The Indian government’s emphasis on digital transformation of governance has a new avatar—India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA), also called National Farmer Database or Agristack. It promises to amalgamate technology and all aspects of agriculture in the country.
Earlier this month, while disbursing cash under the PM-Kisan direct benefit transfer scheme, PM Narendra Modi indicated the new thrust area of his government. He said, “Where do we want to see India in the coming 25 years? When the country completes 100 years of independence, what will be the state of the country? This will be decided by the farmers of this country.”
That vision is now taking shape in the ambitious project—a collection of technologies and digital databases for Indian farmers and the agricultural sector, proposed by the department of agriculture. Agristack is envisaged to facilitate online single-window facility for farmers to access universal, proactive and personalised services through an Aadhaar-linked digital ID. Facilities include direct benefit transfer, soil and plant health advisories, weather advisories, irrigation facilities, seamless credit and insurance facilities, seeds, fertilisers, information on pesticides, nearby logistics facilities and market access, peer-to-peer lending of farm equipment etc, all aimed at increasing farmers’ incomes. In return, the government will collect the farmers’ data, including name, age, land details, crops grown, seeds used, financial details etc.
As of now, the federated farmers’ database is being built by taking publicly available data from the department and various other data silos of the government, and linking them with digitised land records. While the blueprint for the project is yet to be made public, the pilots and broad contours have already been worked out. MoUs for the project have already been signed with five leaders of their respective market segments—Microsoft, Amazon, Patanjali, ESRI and Agribazaar.
All five companies are empanelled to develop different parts of Agristack. Microsoft has been entrusted to build the underlying digital infrastructure (Unified Farmer Service Interface) on which everything else will be built, while Amazon will be creating the ‘startups ecosystem’ for apps to be created using the Agristack database. Similarly, Patanjali will be creating farm management solutions (precision agriculture in which farms have sensors connected to the internet—the Internet of Things or IoT—to automate farming), while ESRI will be creating Geographic Information System (GIS) solutions towards satellite information-based farmer information. Agribazaar will create a marketplace for agri-finance, agri-inputs and produce, along with technical information (weather, package of practices, market prices etc) for farmers.
Interestingly, the non-abiding MoUs with these conglomerates were signed on June 1, the same date when the consultation paper on IDEA—Transforming Agriculture—was put out in the public domain, seeking feedback by June 30. The MoUs are still preliminary and will not be applicable after the final agreements are signed, a reflection of several ambiguities that the department of agriculture has provisionally agreed to. The five companies will be bearing the expenses incurred in the project.
Agriculture is a state subject in India, but since the central government is sponsoring many schemes in the sector, the latter has an edge and authority to collect the data—which, presumably, is the trade-off for the five corporates.
A government official on condition of anonymity said, “If any states have already built such a system, we’ll try to make use of it and build on top of it. Agristack will have a data exchange which would bring in all data related to agriculture in a federated platform, with the federated farmer’s database as its core.”
While the project is taking final shape, farmers or their representative organisations, the proposed beneficiaries of the scheme, were not consulted during the drafting of this plan. Kavitha Kurunganti of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) says, “The developments are taking place in a policy vacuum with respect to data privacy of farmers and other related issues. At a time when data has become the new oil, and industry is looking at it as the next source of profits, there is a need to ensure the interest of farmers. It will not be surprising if corporations approach this as one more profit-making possibility, since the market for so-called solutions could lead to sale of unsustainable agricultural inputs, combined with greater loans and indebtedness of farmers through fintech and, finally, increased threat of dispossession by private companies.”
Along 90 other organisations, ASHA has written to the agriculture ministry and other departments, raising their concerns.
With the Personal Data Protection Bill (2020) yet to be passed, experts express lots of apprehension on how the government will ensure safety of data and inclusion of all stakeholders, including tenant farmers. Other concerns raised by agriculture experts include the possibility of exclusion based on the farmers’ database, which itself is based on digitised land records —given the serious flaws in the digitised land record databases, and their failure to capture information distinguishing those actually involved in cultivation from those holding the land.
Nachiket Udupa of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) says, “Farms generate a huge amount of data in their daily operations, and are fertile grounds for agritech and fintech firms. In their quest to provide farmers with better services, they may end up harvesting and processing farm data without the consent of the farmers, leading to a situation where “banks and insurance companies [know] more about incomes and businesses of farms than the individual farmers themselves.” Farmers may also be unable to judge the value of their data and may thus end up with lower compensations.
The risks of exclusion have already been well documented by studies on Aadhaar-linked welfare delivery systems, with several studies showing that the verification system is rife with technical errors such as biometric failures, which have led to significant exclusion. Algorithms may further reduce the agency of farmers if AI-based decision-making becomes widespread, possibly affecting their legal rights.
While the government claims that Indian farmers will decide where the country will be in 25 years, the irony is that till now, these farmers haven’t had a say in how they want to build their country.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Sowing Data Seeds")