Indian government’s digital push in agriculture raises concerns


Ramanjaneyulu GV seethes with disdain remembering the occasions agricultural know-how start-ups pitched to him over the previous eight years. On supply was the complete rainbow of companies: market options and climate predictions for larger agricultural yield, higher high quality produce, extra income. Everything that, in concept, needs to be welcome.

“My opposition was not to the technology – my opposition was to the approach,” mentioned the agricultural scientist who heads the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a Hyderabad institute that teaches natural farming to cooperatives of 25,000 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra.

What irked Ramanjaneyulu was the start-ups’ urge for food for knowledge. “They see that a major area of new control is in data,” he mentioned. Ramanjaneyulu feared that the start-ups would give priority to backside traces over farmers’ pursuits – a worry that grew as these start-ups have been purchased by bigger know-how firms.

Galvanised by what he thought of a disconcerting development, Ramanjaneyulu got down to create his personal options. So, 4 years in the past, his Centre for Sustainable Agriculture made a climate advisory software, a web based market, a pest-and-disease surveillance app, a producing stock app and a high quality administration app – all built-in on a backend database of farmers.

This October, on the three-storey institute, near labs for testing soil samples and an natural retailer, workers have been hunched over their laptops, remotely coaching farmers across the nation. In an adjoining workplace, lead certification analyst Chandrakala Pakki watched discipline operators feed in seasonal crop knowledge.

On her display was Rama Devi Challa, the sphere operator in cost of the Vijayanagaram cooperative. Challa gave Pakki a digital tour of a farm after which pointed the digital camera at Yedla Krishna, a farmer she was gathering knowledge from. Krishna learn out details about crop yield, irrigation quantities and pre- and post-harvest amenities from his Sendriya Rythu Diary (a document ebook), as Challa duly fed it right into a cell app.

Rama Devi Challa, a discipline operator for the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, collects knowledge from farmers. Credit: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

Back in the Hyderabad workplace, Pakki analysed the incoming knowledge in a 40-column spreadsheet. The info was transferred by her staff right into a dashboard that integrates all of the databases underneath a farmer group ID and QR code. Eventually, this consolidated image can be used to certify natural meals, monitor provide for the market, and preserve traceability for the consumers.

“If we don’t build these databases, somebody else will and they will be in control of us,” mentioned Ramanjaneyulu. “We need to come up with indigenous solutions. Saying that there should not be a Microsoft or Google won’t work. Even if they are there, how do we protect ourselves?”

The query has develop into central in the world of agricultural know-how, or agritech in brief, because the Union Agriculture Ministry finalises India’s first main governmental push in digital agriculture – AgriStack.

Formerly known as India Digital Ecosystem Architecture, or IDEA, the AgriStack initiative is a “collection of technologies and digital databases” that can be utilized by the federal government to supply every farmer with a novel ID linked to their Aadhaar quantity. The initiative is about to be finalised in November by committees arrange by the Agriculture Ministry and is awaiting the agriculture minister’s approval.

To construct the database, the ministry is tapping into the prized knowledge of 11.5 crore landholding farmers collected underneath the PM-KISAN programme. This can be built-in with different units of knowledge from initiatives like Faisal Bhima Yojana (a crop insurance coverage scheme), the Soil Health Card, and satellite tv for pc imagery from the Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre.

Eventually, if every farmer ID is linked, the database can be just like the Unified Payments Interface system. Both non-public and public gamers will be capable of faucet into it for presidency schemes and company companies.

The Agriculture Ministry’s AgriStack initiative centres on the concept of an Aadhaar-linked distinctive ID for each farmer in India. Credit: Manpreet Romana/AFP.

“The complete picture of this jigsaw puzzle is that once we have the data collected and validated… [it will] give us a pathway to bring digital technologies to the farmer,” mentioned Vivek Aggarwal, the extra secretary at Agriculture Ministry who jumpstarted its digital agriculture division and has led the AgriStack venture because the starting.

The means the federal government envisions it, AgriStack will allow direct profit transfers, help in yield forecasting and worth discovery, and perhaps even tackle pest infestation and crop wastage. The authorities says the venture will assist “in effective planning towards increasing the income of farmers in particular and improving the efficiency of the Agriculture sector as a whole”.

The stakes are excessive. Agriculture stays one of many largest employers in India. Seventy per cent of its rural households nonetheless rely totally on agriculture for his or her livelihood, in keeping with the Food and Agriculture Organization. Of these hundreds of thousands, 86% are nonetheless small and marginal farmers, proudly owning or cultivating lower than 5 acres of land. In a day, a mean farm family earns simply ₹277, an abysmally low determine.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to double farmer earnings by 2022, extremely formidable to start out with, might have most likely been extra possible with company participation. But with the federal government forcing via three controversial farm legal guidelines, resulting in protracted protests and farmer anger, the AgriStack initiative is seen by many with cynicism.

“One must not approach problems through the perspective of only technology but rather a perspective where farmers identify the problems. It may be that not all the solutions are rooted in technology,” learn a letter despatched to the Agriculture Ministry by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. The letter was signed by almost 100 agricultural or technology-related organisations.

Ramanjaneyulu shares an analogous view. It’s not a query of no know-how or all know-how, he says. “My question is, will this be good for the farmer, or will it be market exploitation? Will this be useful for the people or just for the companies?”

Muddled Data

Agricultural know-how, or agritech, is seen by its champions as a method of addressing meals shortage and buttressing local weather resistance by minimising prices and sources. There are often 4 forms of agritech: 1. on-line marketplaces (which stay the dominant class); 2. monetary tech with mortgage and insurance coverage choices; 3. precision know-how with sensors or satellite tv for pc imagery for analysing crops; and 4. info and advisories.

In 2019, India’s agritech market dimension was $204 million, with roughly 50 start-ups receiving non-public funding yearly, in keeping with Ernst & Young. The sector nonetheless will get a number of fanfare and ample investments. But, as Ernst & Young and others have famous, the area remains to be small, capturing merely 1% of the full market potential.

The Indian authorities believes AgriStack will allow direct profit transfers, help in yield forecasting and worth discovery. Credit: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons.

“The start-ups have the technology… but one of the biggest struggles has been data,” mentioned Purushottam Kaushik, who helped the Agriculture Ministry draft the AgriStack coverage doc. Much of the agricultural knowledge in India, he defined, is messy or inaccurate, usually based mostly on paperwork that’s disputed or in completely different languages.

Unless this elementary land data downside is addressed, the agritech sector can not transfer ahead, consultants say. “If the government wants to prioritise AgriStack, the most important layer is not the farmer ID – it’s digitizing the land records,” mentioned Mark Kahn, a widely known agritech investor who has labored in India for over a decade.

Still, no matter knowledge the federal government does have is “hugely valuable” and the non-public sector has its eye on it. “If you talk to companies like CropIn [a farm analytics firm] and SatSure [a satellite technology firm], they invest a lot of resources just to capture the data,” mentioned Kaushik, who has labored with Karnataka and Telangana governments on constructing initiatives like AgriStack.

Missing Safeguards

In the previous yr, the Agriculture Ministry has signed at the very least 9 memorandums of understanding with firms like Amazon Web Services, Patanjali, Microsoft, Cisco and Jio to “prove the concept” of AgriStack in a set of districts or villages, mentioned Aggarwal. “They are drawing on the database, validating the data with farmers on the ground, taking their consent, and onboarding their apps [to the farmers’ devices] to complete the solutions,” he added.

For one of many tasks, the federal government offered AgriBazaar, a non-public on-line market for agri-commodities, the land data of a block in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna district. Left by itself, the corporate would have taken 5 months to scrape this info from public databases, says AgriBazaar’s Head of Institutional Business Atul Chhura. Once this hurdle was overcome, AgriBazaar’s discipline employees started gathering additional knowledge from farmers about their farms, mentioned Chhura. Next on their to-do record is the duty of triangulating the knowledge with satellite tv for pc imagery and onboarding native authorities officers to make use of this knowledge and supply advisories.

This author spoke to a number of farm leaders and farmers in Guna to gauge their response to the AgriBazaar venture. None mentioned they have been being surveyed.

Varun Pratham Singh, the pinnacle of a Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Guna, is sceptical of some agritech concepts, though nobody has come to his space to promote options. He says he runs at the very least 9 WhatsApp teams via which he distributes advisories virtually daily to farmers in his tehsil. “They all use WhatsApp, but no one sells or buys anything online,” he mentioned. “That won’t work in villages – they aren’t high-tech enough and no one would go that far to sell to them anyway.”

Away from the villages, the pilot tasks have raised eyebrows, even throughout the agritech world. “I would question them a little: why Jio?” requested Kahn. “Why are these pilots going to the largest companies in India? This is a question of corporatism as opposed to capitalism.”

Experts advise warning: they worry that farmer knowledge could also be misused to take advantage of them. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP.

Even a few of those that helped develop the AgriStack blueprint specific concerns. “My personal views were that signing these MoUs was not the idea in the way it was planned,” mentioned Abhishek Singh, CEO of the National e-Governance Division in the IT Ministry and the pinnacle of one in all 4 AgriStack committees. “It should have been more like the National Digital Health Mission… Anyone who wants to build the solution is welcome.”

Critics produce other questions. Why have been farmer organisations not noted of the drafting of the initiative? What occurs to farmers who, for some cause, get excluded from the database? Who will be certain that farmer knowledge shouldn’t be used for land acquisition or exploited for insurance coverage and loans by non-public firms?

Growth Story

Answers to those queries could also be a very long time coming. Until then, there isn’t a denying that farmers are not simply producers of meals however, more and more, knowledge.

Fasal is an agritech firm in Bengaluru that makes use of sensors to measure crop situations and advise farmers on irrigation, fertilisers, illness management and extra. It boasts that its two-metre white sensor might be put in in the soil by farmers themselves, with none help. Another supply of pleasure for it’s that whereas the India Meteorological Department has roughly 75,000 climate stations throughout the nation, Fasal has as many in simply 4 Maharashtra districts.

“We eventually want to primarily become a data company,” mentioned Fasal founder Ananda Verma, who hails from a farming household.

Ananda Verma owns an agritech firm, Fasal, that makes use of sensors to measure crop situations and advise farmers on irrigation, fertilisers, illness management and extra. Credit: Fasal.

At the second, the corporate has 2,000 farmer subscribers overlaying 50,000 acres. “We know what these farmers are growing, what they have done on their farm, and what kind of quality they are going to get,” mentioned Verma. Each farmer is at present charged a month-to-month subscription of as much as Rs 750. But as soon as the corporate gathers sufficient knowledge and monetises it via an information platform shared with product or insurance coverage firms, Verma says, the subscription charge could also be waived.

“With the kind of visibility we have, there will be a point someday when Fasal will be able to tell Monsanto that Nashik will require a particular chemical because there is a disease build-up,” Verma pronounced.

Undoubtedly, knowledge lends itself to economies of scale. “Even if agricultural data are ‘open’, farmers are not necessarily equipped to conduct the right sort of analysis that can add any value,” writes Alistair Fraser, a Lecturer in the Department of Geography at Ireland’s Maynooth University. Besides, the remoted knowledge particular person farmers might need shouldn’t be as helpful as a big assortment of knowledge factors.

Fraser predicts “a landscape in which farmers submit data, even via open toolkits, that only the largest firms will be able to use effectively.” He advised this author that he was notably involved about how knowledge tasks might improve common plot sizes in the Global South, decreasing the variety of meals producers.

Nachiket Udupa, a member of the steering committee of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, hyperlinks AgriStack to the broader arc of the controversial farm legal guidelines, one in all which permits farmers to promote outdoors Agricultural Produce Market Committee mandis. “It all stems from the same mindset,” Udupa mentioned. By deregulating agricultural markets and permitting contract farming, any authorities might allow an e-commerce web site to manage the market, he says. The outcome can be much like how ride-hailing apps lured drivers with enticing charges, solely to alter the contracts later, says the letter to the Agriculture Ministry from the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

Some of these in favour of AgriStack discover this conjecture doubtful. Hemendra Mathur, a enterprise capitalist who heads FICCI’s agritech taskforce, says the Global North’s large-scale agriculture is inherently completely different from India’s small farms – and that’s unlikely to alter. “In this sector, I’m 100% confident you won’t see an Amazon or Flipkart or Byju’s or OYO,” he mentioned. “You will see hundreds of thousands of winners.”

Ajit Korde makes use of Fasal’s scanner on his 70-acre tomato farm in Maharashtra’s Satara district. Credit: Ajit Korde.

Besides, AgriStack supporters argue, does the farmer even care? “The Indian farmer is different from the Western farmer – at the end of the day, they just want to make money,” claimed Verma. “They are ready to provide the data and they aren’t concerned if it’s taken by Monsanto.”

Support for this view comes from Ajit Korde, a farmer in Maharashtra’s Satara district who owns a 70-acre tomato farm. In April, Korde paid Rs 50,000 for Fasal’s scanner that got here with a free year-long subscription. Using the scanner has diminished his water consumption by 30%. “The algorithm remains in the background,” he mentioned. “The application gives information – how much water to give, what disease is there. It helps make decisions, but the cost is a lot. The average farmer cannot afford this.”

Karishma Mehrotra is an impartial journalist. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Technology Writings for 2021.