1. Seeding a data revolution in Indian agriculture
But technology fixes and agri-business investments alone will not be enough to improve farmers’ livelihoods
In June this year, two significant documents relating to the Indian agriculture sector were released. The first is a consultation paper on the India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare (MoA&FW) and the second on Indian Agriculture: Ripe for Disruption from a private organisation, Bain and Company. The first talks about a digital revolution in the agriculture sector and later predicts a revolutionary investment growth in agri-logistics, offtake, and agri-input delivery by 2025; these are, surprisingly, highly complementary. The fact is that every segment of present-day life is data-hungry. The MoA&FW report describes creating data to fuel the growth predicted by Bain and Company.
The Bain report is a data-based prediction on agri-business scenarios, anchored to the agricultural set-up at present and predicting its future trajectories in another 20 years. It includes targeting the production of alternative proteins, and food cell-based food/ingredients and initiating ocean farming, etc. The report has a ‘today forward– future back approach’ and predicts a drastic investment opportunity development by 2025. The agriculture sector (currently worth $370 billion), is estimated to receive an additional $35 billion investment. The two enabling conditions for such investment opportunities are the changes in the regulatory framework, especially recent changes in the Farm Acts and digital disruption. The report argues that benefiting from the huge investments into the agri-ecosystem, doubling farmers’ income targets can be achieved in near future.
The idea of integration
The IDEA-consulting paper is based on the Task Force and Working Group report constituted by the MoA&FW to design the blueprint of “digital agriculture” — which is similar to the digital disruption mentioned in the Bain report. Eventually, the farmer and the improvement of farmers’ livelihood is the aim of the IDEA concept and it is proposed to happen through tight integration of agri-tech innovation and the agriculture industry ecosystem to farming and food systems. To be precise, the IDEA concept profounds the creation of second enabling conditions (which is described in the Bain report). The IDEA principles explicitly talk about openness of data, which means open to businesses and farmers, indicating the kind of integration it aims at.
Value-added innovative services by agri-tech industries and start-ups are an integral part of the IDEA architecture. Beyond the architecture, these services listed in the document (to be available on the platform) are equally important data for farmers and businesses. The Indian agriculture sector in future will encompass farm to fork and pave the way for a single national market with a national platform with better connection between producer and consumers. Through their work, the management experts, Parijat Jain, Prashant Sarin and Shalabh Singawne (the authors of the Bain report) have depicted the agriculture reforms announced by the union government as a game-changer in the agriculture sector.
A thread of digital disruption
The IT industry has opposition to IDEA mainly due to the ethics of creating a Unique Farmer ID based on one’s Aadhaar number and also the potential for data misuse. Beyond the news coverage about the prospects of achieving the goal of Doubling Farmers Income on which the present government has almost lost its hope, the Bain report has not been widely discussed — at least in the public domain. The assumptions used by authors of the Bain report, especially for its ‘future back approach’, need more or less focusing on widespread food production in controlled environments. No doubt, the emission, energy, and other resource footprints and sustainability issues around these techniques must be carefully studied to confirm the projected trajectory (which is not a part of the report). However, the report has convincingly demonstrated the business opportunity available in supply chains between farm to Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandi and mandi to the customer, which can be realised with the support of digital disruption and the latest agriculture reforms.
Both these reports heavily rely on digital disruption to improve farmers’ livelihoods, without discussing how much farmers will be prepared to benefit from these newly emerging business environments. Hinting that the Union government is serious about this digital support to the agriculture sector — the Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Narendra Singh Tomar, has emphasised the significance of the farmer’s database being prepared and has sought the support of States.
An unconvincing ‘how’
However, the fact is that a majority of small and marginal farmers are not technology-savvy. That most of them are under-educated for capacity building is ignored amidst these ambitious developments. The Bain report relies on the general assumption that more investments into the agriculture sector will benefit farmers; ‘but how’ has not been convincingly answered. Similarly, how the technology fix will help resolve all the nine issues of Indian agriculture listed at the beginning of the report is unclear in the IDEA concept. Together, the two reports look forward to benefiting from the recent agriculture legislature changes without perceiving the capacity-building required at a farmer’s end. Politically, these two reports ignore the protest of farmers against the reforms without considering it as a barrier or risk factor resulting in a repealing of these new farm laws.
Focus on the farmer
While agreeing on the fact that a data revolution is inevitable in the agriculture sector, given its socio-political complexities, we cannot just count on technology fixes and agri-business investments for improving farmers’ livelihoods. There need to be immense efforts to improve the capacities of the farmers in India – at least until the educated young farmers replace the existing under-educated small and medium farmers. This capacity building can be done through a mixed approach – preferably building the capacities of individual farmers or coping with the new situation by establishing support systems, through FPOs and other farmers associations where technical support is available for farmers. Considering the size of the agriculture sector of the country this is not going to be an easy task but would need a separate programme across the country with considerable investment.
Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare
Government is in the process of finalizing ‘India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)’ which will lay down a framework for Agristack
This Ecosystem shall help the Government in effective planning towards increasing the income of farmers in particular and improving the efficiency of the Agriculture sector as a whole
- Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Microsoft to run a pilot programme for 100 villages in 6 states.
- The MoU requires Microsoft to create a ‘Unified Farmer Service Interface’ through its cloud computing services.
- This will be a part of ‘AgriStack’ that the Govt. envisages to create.
- Agristack is a collection of technology-based interventions in agriculture, on which everything else will be built.
- Each farmer will have a unique digital identification that contains personal details, information about the land they farm, as well as production and financial details. Each ID will be linked to the individual’s digital national ID Aadhaar.
- AgriStack will create “a unified platform for farmers to provide them end to end services across the agriculture food value chain.
- The government, through its MoU, aims to provide ‘required data sets’ of farmers’ personal information to Microsoft to develop a farmer interface for ‘smart and well-organised agriculture’.
- Thereafter, the ministry signed four other MoUs that will include
- ‘farmer data sanitisation’, land profiling and crop estimation using remote sensing
- mobile applications, for pre- and post-harvest advisories.
- a mobile application for advising farmers on soil nutrition, accurate quantification on farmer crop and yield, fertiliser recommendations, and training farmers for using this application
- a “National Agri Data Stack” that can serve as a foundational data layer on which “agri focussed solutions” will be built.
- It will also offer its cloud services to solution providers to help build “solutions across agri value chain” and will also help agriculture related start-ups.
- a ‘national agriculture geo hub’, will provide the required GIS tools and technologies and create and collate farmer and other agriculture data services on GIS platform.
- With these, agriculture will become the latest sector getting a boost of ‘techno solutionism’ by the government.
What is the government’s new proposal
- The Centre published a consultation paper on an India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)
- It aims to keep farmers at the centre of agro-ecology by promoting free digital technologies. This is to be achieved through creating ‘AgriStack’ (a collection of technology-based interventions in agriculture), on which all the other services/platforms can be built
- Recognizing the importance of digitization in agriculture, The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare is preparing a centralised farmers database and formulating various services based on it in order to create a digital ecosystem for agriculture.
- This database will be linked with the land records of farmers across the country and unique farmer IDs will be generated.
- Under an integrated database for farmers, information related to all benefits and assistance provided through various schemes of the central and state governments can be kept at one place and it can be a source of information for providing benefits to the farmers in future.
- A database with the details of about 5 crore farmers has been prepared so far. It is expected that the database will soon be completed by incorporating the details of all landholding farmers into it.
- The available data related to PM Kisan, Soil Health Card and PM Crop Insurance Scheme have already been integrated.
- The process of collating data from other databases of the Ministry of Agriculture as well as the Ministries of Fertilizers, Food and Public Distribution is in progress.
Objectives of India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)
- To create a National Digital Agriculture Ecosystem, increase the efficiency and production of the Indian agriculture sector, and boost farmer welfare and income.
- Increasing farmer income through timely access to the relevant information and innovative services- To help reach the target of doubling farmers income by 2022
- Keeping policies, programmes, and plans of the federal and state governments, as well as the business sector and Farmers Producer Organizations, in sync with one another (FPOs).
- More efficient use of resources, such as land, water, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, and farm mechanisation, by making information more accessible.
- To provide location-specific and customised extension services across the agriculture lifecycle while also protecting personal data privacy.
- To develop capacities in a variety of areas, including digital agriculture and precision agriculture.
- Encourage agricultural R&D and innovation by providing high-quality data.
- Adoption of standards to ensure interoperability and information flow across ecosystems.
Advantages – India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)
- Enhances productivity and profitability of the farmers: Farmers will be able to make informed decisions about which crop to grow, what type of seed to use, when to sow and what best practices to adopt to maximize yield.
- Increases efficiency of logistics and supply chain system: Those involved in the agricultural supply chain can plan their procurement and logistics with accurate and timely information.
- Help in providing localized solutions and tailored recommendations to the farming community as per their needs . An accurate and smart farming can be possible by getting proper information at the right time.
- Integration with the market economy: Farmers can decide whether they have to sell or store their produce, and further when, where and at what price they have to sell it. In the process, farmers get benefitted from innovative solutions and individual-specific services powered by emerging technologies.
- Issue of data privacy and consent: especially in the absence of a data protection legislation (The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is currently still with the Joint Parliamentary Committee).
- This may result in exploitation of the farmers data by private players.
- Information asymmetry: tilted towards the technology companies, might further exploit farmers, especially small and marginal ones.
- Digital divide: as there is digital divide in rural India both in terms of the ‘access’ and ‘digital education’ of the farmers.
- Commercialization of agriculture extension activities: implied by the formation of ‘Agristack’, as they shift into a digital and private sphere. This may lead to exorbitant prices for these services, charged by the private companies.
- Risk of commodifying agriculture and farmer data: as Agristack could strengthen the asymmetry in information flow by providing all information about farmers and their farming easily to corporations.
- For example: supply of data to corporations who looked at farmers as a consumer base, be it agri inputs — seed, chemical fertiliser and pesticides,or fin-tech companies and to those for whom farmers were suppliers like the food industry, garment industry, etc.
- Exclusion of landless cultivators: As they don’t have any digital land records.
- Poor quality and implementation of the digital land records program: Many states have not implemented the digitization of land program and many have implemented partially.