India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
The economic survey and the budget announcement last week have everyone speaking about India’s digital infrastructures. Although they are being termed ‘digital public infrastructures’ and ‘digital public goods’, it is wise to re-check the word “public” in the title, especially when they are being built on the suggestions of the private sector, by the private sector and for the private sector. The chief economic advisor and finance minister are bullish on the role of these infrastructures in Indian economic growth and have announced that the new digital infrastructure on agriculture to boost investments in the sector.
AgriStack or India Digital Ecosystem for Agriculture (IDEA) has been under development since 2020 with public consultations in 2021, along with MoUs for pilots with several BigTech companies including JIO Platforms, Microsoft and Amazon. The proposals part of AgriStack include a Unique Farmer ID, Unified Farmer Service Interface, Core databases and repositories with all 360-degree information on farming.
The architecture of AgriStack/IDEA will be similar to InDEA 2.0, India Digital Enterprise Architecture with the same architect; J. Satya Narayana designing most digital infrastructures. Satyanarayana is a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who now works for the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The stated purpose of AgriStack is to help the use of data in agriculture to promote data-driven agriculture. The challenge in achieving this goal is to help farmers actually get this data. Instead what we will witness is the farmers’ personal data is used by the businesses/markets to decide their economic life.
The architecture of AgriStack will determine how the information is collected, shared and sold across the agri-market ecosystems. From a traditional economic perspective, the entities with access to more data and information about the markets will profit from them. It is hardly going to be the farmers themselves with no access to this data other than the choice to part with the data.
AgriStack will help facilitate the shift in the markets from physical APMC infrastructures to digital e-Markets. The now-repealed Farm Bills passed by the parliament in 2020 actually allowed the private sector to maintain its own e-markets. NCDEX e-Markets Ltd (NeML) and Ninjacart have signed an MoU with the ministry of agriculture for pilots to develop digital marketplaces for agriculture.
This brings back the question of market regulation and how the data collected using these digital infrastructures will be governed. Without a law, all of this is determined by the code and architecture of AgriStack. It is an important question of who has access to the code and which entity will be producing and owning it.
Finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman stated that the digital infrastructure will be based on “Open Source, Open Standards and Interoperable public good”. I don’t think the minister knows what she is claiming or she is being asked by the businesses who profit from the digital infrastructure to claim AgriStack as Open Source or based on Open Standards.
If it is truly open source, then Indian farmers will have access to digital infrastructure and they can technically (with the right resources) access it on their own. Except there is no proof of agri-digital infrastructures or any digital infrastructure in India being actually open source (where the source code can be accessed/copied/shared and used).
A market-based solution to data-driven agriculture will start classifying and determining farmers’ credit ratings with individual farmers profiles being created, based on their land ownership. In this direction, the ministry of agriculture has already been centralising land ownership information from states for the purpose of creating Unique Farmer ID. Land ownership and farming in India are not always interlinked with millions of tenant farmers, land labourers not owning any land.
The claim of this digital infrastructure being federated (distributed) is not to be confused with it being federal (decentralised). AgriStack is indeed a centralised interoperable digital infrastructure that will allow any business across the country to access a unified agri-market. While states are being told that they own the information and can determine how agriculture in their states will be shaped, these are but mere claims.
In its current state, AgriStack only helps private companies with access to capital, computer science engineers and data to profit from this digital infrastructure. This can change and it could actually benefit the farmers if they have more control over their personal data. I doubt that is what the Venture Capitalists friends of the Government of India want.
Several farmer groups and civil society actors have been engaging with the ministry of agriculture to help shape how this digital infrastructure will be designed. Some even made presentations of what they wanted in this infrastructure and how land databases are flawed to be used for building this infrastructure. I hope they succeed in their endeavours.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.