R Srinivasan

This IDEA needs some thinking through

R Srinivasan | Updated on September 15, 2021

There is a glaring absence of women farmers in land records   -  L. Balachandar

Using technology to solve agriculture problems is good but issues like the digital divide and privacy must be addressed

The one thing I’m certain, Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves is a good acronym. Preferably with an Anglo-Hindi twist to it, like AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation), or UDAY (Ujjwal Discom Assurance Yojana) and so on, many of which are thought up by another Modi-era creation, the National Institution for Transforming India or NITI Ayog. But if Anglo-Hindi cannot be managed, English is good enough.

The government’s latest initiative in trying to bring about change at scale in a sector falls into this category, acronymically speaking. It is IDEA – the ‘India Digital Ecosystem for Agriculture’. As ideas go, this is not a bad one. It will incorporate a National Farmers Database, a sort of ‘super Aadhaar’ for farmers which will enable anyone with access to the database to uniquely identify a landholder, know the extent of his holding, the state of the soil, cropping patterns and average yields and other such information at a granular level.

The database, being built by global technology giant Microsoft under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare (DoAFW), will include farmers’ digitised land records, and cross-linked with the Aadhaar database. On top of that, it will pull information from running schemes like the PM Kisan, soil health cards, the national crop insurance scheme PM Fasal Bima Yojna, and so on.

By cross-linking with Aadhaar and linking it with the land records database, a unique FID, or a farmers’ ID, is sought to be created. With the FID, a user can get one-click access to virtually the entire universe of a farmer’s activities. According to Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, work is already on in full swing, with more than 8.5 crore farmers’ data having been incorporated into the national database as of last month.

But the creation of the FID is only one part of the grand IDEA. The plan is to create the agriculture equivalent of the ‘India Stack’ — a set of APIs, according to the Indiastack website, “that allows governments, businesses, start-ups and developers to utilise an unique digital Infrastructure to solve India’s hard problems towards presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery.”

The stated objectives behind the ‘agristack’ — of which the FID database will be a part — is equally noble. The idea is to use these technologies and apps offer “proactive and personalised services to farmers, increase their income and improve the efficiency of the agriculture sector.”

The FID will lie at the base of this vast superstructure of services. Like Aadhaar, which the government has over time made mandatory for everything from getting a mobile phone SIM to opening a bank account to getting a driver’s licence to filing one’s tax returns, the ‘farmer’s Aadhaar’ — the FID — would enable ‘single sign-on’ for access to all government services offered to farmers.

From PMKISAN (the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, in case you’re wondering) direct benefit transfers, to soil health cards, extension services such as plant and crop health information, weather alerts and forecasts at a granular, farm-level, to enabling farmers to access credit, the agristack will deliver it all — with the FID database powering it all.

The goal is to develop so-called “evidence based” policy for the agriculture sector, driven by big data and analytics and powered by information technology to deliver seamless credit and insurance services, information related to seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, as well as market information and price forecasts to help farmers plan their production better and manage better realisations. The ‘agristack’, the government is hoping, will help eventually achieve the goal of doubling farmers’ income, if not by 2022, which looks totally unachievable at the moment, but at least around the next big election.

Byzantine land records

India has more than 14 crore working farms. Almost nothing is known about most of them. No, not even who the real owners are. India’s land records in general and rural, agricultural land records in particular, are a Byzantine mess. According to some estimates, about 12 per cent of agricultural households operated on leased land — in other words, they are tenant farmers. But this number varies wildly, with States like UP, Bihar, W Bengal, Telangana, etc recording much higher levels of tenancy, in some cases close to 30 per cent. Most of these tenant farmers are also small farmers, falling within the most vulnerable group and needing assistance the most.

However, there is no legal recognition of land tenancy agreements in India, with most such agreements tending to be informal and verbal in nature. This not only leaves the small tenant farmer at the mercy of the land owner, but, in a uber-FID scenario, will completely exclude them from all benefits, subsidies, credit and extension services, since they will not figure in the database at all! Any database which is meant to deliver services to working farms will be useless without covering — and recognising — tenancy.

Then there are women farmers. According to a recent survey by Oxfam, as much as three quarters of the full-time labour on a farm are women. A substantial portion of small landholdings and tenant farms are also managed by women but almost everywhere in India, land titles continue to be held by men. Even where there are men — in a family with multiple sons, for instance, the usual practice is to vest the land title in the name of the eldest son, which leaves out the others from any records-based benefit or service. Similar concerns exist for dairy, poultry and fish farmers, as well as gatherers of forest produce, predominantly tribals.

A private hand?

But that is not even the biggest concern with agristack. The big worry is whether the agristack is the precursor to a complete privatisation of government services extended to agriculture. Consider the MoUs the Agriculture Ministry has already signed for pilot projects: There’s one with Amazon for creating the ‘start-ups ecosystem’ for apps to be created using all the data in Agristack; one with Patanjali (yes, that Patanjali) for creating precision farm management solutions using the Internet of Things of IoT; one with ESRI for creating Geographic Information System (GIS) solutions for satellite-based farmer information; one with Star Agribazaar for creating a marketplace for agri finance, agri-inputs and produce, etc. That the government had not even disclosed these MoUs till the Internet Freedom Foundation filed a public protest is concerning, and of course, with Microsoft.

There is also the big concern over data privacy. Giving away this kind of sensitive, financial and landholding information in the absence of a data privacy law raises multiple concerns over potential misuse. There have been any number of Aadhaar-related problems which the government has either denied or steamrollered. But doing the same with farmers is a different kettle of fish. The current farmers’ agitation is restricted to a few States and larger problems. But any thoughtless attempt to ram through digital Rajya — however well intentioned — will light farm fires which may prove too hot to handle. The government would do well to tread cautiously here.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on September 15, 2021

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