The Centre needs to re-think its approach to Digital Agriculture in India

By Vinay Narayan

October 23rd, 2021

Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar on Tuesday (September 7) announced that a database of 5.5 crore farmers has already been created as part of the Indian Government’s AgriStack project and this number will be increased to 8 crores by December 2021. This is just the latest in a series of rapid developments by the Indian Government, over the last year, to digitize the agriculture sector, build a national farmer database, and harness the power of agriculture data to tackle a number of issues, such as access to credit, usage of better quality seeds and sustainable land use.

The AgriStack project is a collection of technologies and digital databases focusing on India’s farmers and the agricultural sector. Since news of the AgriStack first broke in November 2020, the Government has launched the Unified Farmers Service Portal (UFSP), put out a consultation paper on IDEA (India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture), and signed MoUs with 10 private firms in relation to the AgriStack project. Tomar’s statement provided an insight into the vigor with which the AgriStack project is moving forward and the government’s commitment to digitizing the agricultural sector.

The AgriStack and allied policies have come under criticism from farmer groups and civil society organisations for various reasons including lack of proper consultation, data privacy concerns, risk of significant exclusions, and exploitation of farmers’ data by private companies.

The AgriStack project and the IDEA paper envision a system of federated and decentralised databases containing reliable agriculture data that can be used by all stakeholders. However, the policy documents do not sufficiently address how the issue of unreliable data in the agriculture sector will be overcome, or how farmers will be able to access the value derived from data, given the low levels of digital literacy among farmers in India. None of the policies have provisions addressing this challenge either.

Farmers’ ability to meaningfully access data in these databases is further impacted by the manner in which the AgriStack project handles interoperability (key to ensuring seamless exchange of data between various organizations and systems), and adequate taxonomy (which will allow for users to access the data they want in an efficient manner). The IDEA paper posits the institution of Fast Agriculture Interoperability Resource (FAIR) standards, to ensure interoperability within the ecosystem, and master codes, which are identifiers of locations, products, and classifications that need to be adopted uniformly by all organizations across the country. However, no mention is made of farmer community engagement in the development of either the FAIR standards (which could be developed by a separate organization set up by the Agriculture Ministry) or the master codes (which will be designed, developed, and maintained by the Central Government).

A lack of focus on community engagement in the development of interoperability standards and codes is extremely problematic for any sector, but in the agriculture sector, it is complicated by the fact that many species of plants are neither named scientifically nor are their local taxonomies and uses well documented. With standards and codes that are developed without the farmer community’s inputs, the information in the AgriStack databases will be very difficult to access for them, taking the value derived from their data further away from them. The AgriStack project should instead look to emulate the approach of the Tropical Agriculture Platform in building taxonomy in the agriculture sector. By adopting a participatory approach that involved the feedback and review of terms by users and stakeholders, they were able to build a taxonomy that was user-friendly.

A broader ecosystem approach can help craft a sustainable and long-term strategy for agriculture data sharing. One way the Centre can do this is by engaging with existing data stewardship efforts in the agriculture sector which have the potential to address a number of lacuna in the AgriStack policies.

Data stewards are trusted intermediaries that can unlock the value of data for public interest while safeguarding the rights of data principals/generators. Stewards are therefore perfectly positioned to help foster trust within the farmer community towards data sharing. Further, stewards, like Jaljeevika, train local members of the community and farmers on digital literacy and the implications of data sharing and provide solutions in regional languages.

The government can leverage stewardship efforts to provide government initiatives (including policy documents) in vocabulary that is easily digestible by local communities, thereby enabling stronger stakeholder engagement. Finally, stewards can help reduce the burden of aligning taxonomies and data sharing protocols given that they are already involved in collecting farmer data and analysing it in tandem with information from various other databases. Policy provisions that incentivise the establishment of more data stewardship initiatives will go a long way in developing an effective ecosystem for agriculture data sharing in India.

Engagement with and fostering data stewardship alone will not address the failings in the AgriStack policies. There need to be significant investments geared towards improving digital literacy and access to mobile technologies and the internet in order for AgriStack to deliver value to the farmers. These efforts would also help bridge the trust deficit between the government and farmers, which has only widened in recent times.

Agriculture data holds immense value at a farm and country level. Ongoing research has found that the existing policy landscape for data sharing in the agriculture sector has led to an ecosystem that is broken and disincentivizes stakeholders from participating in it. Current policy initiatives do little to address these problems. In order to fix this, it is imperative that the Centre adopt a broad ecosystem approach, with bottom-up policy-making, that places farmer communities at the heart of consultations, in order to mitigate existing challenges and invest in infrastructure, legal, and technical building blocks that can foster a trusted network for sharing of data in the agriculture sector.