‘Drowning in Data, but starving for knowledge’, the phrase holds well enough at least for agriculture sector in the country. The data forms the basis of various human development indicators, the sustainable development goals, various social indices and indeed for effective planning and prioritising. For a vast majority of the population of the country, the agriculture sector is a source of livelihood. We have abundance of data regarding this sector collected from an array of diverse sources, but unfortunately we have not been able to generate reliable knowledge effectively out of this data to use it for furthering the development of communities engaged in this profession.
Farming in the country is dominated by marginal and small farmers. This category of farmers are resource poor, do not have access to different welfare programmes, are still facing exclusion of one or the other sort and have been left out of the developmental paradigm even after seven decades of independence. One of the probable reasons for this condition of theirs is the lack of an approach that aims to organize, synthesize, categorize and systematize the data pertaining to them in an order where it would have been easier to identify them, to ensure that they are well informed and are benefitted. All this also need to be done with the aim to increase farmers' income by leveraging the available data and developing solutions based on the data so that the input costs are reduced, ease of farming is ensured, quality is improved and farmers get better price for their farm produce. The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India is already working on an innovative solution to the problems of the farming community based on the data of the farming community through ‘Agri-stacking’.
Being described as a digital revolution, an ‘Agri-Stack’ refers to a collection of technology based interventions in agriculture on which everything else will be built. Agri-Stack may have a Farmers’ Stack. A Farm Stack and a Crop Stack integrated on a technology platform linking existing digital land records, cadastral maps of farm and information. F arm stack would have geospatial information on each farm, owned by a farmer and Crop Stack can contain crop data linked to farms. The government will provide ‘required data sets’ of farmers’ personal information to Microsoft to develop a farmer interface Unified Farmers Service Platform (UFSP) for ‘smart and well-organized agriculture’. At the core of agri-stacks will be land records. Since April 2021, the Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, GoI has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Microsoft Corporation, Star Agri-bazaar, Patanjali Organic Research Institute for agricultural management and services, Amazon Internet Services and Esri India for building ‘Agri-Stack’, a collection of technology-based interventions in agriculture. The project will start as a pilot one covering 100 villages from the six states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh
Unified Farmers Service Platform (UFSP)
The new initiative of creating UFSP etc would bring a paradigm change in accessing the data relating to farmers and can be used to develop customized solutions, make better plans and monitor their implementation. The Unified Farmers Service Interface/Agri-stack will have a data exchange which would bring in all data related to agriculture sector in a federated platform with the federated farmers’ database as its core. In order to create UFSI/Agri-stack, the department is in the process of finalizing 'India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)' which will lay down a framework for the digital agriculture sector in the country.
According to Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, GoI, Sh. Narendra Singh Tomar, the database is envisaged to facilitate online single sign on facilities for universal access and usher in personalized services to farmers such as direct benefit transfer, soil and plant health advisories, weather advisories, irrigation facilities, and seamless credit and insurance facilities. It will also provide information pertaining to seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, nearby logistic facilities, market access information and peer to peer lending of farm equipment, among others. There is also a provision of unique farmer ID (FID) to uniquely identify a farmer and to know benefits availed by a farmer under various schemes. UFSP is a combination of core infrastructure, data, applications and tools that enable seamless interoperability of various public and private IT systems in the agriculture ecosystem across the country. It is envisaged to act as a central agency in the agri ecosystem like UPI in the e Payments, enables registration of the service providers and of the Farmer Services Government to farmers (G2F), Government to Business (G2B), Business to Farmer (B2F) and Business to Business (B2B) and it shall also act as a medium of data exchange amongst various schemes and services to enable comprehensive delivery of services to the farmer.
This Centralized Farmers Database shall be useful for various activities like issuing soil health cards, dissemination of crop advisories to the farmers, precision farming, smart cards for farmers to facilitate e-governance, crop insurance, settlement of compensation- claims, grant of agricultural subsidies, community/village resource centres etc. The data of 4.3 crore farmers linked with land records have already been verified and the database would be unveiled shortly. It would enable use of artificial intelligence on large data sets which will help in managing farms more effectively. Applications built over the stack will provide farmers with recommendations on which seeds to buy, and best practices to maximise their yield, along with updates on weather, agricultural credit, insurance and all other schemes. This will also help increase farmers' income and improve the efficiency of the agricultural sector. The NITI Aayog states that diverse problems such as inadequate access to credit and information, pest infestation, crop wastage, poor price discovery, and yield forecasting can be sufficiently addressed by use of digital technology.
Issues in Agristacking
Agri-stack will be based on old and inaccurate land records; mismanaged land records, farmers' personal and financial details will be used without accountability or transparency. Agri-stack could strengthen the asymmetry in information flow by providing all information about farmers and their farming easily to corporations who looked at farmers as a consumer base, be it agri inputs seed, chemical fertilizer and pesticides, machinery companies. All type of services and advisories will be provided digitally and privately and will involve more of private players in providing the extension services. This leads to the apprehension that the private sector being more profit oriented will exclude the marginal, small and resource poor farmer. There is still a lot to do in terms of providing internet connectivity to regions which are inaccessible. Provision of smart phones to all farming families is also another challenge for digital agriculture. There is a massive gap in digital access and literacy in the country, which has also the potential to render any such project unviable.
As agriculture in certain regions of the country is largely done by women, women literacy is also another issue. Considerable efforts also need to be done to promote Digital skills among women and rural youths. At the same time data sanitization, land profiling and crop estimation has to be ensured. The most important flaw is that the proposed farmers’ database will be based on the digitized land records which are full of loopholes even for land-owning farmers and exclude entire categories of landless farmers. There are no mechanisms to ensure that the economic interests of farmers are ensured whereas the revenue models that will be adopted for entities getting involved in this ecosystem are predictable. It is also unclear what happens to the farmers who are excluded from this ecosystem; there is no clarity on grievance redressal mechanisms and whether they would be farmer-friendly. Accountability mechanisms have not been spelt out for various players including state departments and agencies.
A no. of farmer organizations have raised concern about the privacy aspect involved in the current framework and which according to them is not in the best interests of the farming community. There is no legislation regarding maintaining data privacy and in the absence of laws governing the same, how data privacy can be maintained. The private entities could exploit the data to any extent they wish to. The organizations have expressed concern that the whole exercise is taking place in a legal vacuum, with no protection for the interests of the farmers whose data is being used. In the absence of a suitable legislation, this data can be sold by the companies to private input dealers and input companies to aid their marketing network. For example, if diseases are being reported from one region and this information is available to pesticide companies, they can improve their marketing in that region. They doubt that the goal of Agri-stacking is not around a mission of enhancing environmental sustainability, ensuring social equity and securing economic viability that this ecosystem architecture is being designed and created.
(Dr. Parveen Kumar is a scientist at SKUAST-K; can be reached at email@example.com)