The “Digital India Initiative” of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology aims to enable all citizens of the country to use digital infrastructure,make available related services on demand and also empower its citizens digitally. To further identify the drivers of India’s digital economy of the future, the Ministry has recently identified nine goals and thirty crucial digital themes.
One of the Goals specifically focuses on the 2022 target of Doubling Farmers Income. Agriculture accounts for 13% of the country’s GDP and employs 45% of the workforce. In this context, the importance and increasing relevance of digital applications in the field of agriculture cannot be undermined. Such applications are critical to improving yields, reducing costs, increasing market value of crops, optimizing agriculture inputs and increasing direct access of farmers to the markets.
A key issue herein is the detailed use of real time data from a variety of sources to help small and marginal farmers increase productivity and output through more precise and customized advice. Precision agriculture primarily includess oil, weather and crop information as its intelligence building blocks. More specifically, public and private agenciesa like, aim to first analyze soil nutrient conditions, aerial images, weather forecasts and other factors over generally four to six-month crop cycle. Technologies deployed to do so include mobile imaging, drone patrolling, GPS/RIPD tracking, production traceability etc.Thereafter, they advise farmers on the appropriate crop mix, fertilizer use and other relevant inputs on making considered decisions.
Experts have observed that Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare and state departments/universities combined operate approximately 80 and 800 portals respectively. These cover almost all aspects of the agriculture value chain including seeds, soil fertility, weather patterns, farming practices and daily market prices etc.The Government of India has also launched many initiatives in precision agriculture that are designed to put more information into farmers hands. The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare’s ‘mKisan’ platform aims to increase the information available to farmers on myriad aspects of farming along with SMSs and the same has covered 42.4 million farmers with over 22.2 billion texts. Kisan Call Centers are currently active in fourteen locations with the most popular enquiry on near farm weather and rainfall forecasts. Several state governments too have, off late, begun to offervalue added services through such platforms in addition to online registration of farmers in the state for procurement.
But farmers face the challenge in gaining access to timely and accurate information and from one centralized portal. Such information could be on critical agricultural inputs such as which crop to sow, rainfall and other weather conditions, when to irrigate, the availability and cost of farm equipment, how to monitor crop health, pesticide use and adopting good agricultural practices.
Therefore,experts further observe that to effectively realize precision agriculture in India multiple stakeholders have to be brought together on one platform to consolidate data. Such stakeholders include not only the government ministries of agriculture and water resources but also information technology companies, weather forecasting organizations, seed/fertilizer and farm equipment companies.Such an integrated yet open data platform could be used by government, research institutes and the private sector for maximum outreach to small and marginal farmers.
In the Agri startup ecosystem of the country there are startups that are already active in the predictive analysis for agricultural yield improvement and quality control. These include startups such as Farmguide, Intello Labs, Agricx, Skymet Weather and Progressive Environmental and Agricultural Technologies (PEAT). Besides, companies such as Microsoft and the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Aired Tropics (ICRI) have developed varied sowing solutions. Non-profit organizations such as Gates Foundation are also partnering with data intelligence companies like SocialCops to make data driven investments to develop an India Stack for Agriculture. Mahindra has launched a web/mobile based digital platform called ‘MyAgriGuru’ that connects experts with farmers on market prices, weather and crop advisories. Tata Consultancy Services have designed the mKrishi platform to enable farmers in remote areas to access real time agriculture information.
In the above context, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and its network of Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs)too have to becomeeffective partners in analysis of big data to make derivable insights that can be communicated to small and marginal farmers. This in turn can be coupled with public private partnerships within KVKs to impart realistic and updated ‘package of practices’.
The Niti Aayog Strategy Paper on ‘India@75’ points out two major constraints hindering adoption of precision agriculture- the huge gap that exits in the demand for and supply of requisite skills and second, the fragmented nature of farmer landholdings. Current initiatives in data aggregation are being taken up under programmes such as e-NAM, Soil Health Card, PM Kisan and several other central and state government DBT schemes. This indeed will generate the necessary push over time to cover the skill gap and remove land related bottlenecks.
(The writer is an IAS officer posted as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. The views expressed are personal)
GOVERNANCE / by Dr. Abhilaksh Likhi