app is now available in the state of Karnataka and will soon be in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. The company also plans to expand its tools to harvesters and rice transplanters, both expensive equipment that farmers only need a few times in a year.

Indian farmers have in the past raised funds together to buy new machinery, as the Monitor previously reported, allowing them access to high-tech agricultural equipment. Those strategies can work: Some farmers saw increased incomes because of savings on electricity, diesel, labor, and water.

[Editor's note: An earlier version overstated typical cost of a tractor in India.]

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