Bridge the digital divide to empower farmers : The Tribune India

Agriculture: Digital Ecosystem

Bridge the digital divide to empower farmers

The concept of smart agriculture or precision farming is taking off, but it could just be a precursor to even greater use of technology in farming. The Internet of Things, combined with big data, provides farmers with a wealth of information that they can use to optimise efficiency, maximise productivity, and maintain the quality of food in the supply chain — from field to fork. The challenge lies in translating this data into operational insights for various stakeholders.

Bridge the digital divide to empower farmers

Source: consultation paper on ‘india digital ecosystem of agriculture’, dept of agriculture, cooperation & farmers’ welfare

Ch Radhika Rani

THERE is no sphere of our lives that is not overwhelmingly influenced by digital technology. Agriculture is no exception to this rapid transformation. Sample this: A farmer of Telangana applies for a copy of his land record in the e-Seva office. Then he submits the document to the banker, who processes it online through the land digital record grid connected to the tehsildar’s office. The banker clears the application and the Kisan Credit Card (KCC) is generated in which the Rythu Bandhu (Direct Benefit Transfer) amount is transferred. This KCC can be used for buying inputs from a local shop with Aadhaar seeding so that the fertiliser subsidy is paid to the farmer. He checks online the prices of inputs and confirms that these are in order. He then surfs the Net to know about the latest package of practices of crop production. Then the farmer checks the weather forecast app on his smartphone to make sure that his seed sowing is in sync with the showers. He accesses another app to get a tractor for custom hiring. He also takes online assistance to follow the best practices in pest control. After harvesting, he checks the market prices for his crop through an app. He calls up the buyer; the goods are transferred and the payment is credited to his account. This farmer has publicised details of his organically produced vegetables on social media. He is also a member of a WhatsApp group on which agriculture-related information is shared. This farmer’s example amplifies the case for a 360-degree digitisation of our agriculture and rural livelihoods.

Potential game-changer

In India, agricultural growth has a strong multiplier effect as agriculture is still the major source of livelihood for about 50 per cent of the population. Many models show that the modest incremental growth of 3 per cent in agriculture would lead to another 2.6 per cent growth for manufacturing, raising the overall GDP growth by 1.7 per cent — closer to the 8 per cent mark. The challenge lies in producing more under the conditions of diminishing per capita arable land and irrigation water resources as well as expanding biotic and abiotic stresses. Smart agriculture/precision farming has proved its worth in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu. The concept is taking off, but it could just be a precursor to even greater use of technology in farming, that is evolving at an exponential pace — the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT, combined with big data, provides farmers with a wealth of information that they can use to optimise efficiency, maximise productivity, and maintain the quality of food in the supply chain — from field to fork. The challenge lies in translating this data into operational insights for various stakeholders that can help them understand which actions to take, when and where.

The government’s aim of doubling farmers’ income underscores the need for digitising the entire agriculture sector. The India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) consultation paper of the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare calls for placing the farmer in the centre of the agriculture ecosystem leveraging open digital technologies. With the Unified Farmer Service Interface (UFSI) as the core building block envisaged under IDEA, many innovative solutions useful to the farmers and market players are visualised. The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare recently signed MoUs with Microsoft India for data analytics and with Amazon web services India for digital services across the agri-value chain and creating an innovation ecosystem around digital agriculture.

There is a lot of ground to be covered in production and marketing. Farmers are still irrigating four times the volume of water required. The average rate of application of NPK is 6:4:1 instead of the standard 4:2:1, which means imbalanced application of chemical fertilisers to the soil, resulting in excess vegetative growth and increased cost of production. Digitised markets are in a nascent stage in public and private sectors. Though platforms like eNAM and NeML have become operational, digitised access to these market resources is yet to take root.

In theory, technology can reduce transaction costs, help overcome information asymmetries and improve product targeting for financial service providers. In practice, rural India is still not equipped enough with access to the Internet and smartphones. According to the 75th round of the National Sample Survey (conducted between July 2017 and June 2018), just 14.9 per cent rural households have access to the Internet against 42 per cent in urban areas. The gap in access, digital literacy level and usage, which can be jointly called the digital divide, is still enormous in rural India. Further, the regional disparity in the ability to access the Internet and operate computers within rural India ranges from 5.9 per cent in Odisha and 9.9 per cent in Telangana to 39.4 per cent in Punjab and 46.9 per cent in Kerala. The digital divide is highly skewed within a state as well. While the peri-urban farmers in the plains are quickly gaining access to digital technology and applying it in day-to-day agriculture, farmers in tribal areas and remote villages are still digitally marginalised and there is a need to digitally mainstream them. The affordability of digital technology is also a point of debate; a majority of the small and marginal farmers still find it out of their reach due to the cost factor. Farmer Producer Organisations can become harbingers of digital agriculture, if provided with right support systems.

Scope of digital agriculture

When micro enterprises are fully leveraging social media with the information technology (IT) ecosystem, it is a huge untapped resource for agriculture in terms of market access and value chain development. Digitised groundwater mapping can help farmers avert huge losses in sinking unproductive bore wells. Artificial intelligence is to be applied to forecast pest resurgence, season-specific pest-based control measures and natural pest management practices. Digital technology can empower farmers access livestock asset protection services in a transparent and rapid way.

In the early 1990s, the IT lobby strongly pitched for policy support and a supportive ecosystem nationally for IT companies. The result is evident today. Similarly, the time is ripe for the ideas of IDEA to be put into practice for building a robust agriculture digitisation ecosystem. There should be supportive schemes to enable farmers to operate and transact digitally. The core issue of small-scale operations and subsistence agriculture have been warranting highly contextualised farmer-specific digital solutions. Banking is another weak link. Banks are not robustly digitised in terms of reaching the last-mile farmer and provide a bouquet of services like payments, remittances, loans, recoveries, insurance and savings. No digitisation is complete without providing these services to farmers on his doorstep. The mobile revolution will help scale up digital innovation, but we need the supportive physical infrastructure to go along with the digital.

Lastly, technology is a tool, not a driver. The main purpose of digitisation is to make back-end and front-end processes in agriculture more efficient and cost-effective. The leverage points through which digital technology can improve the effectiveness and delivery of these processes is to be understood critically.

The author is Associate Prof and Head, Centre for Agrarian Studies, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad

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