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Cruel Joke: How governments have continually mocked Indian farmers

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By Meghna

The dependence of any society on agriculture is an undeniable fact. Regardless of this, the Indian farmer is at the fringes of economic development and barely receives enough economic support from the government, despite being the chief source of production and chief supplier of raw materials. Year after year, the farmers are subjected to mockery in the name of compensation of losses.

Recently, the PDP-BJP alliance government of Jammu and Kashmir derided the woes of the farmers by doling out meager amounts ranging from Rs.47- Rs.378, as compensation to the peasants whose crops were destroyed in the 2014 floods. This is not the first time the farmers have received such a puny sum of money as compensation.

In 2013, the farmers of Vidarbha region of Maharashtra got pittance as compensation despite the chief minister announcing Rs 2,000 crores as aid for the flood hit regions of Vidarbha, a report in The Hindu had revealed. The farmers incurred losses amounting to Rs 15,000 during the monsoon floods of 2013, but received meager amounts in the range of Rs 80-100 from the government as compensation.

Year after year, the farmers incur such losses and the government rubs salt on their wounds. The compensation provided by the government can barely aid the farmer and their families in providing themselves one day’s meal.

There have also been cases where farmers of Agra got cheques in the name of deceased farmers.

The scanty amounts have time and again made the farmers take harsh steps, like in Haryana, in 2015, a farmer committed suicide owing to the scanty amount he received as compensation. More and more families of farmers are being pushed towards destitution by the government.

This year, in Mathura, some farmers who had incurred losses amounting to Rs. 80,000, owing to the off season rains in March, received cheques worth Rs. 73, Rs. 186 and Rs. 750, as per a report.

With the passage of time, such instances of bizarre distribution of relief funds to the farmers have magnified in frequency and magnitude. A recent report published by DNA exposed the Haryana Government has giving away amounts as low as Re 1, Rs. 2 and Rs. 3 to the farmers of Mewat as compensation for the crops they lost during the 2014 hailstorms.

When the forces of nature act, there is nothing the poor farmer can do. Agriculture being the sustenance of everyone, the government should take some actions to pull the farmers from the depths of poverty.

Various governments have come and gone, but the condition of the poor Indian farmer has remained unchanged.

In light of such abysmal compensation sums being awarded, why would anyone want to become a farmer in India?

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The Future Farmer is Here and He is A Robot

The heavy lifting on Iron Ox’s indoor farm is done by Angus, which rolls about the indoor farm on omnidirectional wheels. Its main job is to shuttle maturing produce to another,

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Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander gives a tour at his robotic indoor farm in San Carlos, California. VOA

Brandon Alexander would like to introduce you to Angus, the farmer of the future. He’s heavyset, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pounds, not to mention a bit slow. But he’s strong enough to hoist 800-pound pallets of maturing vegetables and can move them from place to place on his own.

Sure, Angus is a robot. But don’t hold that against him, even if he looks more like a large tanning bed than C-3PO.

To Alexander, Angus and other robots are key to a new wave of local agriculture that aims to raise lettuce, basil and other produce in metropolitan areas while conserving water and sidestepping the high costs of human labor. It’s a big challenge, and some earlier efforts have flopped. Even Google’s “moonshot” laboratory, known as X, couldn’t figure out how to make the economics work.

After raising $6 million and tinkering with autonomous robots for two years, Alexander’s startup Iron Ox says it’s ready to start delivering crops of its robotically grown vegetables to people’s salad bowls. “And they are going to be the best salads you ever tasted,” says the 33-year-old Alexander, a one-time Oklahoma farmboy turned Google engineer turned startup CEO.

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The temperatures of some two dozen plant varietals are monitored at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, California. VOA

Iron Ox planted its first robot farm in an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in San Carlos, California, a suburb located 25 miles south of San Francisco. Although no deals have been struck yet, Alexander says Iron Ox has been talking to San Francisco Bay area restaurants interested in buying its leafy vegetables and expects to begin selling to supermarkets next year.

The San Carlos warehouse is only a proving ground for Iron Ox’s long-term goals. It plans to set up robot farms in greenhouses that will rely mostly on natural sunlight instead of high-powered indoor lighting that sucks up expensive electricity. Initially, though, the company will sell its produce at a loss in order to remain competitive.

During the next few years, Iron Ox wants to open robot farms near metropolitan areas across the U.S. to serve up fresher produce to restaurants and supermarkets. Most of the vegetables and fruit consumed in the U.S. is grown in California, Arizona, Mexico and other nations. That means many people in U.S. cities are eating lettuce that’s nearly a week old by the time it’s delivered.

There are bigger stakes as well. The world’s population is expected to swell to 10 billion by 2050 from about 7.5 billion now, making it important to find ways to feed more people without further environmental impact, according to a report from the World Resources Institute.

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A robotic arm lifts plants being grown at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, California. VOA

Iron Ox, Alexander reasons, can be part of the solution if its system can make the leap from its small, laboratory-like setting to much larger greenhouses.

The startup relies on a hydroponic system that conserves water and automation in place of humans who seem increasingly less interested in U.S. farming jobs that pay an average of $13.32 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly half of U.S. farmworkers planting and picking crops aren’t in the U.S. legally, based on a survey by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The heavy lifting on Iron Ox’s indoor farm is done by Angus, which rolls about the indoor farm on omnidirectional wheels. Its main job is to shuttle maturing produce to another, as-yet unnamed robot, which transfers plants from smaller growing pods to larger ones, using a mechanical arm whose joints are lubricated with “food-safe” grease.

It’s a tedious process to gently pick up each of the roughly 250 plants on each pallet and transfer them to their bigger pods, but the robot doesn’t seem to mind the work. Iron Ox still relies on people to clip its vegetables when they are ready for harvest, but Alexander says it is working on another robot that will eventually handle that job too.

Also Read: Asian Farms Tackle Drug Resistance with Apps and Dictionary

Alexander formerly worked on robotics at Google X, but worked on drones, not indoor farms. While there, he met Jon Binney, Iron Ox’s co-founder and chief technology offer. The two men became friends and began to brainstorm about ways they might be able to use their engineering skills for the greater good.

“If we can feed people using robots, what could be more impactful than that?” Alexander says. (VOA)