Indian Agriculture Needs an Urgent Data-Centric Revamp and Reboot

Good data is key to informed policymaking. So why isn't it taken seriously?

Here’s a fun experiment. Want to compare the procurement of paddy in the Kharif Marketing Season (KMS) 2020-21 (October-September) and the corresponding procurement in 2019-20? It’s not possible because the Food Corporation of India’s (FCI’s) website provides data of procurement as on a certain date but not the data on the same date in the previous year. You can get the figure of total procurement in KMS 2019-20 but that does not help to decipher the progress this year.

Looking for data of procurement of pulses and oilseeds by Nafed? Helpfully, the Nafed website depicts photographs of procurement of pulses in AP, Gujarat, Karnataka, MP, Rajasthan, Telangana but it does not provide any data on quantity procured by Nafed, say in 2019-20. It does give figures of procurement of moong and copra in KMS 2020-21 but there is no data on procurement on the same date last year. 

The website rightly says “During Last five years (2014-15 to 2018-19), NAFED made an unprecedented record procurement of 91.098 Lakh MT of oilseeds and pulses under the Price Support Scheme, up by 1205% when compared to quantity of 7.02 lakh MT during corresponding period of previous five years, i.e. 2009-10 to 2013-14”. 

For current and updated details of procurement, the website says that the annual report may be seen. But the annual report of 2019-20 is not yet available.

In 2015-16, the government set up a Price Stabilisation Fund (PSF) which has been aptly used to create buffer stock of pulses. Nafed did a commendable job of procurement and according to media reports, it procured 2.1 million tonnes of gram and 8.03 lakh tonnes of mustard in Rabi 2019-20. Most of this procurement would have been during the coronavirus-induced lockdown, amidst numerous restrictions on movement, below par operation of mandis and even the possibility of being beaten up by the police. Yet, the website does not provide any data on procurement of gram and mustard in the peak months of the lockdown in April and May 2020.

For data on arrival and prices of major crops, Agmarknet is the most trusted place.

Another example. Pineapple is a major fruit crop of the northeastern states. Assam, Manipur and Tripura are major pineapple growing states in the region. In Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, Agmarknet does not show any arrival or price of pineapple from October 2019 to September 2020. Manipur and Tripura show arrivals of 52 tonnes and 146 tonnes respectively. West Bengal, a major producer of pineapple, shows the arrival of just 939 tonnes, in just one district of the state – Darjeeling. Compared to production in these states, the figures of arrival are minuscule. Moreover, if one looks at data of both arrival and price between two dates, Agmarknet portal shows data of only the start date and not the data between the two dates.

These are perhaps smaller grievances, but the problem is also systemic.

A woman harvest pulses in a field in Danapur, Bihar. Photo: IFPRI/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Advance estimates

The Ministry of Agriculture releases four advance estimates of production of various crops. But data of estimated production in various states are not made available with these estimates, as a result of which the actual size of the crop, even in major producing states is not known. Release of state-wise estimates of production, at least along with the fourth advance estimates, can check the volatility in prices as the guesswork and speculation by trade will then be prevented to a large extent.

For commercial crops, the estimates of production by trade are generally lower than the government estimates. In 2019-20, the fourth advance estimate of mustard production, issued on September 22, 2020, was 91.16 lakh tonnes. The estimate by the Solvent Extractors’ Association (SEA) is only 74 lakh tonnes. Market arrival of mustard from April to June 2020 was 9.6 lakh tonnes, just about 10.5% of production and about 6 lakh tonnes lower than the last year.

Similarly, SEA’s estimate of soybean production in 2019-20 is 85 lakh tonnes – while the fourth advance estimate of the government is 112.15 lakh tonne. 

There is a need for a dialogue between the Ministry of Agriculture and trade bodies to find a way out to minimise such large differences in estimates of production. Use of modern technology can reduce such divergence which is primarily caused by very high estimates of production provided by the state governments.

The problem of inadequate data is not confined to field crops alone. In the past two decades, there has been substantial investment by the private sector in dairy processing. 

Also Read: India’s Missing Agricultural Data

Data of processing capacity created by the co-operative sector is available but there is no comprehensive data on the milk processing capacity created by the organised private sector. Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) collects the data on registration and licensing of private dairy processing units but it is not collated and released in the public domain. A FICCI paper on the development of the dairy sector in India (July 2020) noted that the cooperative milk processing units have an annual capacity of about 33 million tonnes of milk. But the milk processing capacity operated by the organised private sector is not known. Unlike agricultural crops, there is no mechanism of data collection and dissemination of daily price of milk. 

The Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying must prepare a plan to collect data of milk prices so that the vast opportunity of investment in the dairy sector can be tapped through the private sector on the basis of reliable data.

For informed policymaking, data should be available in a timely manner, it should be reliable and it should be consistent with other data sets. Since food prices have a bearing on the RBI’s monetary policy, it is necessary that data collected by Agmarknet, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, National Horticulture Board and the Economic Division of the Ministry of Agriculture are consistent. To achieve this, an external agency needs to be engaged to collate data coming from various sources and analyse it for timeliness and consistency. 

In an increasingly complex economic environment, reliable data is essential for reaching correct investment decisions. The liberalisation of marketing regulations of agricultural produce should be accompanied by the availability of reliable data.

Siraj Hussain retired as Union Agriculture Secretary. At present, he is visiting senior fellow, ICRIER.