Will the Indian government’s move to use tech to fix agriculture enthuse its farmers?

But will this productivity-driving initiative really take off when the most prosperous farmers belonging to the vanguard agrarian regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh firmly remain on the path of agitation against government efforts to fix agriculture through reform? writes N. Chandra Mohan for South Asia Monitor

N Chandra Mohan Sep 29, 2021
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Indian farmer

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is putting into place a foundational AgriStack - a collection of technology-based interventions in agriculture - with data from over 50 million farmers that it has been gathering since 2014. The data is sourced from existing schemes like PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana (Prime Minister's Farmer's Tribute Fund), Soil Health Card and PM Fasal Bima Yojana (Prime Minister’s crop insurance scheme).  and will be linked to land records available with state governments.

Once this information is seeded into a single database, Artificial Intelligence and data analytics can be harnessed to provide actionable intelligence and personalized services that can boost farmer incomes by addressing challenges like plateauing yields, soil degradation, inadequate market infrastructure, volatile prices, post-harvest losses and wastage, etc.

AgriStack is integral to the larger Digital India initiative pushed by the government that uses technology to transform the delivery of services to the people. Through authentication by Aadhar, the world’s largest digital ID program, the government is already transferring food and fuel subsidies, wage payments under the national guarantee scheme, income to farmers under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, and for wheat and rice procurement in a more targeted manner. AgriStack is intended to ensure much broader objectives than direct benefit transfers to facilitate technology-based interventions that can unleash productive forces in the agricultural sector.

Currently, the policy regime allows foreign investments in food retailing. E-commerce is booming. Farm-to-fork linkages are being forged with thousands of farmers to procure fresh produce for the outlets in cities. Leading players in food retailing like Amazon have started providing real-time information to farmers through a mobile app.

The agribusiness giant ITC has a headstart in this regard as it purchases agri-produce from over four million farmers growing a range of crops like soybean, coffee, wheat, rice, pulses, and shrimp at e-choupals or village internet kiosks in ten states. Such corporates can scale up their operations through AgriStack.

AgriStack rollout

Towards this end, farm data collected by the government will be shared with technology giants Microsoft and Cisco Systems as also Amazon. Jio Platforms of the Reliance Group and ITC are among the local powerhouses that have also signed up.

In April, the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Microsoft for a pilot project in 100 villages of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh to develop a platform. In June, four other MoUs were inked with Star Agribazaar, Patanjali Organic Research Institute, Amazon Internet Services, and ESRI India for different operations under AgriStack.

These companies will help the government in developing proof of concepts to offer tech solutions for farm to fork services that farmers can access at their doorstep. If beneficial, these companies can sell the final product to the government and directly to growers and the solutions would be scaled up at the national level, according to Bloomberg.

AgriStack’s real-time data is expected to be accessible openly or made available at a cost. The government will play the role of an enabler of the tech ecosystem rather than acting as a builder of digital systems, states the Department of Agriculture’s consultation paper on India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture.

Question over success

The big question is whether farmers will be as enthusiastic about AgriStack. They have been protesting for ten months regarding three farm laws that were enacted without consultation when the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic hit the nation last year.

These legislations enabled cultivators to sell to anyone and anywhere, or enter into contracts to supply produce at pre-determined prices, and allowed traders and processors to buy, stock and move produce. Farmer concerns regarding the growing role of big corporates in agriculture are only bound to intensify with the ongoing efforts to create AgriStack also without consulting any farmer groups.

How many farmers will indeed benefit from the promise of AgriStack? The National Statistical Office’s Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households report provides sobering findings in this regard. In 2018-19, the average monthly income of an agricultural household was INR 10,218 (USD 137.81), of which the share of wages and salary income was as high as 40 percent. The typical agrarian thus was more of a wage laborer than a cultivator.

It is only a much smaller number of farmers possessing more than a hectare of land who would be the real market for agri-tech start-ups offering solutions for precision farming through the use of AI, IoT (Internet of Things) and predictive analytics.

The government, for its part, sees only opportunity with AgriStack, expecting farmers to make informed decisions regarding their crop portfolio, crop protection, crop insurance and ensure access to intelligent market channels so that they thrive by optimizing price and best yield quality.

More prosperous agriculture is indeed the foundation to double farmer incomes. But will this productivity-driving initiative really take off when the most prosperous farmers belonging to the vanguard agrarian regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh firmly remain on the path of agitation against government efforts to fix agriculture through reform?

(The writer is an economics and business commentator based in New Delhi. His views expressed are personal. He may be contacted at nchandramohan@rediffmail.com)