Recently, 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 AgriStack is a collection of technologies and digital databases proposed by the Central Government focusing on India’s farmers and the agricultural sector.
- The central government has claimed that these new databases are being built to primarily tackle issues such as poor access to credit and wastage in the agricultural supply chain.
- Under AgriStack’, the government aims to provide ‘required data sets’ of farmers’ personal information to Microsoft to develop a farmer interface for ‘smart and well-organized agriculture’.
- The digital repository will aid precise targeting of subsidies, services and policies, the officials added.
- Under the programme, each farmer of the country will get what is being called an FID, or a farmers’ ID, linked to land records to uniquely identify them.
- India has 140 million operational farm-land holdings.
- Alongside, the government is also developing a unified farmer service platform that will help digitise agricultural services delivery by the public and private sectors.
- 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 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 development has raised serious concerns about information asymmetry, data privacy and consent, profiling of farmers, mismanaged land records and corporatization of agriculture.
- The formation of ‘Agristack’ also implies commercialization of agriculture extension activities as they will shift into a digital and private sphere.
- 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.
- Without such safeguards, private entities would be able to exploit farmers’ data to whatever extent they wish to.
- This information asymmetry, tilted towards the technology companies, might further exploit farmers, especially small and marginal ones.
- 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.
- 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.
- Comprehensive consultations on the merits of the proposal with farmer groups and unions on their very premise before any policy document is implemented. The utilisation of technology must happen on the basis of feedback that emerges from these conversations.
- Academics, technologists, civil society and digital rights organisations to be engaged with on the development of the “AgriStack” both as a policy framework and its execution proceeding from the concerns and experiences of farmers. This will require long term study and constant engagement twith farmers and farmers’ organisations to understand the real issues of the farmers.
- Examination of the relationship between personal data and digital policies such as the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA) to be conducted in the context of the ongoing process of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Data Protection Bill. Hitherto identified issues within the existing draft of the Draft Data Protection Bill must be addressed and also contrasted against the rights centric proposed by the The Personal Data and Information Privacy Code Bill, 2019 as introduced as a private members bill
- Agriculture was an area where the potential for digital technology and GIS was immense. 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.
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