Modi govt plan to digitize farmers’ data will put them at mercy of big companies, say experts

The draft consultation paper titled ‘IDEA Initiative’ removes level playing field for farmers. All agri-data will be provided to big companies, making farmers pawns in hands of the firms, say experts

Representative Image
Representative Image

Ashlin Mathew

The Union Agriculture Ministry has put out a draft consultation paper to build a “National Digital Agriculture Ecosystem to elevate Indian agriculture sector to higher levels of efficiency and productivity” without consulting the main stakeholders – the farmers.

It must be noted that agriculture remains a state subject.

The draft consultation paper, titled ‘IDEA Initiative’ (India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture), claims that it is for a holistic approach for adopting digital technologies so that the farmer has agency and control over his/her data in order to leverage emerging technologies for ‘precision agriculture’. In the document, there is no mention of how this would help in access to credit as that is what ails farmers most of the time.

The task force behind this paper included UIDAI ex-chairman J Satyanarayana, Niti Aayog members, officials of the Union Agriculture Department and Agriculture Secretaries from Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya and Maharashtra. No one from Haryana or Punjab was included. The last date for submitting comments on this paper is June 30, 2021.

The Ministry contends that the ‘IDEA Initiative’ would place the farmers at the centre of the agricultural ecosystem to understand what crop is to be grown, how much to be grown, when to sow, when to buy, adopt best practices to maximise the yield and to know whether to sell or store their produce. This would then enable the agriculture supply chain players to plan their production and logistics on precise information, it says.

“This is what is called Agri stack and is like the health stack. It is basically a collection of technologies and database. They want to focus on financing agriculture, easier access to input costs, newer farming techniques and supply and distribution. They believe that through the increased access of data and supplying this data to private firms, issues in farming can be solved,” said Rohin Garg, associate policy counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation.

“No one from the farmers groups was consulted for this paper. The whole idea of a level playing field has been removed with this agri-stack draft paper. They want all the information of the farmers which will help both agri-input companies (fertiliser and seed companies) and big food corporates to plan their business. They are looking at farmers as a market and as a supply chain. They are not looking at it from the farmers’ point of view. It will be an asymmetric information flow. This will make farmers pawns in the hands of these companies. Unfortunately, the government is facilitating it using public money and infrastructure to gather data for companies who will make big money out of it,” stressed Rajesh Krishnan, a paddy farmer in Kerala.

The ‘IDEA Initiative’ is supposed to enable to farmers to benefit from innovative solutions and personalised services. Without explaining how and why it would benefit farmers, the draft document claims farmers will realise higher income and profitability through access to right information from innovative sources. This digital architecture will enhance efficiencies in the usage of resources including land, water, seeds, pesticides and farm mechanisation by providing “easier access to information”, it says.

In the IDEA architecture, a unique farmer ID is created and assigned to every farmer across the country to help validate demographic details and associated identifiers, which would include Aadhaar number.

“This unique farmers ID is being created so that all other data about the farmer can be linked to it in order to create a complete profile about the farmer. The farmer doesn't need this as much as the administration or agritech companies do. It is being done for 'ease of governance' and 'ease of business' and not for 'ease of farming'. It will probably mean that those who don't have this ID will, over time, start to lose out on benefits and services that farmers are entitled to,” said Nachiket Udupa, member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.

After this, the most important building block of this IDEA architecture is the United Farmers Service Interface (USFI), which is similar to UPI in a digital interface. Here the USFI will be required to handle multiple types of transactions in the digital space, but the document does not detail what these transactions are.

If one looks at the first Office Memorandum dated October 7, 2019, in Annexure 1 of the paper on the constitution of the task force, the very first line says, "... develop a comprehensive Centralised Farmers' Database based on Revenue land records …”.

The paper says, "Agriculture cannot be seen in isolation. It should be seen as an integral part of a larger ecosystem spanning the entire primary sector including horticulture, animal husbandry, fisheries, dairy, poultry, and other allied activities."

“Ironically, a database based on revenue land records will only identify those people as farmers who own agricultural land. Pastoralists who engage in nomadic animal husbandry, fisherfolk, dairy and poultry farmers who tend to their livestock at home and those engaged in other allied activities without owning agricultural land, such as those collecting uncultivated forest produce, landless agricultural labour and tenant farmers all risk being excluded. Even among farm land owning families, the land is usually in the name of the male head of the household. Women, who work more than men in farming, stand to get excluded,” pointed out Udupa.

As the digital vaccine registration process is tragically showing us, Udupa added, there is an enormous digital divide in our society. “We are not yet ready, as a nation, to become completely digital. We need to make huge strides in digital access and literacy before farmers can independently make proper informed choices being aware of its implications in complex digital ecosystems such as the Unified Farmer Service Interface,” said Udupa.

The paper acknowledges that “management of UFSI is likely to be more complex given that majority of digital services and transactions in the agriculture space happen with the state jurisdiction. A monolithic architecture of UFSI will pose problems”.

The document states that either the Union government can establish the first instance of UFSI and the states will have the option of joining it or they can establish their own FSI. As a third option, the paper states that private firms can register and operate either the FSI or UFSI or both.

The paper states that the pivotal block of this digital architecture is real-time prices. It will provide an integrated access to vast amounts of data on prices of agricultural commodities across the country and abroad.

The paper proposed to establish an agri data exchange (ADEx), though the concept is at a nascent stage globally. It is supposed to bring out “full economic value of internal data”, provide value-added services to customers using the “combinatorial power” of different data sets obtained from multiple sources.

Here customers mean farmers, but there is no real-time explanation of how all of this would help a poor or landless farmer in India, where internet is patchy at best. It added that this agri data exchange would accelerate research in areas of public interest such as health, education, agriculture and environment. How this is related is curiously missing.

The draft states that this architecture has been designed keeping in mind the “federal structure”, and this concept can succeed only if Centre and states have an interoperable and compatible systems in place. So, the basic function of the state is to act as a bridge between different agencies, departments and the Union ministries.

Realising this may not work in the Union government’s favour, the paper states that the Union Agriculture Ministry and the Ministry of Electronics and IT can help with accelerating the state’s participation.

The government adds that there would be an IDEA service portal along with a call centre, app store, weather data and real time prices. “If done well and properly, these are all things that will be useful for farmers. They are good aspirations to have. The concern is that there seems to be no talk of any measures to ensure that these developments are in the best interest of the farmers. The apprehension is that this could end up becoming a gateway for businesses to make money from an online 'market' of farmers - with no safeguards for farmers,” underscored Udupa.

The draft crudely states that “data is the new oil”; that this architecture can help streamline crop-planning, which includes soil data, cultivation, supply chain, connecting with the market, quality testing and data exchange for ‘fair distribution of data value”.

The government believes with the building of this architecture, it would enable governments to make timely interventions to reduce stress of farmers and “enable horizontal and vertical scaling up of emerging technology in the food systems and help with price casting”.

Issues with the paper

Though it is not mentioned, such a database will only aid Fintech companies. “Farmers have to give their credit history, yield and average returns, and then the fintech companies will provide them credit based on these variables. This is where the issue comes in. Fintech companies have already wreaked havoc in rural areas. The danger here is when farmers are dire need of credit, these fintech companies will have so much data about them that they will charge them exploitative rates,” explained Garg.

Credit is based on land records and digitising land records will merely recreate, if not exacerbate, the existing structural problems in this sector. Digitisation, if done right, could help farmers access entitlements and also benefit them in market place.

For instance, most entitlements in agriculture such as Minimum Support Price, PM-Kisan, crop insurance or even access formal credit all depend on land records.

There has been a project in Odisha to survey farmers’ lands through drones and remote sensing to assess their credit worthiness. This project found that only about seven farmers out of over 1,800 farmers were credit worthy. As it is, the problem in the agriculture sector is the lack of access to formal credit. Such digitisation will only further marginalise and exclude farmers from formal systems.

Australia has implemented digitalised agriculture and an Australian government report has said that in several instances banks and insurance companies knew more about the land than the farmers themselves. Further, when 60% of the farmers were surveyed for the report, they said they didn’t feel comfortable giving their data, but they felt that they had no choice.

A report by an organisation called GRAIN, spoke about how agri digitisation in Latin America had caused land grabs. “You have satellites to map out what looks like boundaries. Smaller farmers get tied up in disputes. In India, this will all be linked to Aadhaar and we have already seen its exclusionary effects. One questions the need for an Aadhaar-based Kisan database where the likely negative effects overpower the positive benefits,” asserted Garg.

Then there is the issue algorithmic governance. The price of inputs will be decided by an algorithm. “When algorithm governance comes in to replace existing government systems, farmers will be at the mercy of the algorithm for the quantity and price at which they buy inputs. What happens if the algorithm makes an error – is the Govt body implementing it responsible or is the company which made the algorithm responsible or is it the district officer implementing it responsible? There needs to be greater clarity before algorithmic governance is adopted. All of this stems from a lack of data security because India does not have a data protection legislation,” said Garg.

“In a country like India where there is no regulation on private data, it is giving away all the data of the most vulnerable community to the richer community. This is absolute cruelty,” underscored Krishnan.

There is nothing in the proposed architecture to safeguard the economic rights of farmers from bad actors in the system. This system will make it easy for those who can mine big data to identify and approach farmers to purchase their produce.

“In all likelihood, these bigger players will have access to more information intelligence from this data, ensuring that they are buying the produce at a bargain. It is unlikely that a farmer will get access to the intelligence from 'machine learning' to get the best price for their crops. The document is primarily about the technical architecture behind the envisaged system and there is nothing proposed to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their crops or protect their economic interests even in other financial spheres such as credit and insurance,” pointed out Udupa.

In the ‘Implementation Framework’ of the draft, it is stated that “the adoption of IDEA may be incentivised by linking a portion of the Central assistance in the agriculture sector to the progress achieved in implementing IDEA”.

“Therefore, as has happened in many other cases too, the Centre will use its control over the purse strings to coerce states that may not want to be a part of it to fall into line. They are also designing it in a way that states can also use the same digital architecture for delivery for any state agricultural schemes. However, there have been examples and experiences where the data regarding schemes is collected from the states by the Centre and then this data is not shared back with the states when they need them. This goes against the principles of cooperative federalism,” added Udupa.

Private Players

Microsoft and Ministry of Agriculture signed a MoU in April where Microsoft would be handed over the Kisan database and they would run a pilot project to run the agri stack. The MoU doesn’t mention any data security standards. Additionally, along with the MoU, there is a Standard Operating Procedure for reconciling land records data. It states that there will be field visits by teams of the Ministry of Agriculture who will go to the pilot 100 villages and verify the data. In this SoP, even if any land is disputed, it states that, “The records must be 100% reconciled”. “In our minds this is where the land grab issue will begin,” explained Garg.

Last week, the government signed four more MoUs, including one with Patanjali and one with Amazon Web Services, for developing the agri stack. “The farmers are opposing the three farm laws because they believe that this will give big corporates control over agriculture. Considering this, the developments so far - MoUs with corporates like Microsoft, Amazon and Patanjali - reinforce the fear that policies and digital architectures being put in place are to favour businesses over farmers, which is really at the root of the protest against the three farm laws as well,” pointed out Udupa.

In August 2020, Adani group Chairman Gautam Adani called for adoption of digital technologies to promote agriculture and food processing units across the country. He claimed that it would help small-scale rural farmers and agri-businesses to minimize costs. Adani Agri Logistics also used the lockdown restrictions to secure their foodgrain supply chain.

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