Agristack: The new digital push in agriculture raises serious concerns

These concerns are about information asymmetry, data privacy and consent, profiling of farmers, mismanaged land records and corporatisation of agriculture

By Shagun
Published: Wednesday 23 June 2021
Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Photo: Vikas Choudhary Photo: Vikas Choudhary

On April 13, 2021, the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Microsoft Corporation to start a pilot project in 100 villages of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. The MoU requires Microsoft to create a ‘Unified Farmer Service Interface’ through its cloud computing services.

This sets in motion the ministry’s plan of creating ‘AgriStack’ (a collection of technology-based interventions in agriculture), on which everything else will be built.

The government, through this MoU, aims to provide ‘required data sets’ of farmers’ personal information to Microsoft to develop a farmer interface for ‘smart and well-organised agriculture’.

Thereafter, the ministry signed four other MoUs — with Star Agribazaar, Patanjali Organic Research Institute for agricultural management and services, Amazon Internet Services, and Esri India on June 1 for different operations under AgriStack.

On the same day, the government published a consultation paper called The India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA), laying out a proposed framework for ‘AgriStack’, for public feedback by June 30.

Incidentally, the paper came three weeks after some 55 groups put out a letter demanding that the government make public the details on the MoU with Microsoft and go for a public consultation on the digital push in agriculture.

With these MoUs, agriculture has become the latest sector getting a boost of ‘techno solutionism’ by the government. But it has, since then, also become the latest sector to enter the whole debate about data privacy and surveillance.

Since the signing of the MoUs, several concerns related to sharing farmers’ data with private companies (the major one being Microsoft whose owner Bill Gates is said to be the largest private farmland owner in the US by an analysis done by The Land Report in January 2021), have come to light.

In all the MoUs, there are provisions under which the agriculture ministry will enter into a data sharing agreement with the private companies of the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Patanjali.

The government has now invited more technology / agritech players for collaboration, even though there is no information on the process or criteria of selecting the first five companies.

What do the MoUs say?

The MoU with Star Agribazaar mentions, among other things, ‘farmer data sanitisation’, land profiling and crop estimation using remote sensing in three districts of Kota (Rajasthan), Guna (Madhya Pradesh) and Mathura (Uttar Pradesh). It mentions building a generalised advisory platform for farmers, including mobile applications, for pre- and post-harvest advisories.

The MoU with Patanjali talks about developing a mobile application for advising farmers on soil nutrition, accurate quantification on farmer crop and yield, fertiliser recommendations, and training farmers for using this application in three districts — Haridwar (Uttarakhand), Hamirpur (Uttar Pradesh) and Morena (Madhya Pradesh).

In the MoU with Amazon Internet Services, it is discussed that the company will build a “National Agri Data Stack” that can serve as a foundational data layer on which “agri focussed solutions” will be built. It will also offer its cloud services to solution providers / partners to help build “solutions across agri value chain” and will also help agriculture related start-ups.

The Esri India MoU discusses how the company will support the ministry in establishing a ‘national agriculture geo hub’, provide the required GIS tools and technologies and create and collate farmer and other agriculture data services on GIS platform.

The development has raised serious concerns about information asymmetry, data privacy and consent, profiling of farmers, mismanaged land records and corporatisation of agriculture.

Serious concerns

The project was being implemented in the absence of a data protection legislation. It might end up being an exercise where private data processing entities may know more about a farmer’s land than the farmer himself, warned Rohin Garg, associate policy counsel, Internet Freedom Foundation.

He added:

The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is currently still with the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Despite its shortcomings, it does provide some key protections to users such as basic user rights to correction, deletion and erasure as well as consent-based mechanism for the processing of data and purpose limitation obligations. It also allows for a Data Protection Authority to administer and regulate the processing of data.

Without such safeguards, private entities would be able to exploit farmers’ data to whatever extent they wish to, Garg noted.

This information asymmetry, tilted towards the technology companies, might further exploit farmers, especially small and marginal ones.

Garg said:

One of the biggest worries is the threat of financial exploitation. We have already seen how microfinance firms have wreaked financial havoc in rural hinterlands. Now, once Fintech companies are able to collect granular data about the farmers’ operations, they may offer them usurious rates of interest precisely when they would be in the direst need for credit.

The formation of ‘Agristack’ also implies commercialisation of agriculture extension activities as they will shift into a digital and private sphere.

“The government is saying all services and advisories can be provided now digitally and privately. This is a continuation of the model where private players priced services delivery is supposed to be relied upon rather than the old model of public agriculture extension through officers on the ground,” R Ramakumar, professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said.

“It also points to failure of public sector agencies in agriculture research and extension although we boast of one of the largest networks of public funded agriculture research institutions in the world,” Rajesh Krishnan, chief executive, Thirunelly Agri Producer Company Ltd, a farmer producer organisation (FPO), said.

With this, the risk of commodifying agriculture and farmer data ran high. Agristack could strengthen the asymmetry in information flow by providing all information about farmers and their farming easily to corporations who looked at farmers as a consumer base, be it agri inputs — seed, chemical fertiliser and pesticides, machinery companies or fin-tech companies and to those for whom farmers were suppliers like the food industry, garment industry, etc, Krishnan said.

He also pointed out that FPOs had become the new data collection points as well market channels for the seed and agrochemical industry as well as agri commodity traders.

This data can be sold by the companies to private input dealers and input companies to aid their marketing network.

“For example, if diseases are being reported from one region and this information is available to pesticide companies, they can improve their marketing in that region. So, this kind of commodification of the data is the revenue model which will be broadly followed,” Ramakumar said.

Although there is a non-disclosure agreement in the MoU, there is also a clause on ‘limitation of liability’ which essentially provides indemnity for breach of contract.

“The net result of all this legalese is essentially that farmers’ data is being provided to the companies at their word with little consequence for breaking it,” Nachiket Udupa, associated with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, said.

Agendra Kumar, Esri India’s managing director, addressed some of the concerns. He said:

As a part of the MoU, we will set up a Geo hub, which is a GIS system where all the data can be brought together and analytics can be run to create valuable insights for the agriculture department and the farmers. By setting up a geo hub as a ‘proof of concept’, it will be easy to understand how this technology can help in improving the welfare of the farmers and their incomes. We will share the technology with the government and it will be their prerogative on how they want to use the data generated with that technology.

Kumar added that agriculture was an area where the potential for digital technology and GIS was immense. He also said some state governments were already using their technology.

Down To Earth reached out to Vivek Agarwal, additional secretary (digital) and representatives of the remaing four companies. DTE is yet to receive a response.

Experts agree that data and technology can provide a fillip to farmers but only when they remain at the top of this stack that the government is building.

This is the first in a two-part series

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