Farm Organisations Flag Privacy Concerns, Seek Withdrawal of Agristack by Centre 

The government’s move to digitise agriculture with technology-based interventions appears to tread the same neo-liberal path as the three controversial farm laws of 2020.

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Farmers’ organisations are just as dissatisfied with the government’s AgriStack (the name given to a collection of technology-based interventions in agriculture), as they are with the three controversial farm laws that they have been agitating against since 2020.

In a note sent to the Union government on June 30, 91 farmers’ organisations and organisations that work on the digital rights of citizens have stated that the government has started the execution of AgriStack before consulting the farmers and that the Centre should backtrack from the various memoranda of understanding it has already signed. The note also cites the problems that both the farmers and digital rights organisations have found in the government’s proposals to digitise agriculture in the country.

This note was sent in response to a consultation paper called The India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) that had been released by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare (MoAFW) on June 1, for which feedback had been sought by June 30. The paper put forward a proposal to use technology to help double the income of farmers by 2022, attributing the problems that hold back the agriculture sector to information asymmetry.

The paper said that government hoped to achieve its stated goals by deploying big data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence and block chain technology in agriculture, based on the views of its public policy think tank, National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog. According to the NITI Aayog, problems such as access to credit and information, forecast of crop yield, poor price discovery, crop wastage and pest infestation can be tackled with these technologies.

However, farmers’ organisations say that the paper appears to tread the same neo-liberal path as the three controversial farm laws that had been passed by the Union government in 2020 without public consultations. They state that the government should hold extensive consultations with farmers’ groups to understand their requirements and concerns before working on a plan to support agriculture with technology.

Also read: Three Farm Bills and India’s Rural Economy

The farmers’ objections

Alarmed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s statement that the blueprint for AgriStack is already at an advanced stage, the farmers says that transparency and accountability will be absent in decisions based on algorithms and farmers’ rights will be affected.

One of their main objections to IDEA is the lack of farmer representation in the existing task force and governance framework. The farmers also object to the proposal in IDEA to link the Union government’s financing of the states to the implementation of the project, stating that this impinges on the federalism enshrined in the Constitution of India. The Union government’s denial of data to the states after collecting data from the states themselves is also an issue, the note said.

Given the insufficient digital access and literacy in the country, the fact that the consultation paper is in English is in itself exclusionary, the activists contend.

“Insufficient digital access and literacy in the nation together with existing asymmetries create a non-level playing field. It is unclear what autonomy a farmer has if she or he wants to be included only in a limited manner or wants to opt out. It is also unclear what happens to farmers who are excluded from this ecosystem; there is no clarity on grievance redressal mechanisms and whether they will be farmer-friendly,” said Kiran Vissa of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC).

According to the farmers, the process of planning and implementing technology interventions in agriculture should have the consent of all the stakeholders. All decisions must be based on consultations with the stakeholders, they add. Privacy should also be ensured and the farmers should have control to see who makes money in the process.

“Any digital infrastructure that is developed should be owned and controlled by the government and not placed in private hands,” said Kavita Kuruganti, convenor of Asha Kisanswaraj, one of the signatories opposed to IDEA.

A farmer uses cattle to till his land. Photo: Ananth BS/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

The intent of technology

Technology will and does help, said Dr G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, popularly known as Dr Ramoo, the executive director at the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. But how it helps depends on who has access to it, what it is used for and how it is used.

Also read: Punjab: What the Rift between Farmers and Workers over Wages Tells Us about Agrarian Distress

“For example, if decisions were being taken based on available data, we would not be cultivating paddy and cotton on such a huge scale in Telangana. The land it is being cultivated on here is not suitable for those crops. Are we going to take the right decisions? Without the right intentions, making consolidated data available to some businesses is problematic,” Dr Ramoo told The Wire.

Explaining the dangers posed by sharing the farmers’ data, Vissa of the AIKSCC said, “The Goods and Services Tax office will not share data on the price that the trader sold the produce for after buying it from the farmer. Nor does the income tax department share data on whether the trader has incurred any expenses beyond his means which could lead to the farmer’s payment being delayed. All of this is the private data of individuals and firms which must remain private in a market where one cannot be put at a disadvantage compared to others.”

Activists say that the AgriStack proposal to share information such as the ownership of land, the loans availed against the land, the loan repayment details, soil types and productivity over the years and the status of crop insurance will harm farmers.

“Based on a farmer’s credit record, the interest at which she can borrow if she were indebted would be higher and she could be denied an insurance policy,” explained Vissa.

Vissa’s apprehension is not unfounded as the government goes ahead with the privatisation of banks. In any case, said Vissa, the government already has all the data of farmers, which it can integrate and use for their welfare. “In fact, the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM Kisan) already uses such data provided by the states,” Vissa pointed out.

Incomplete, incorrect records

Right now, farmers cannot get information on rainfall data or why they cannot get institutional credit. The government does not know the actual tenant farmer of a particular piece of land and thus cannot provide her or him with support. If crops fail, the farmers don’t know the amount of insurance they are entitled to get. Technology only provides solutions based on the inputs it is given; if the inputs are incomplete or missing, technology-based solutions will be useless.

So it is critical for the farmers to know how the data AgriStack proposes to ask them for will be used, said Dr Ramoo. For instance, he argues, the Telangana government refuses to even acknowledge the presence of tenant farmers. In such a situation, technology cannot help.

As of now, the country’s land records are faulty. The digitisation of land records was done in a hurried manner even though experts had warned that a survey to identify the actual owners of land was necessary. But a survey would have taken four to five years to complete so the digitisation was completed without it. As a result, many small and marginal farmers, although they have actual possession of land, do not feature in the digital land records.

Also read: Without Addressing Legacy Issues, Can Digitising Land Records in India Be a Game Changer?

The launch of the PM Kisan scheme based on this incomplete and even incorrect data means that the scheme’s payments have often gone to the wrong people. But the PM Kisan scheme was launched in a hurry after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) drubbing in the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh assembly elections and just before the 2019 general elections, which can possibly be attributed to dissatisfaction among the country’s farmers. This makes it clear that when technology is deployed, it must be done in the right sequence.

For instance, the starting point of such a scheme should have been an enumeration of the farmers’ needs in a digital ecosystem through deliberative democratic processes. Unfortunately the beginning point seems to be the databases that already exist with the government, complete with their problems and shortcomings.

“It is not that digital technology will not help farmers,” said Kavita Kuruganti of Asha Kisanswaraj. “It can be used to certify their produce as organic and so on or to find a market for their products. But the data architecture should be created in a way that allows the farmers to decide which data they want to share or not.”

Data and market control

As of now, the data AgriStack asks from farmers can be used against them by private sector companies. “Advisory services, input sales, plot wise crop information and so on can be used by the corporates to intervene in markets and play with prices,” pointed out Dr Ramoo. “For instance, pesticide use at this time is driven through local dealers who tend to prescribe medicines that give them a bigger margin. So the same could be done by companies.”

Dr Ramoo added that AgriStack does not actually need date from individual farmers to function properly. The data can be crowd-sourced in the way that social media companies like Facebook work, from agricultural offices, which have details of farmers such as their Aadhaar numbers, bank accounts and land ownership.

At the global level, there has been a growing consolidation of industry. Ten years ago, pesticide companies bought seed companies because of the belief that the ownership of seeds was the main way to control agriculture. Now pesticide companies are buying data companies because data is critical for control. The use of data as of now is an evolving business. And AgriStack, which will enable market consolidation, is a continuation of the Union government’s three controversial farm laws.

The goals of digitising agriculture should be to enhance environmental sustainability, ensure social equity and secure economic viability. The ecosystem architecture should be created and designed to achieve these goals. But AgriStack lacks any such objectives, allege the farmers’ organisations.