India’s Farm Sector Is Going Digital - With A Lot of Help From Government And Startups

India’s Farm Sector Is Going Digital - With A Lot of Help From Government And Startups

by Vijay Rajmohan - Aug 16, 2021 07:58 PM +05:30 IST
India’s Farm Sector Is Going Digital - With A Lot of Help From Government And StartupsImage for representational purpose only
  • Indian farm sector is seeing a widespread digitisation drive - catalysed by both government and startups.

    We will soon begin to see the benefits of such pilot programs and deployments.

As with every other industry or sector, agriculture too is poised to go fully digital.

We’re seeing the usage of AIoT (Agriculture Internet of Things), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Block Chain, Big Data, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing, Drones, Robots and automated farm machinery in India already.

These technologies could help enhance productivity, ensure quality, optimise use of inputs, reduce costs of farming and increase the incomes for farms and farmers.

Push During Pandemic Towards New Technologies

Realising its importance towards the goal of doubling farmers’ incomes, the committee formed for the purpose (DFI committee) recommended deployment of these new technologies by the Government of India.

In June 2020, the Government of India also amended its national e-Governance Plan in Agriculture (NeGPA) by including support to the State Governments for pilots involving the use of these new technologies.

The NeGPA, which was initiated during 2010-11, was largely focussed on deployment of computers and peripherals and the manpower for managing these.

GoI declared that these would be stopped and only proposals involving the use of the new digital technologies would be sanctioned under the centrally sponsored scheme of NeGPA.

Pilots In States Involving Digital Technologies

As a result, 11 States and UTs approached the Government of India for funds and these were sanctioned. These pilots are interesting and have been at various stages throughout the length and breadth of India.

Arunachal Pradesh has a pilot project on a resilient supply chain management solution using latest digital technologies as they felt the need for such a system during the pandemic induced lockdown and resultant supply chain management crisis in the State.

Bihar has a pilot project for developing automation technique in irrigation. Meghalaya’s pilot is on development of a crop pest surveillance using new technologies.

Telangana has pilots on crop monitoring and automated irrigation system and fertiliser calculation for their farms, automated farm operation using these technologies and seed traceability system.

Odisha’s project is on creation of farmers database. Punjab’s has pilots on Development of Crop and Soil Digital Algorithms for Crop Growth Monitoring, Crop Yield and Soil Quality at Farm Level using Remote Sensing, GIS and Machine Learning Techniques and Precision irrigation in major cropping systems of Punjab using artificial intelligence and sub-surface drip system.

Assam is using Machine Learning-based crop health check-up for paddy.

Andhra Pradesh has a project on digital transformation. Madhya Pradesh’s pilot is on Precision Farming and Ground Water availability.

A host of start-ups are involved with the State Governments and UTs on these pilots and this year, the Government of India wants to move forward from the pilot stage and sanction projects involving these technologies.

As a result, State Governments across the country are exposed to the benefits of these technologies for farms and farmers and also, the emerging start-up ecosystem is nurtured through government support and encouragement.

Federated Farmers Database — Another New Initiative

Another new initiative which has been undertaken during the pandemic is building of the first ever federated farmers database at the national level. The data pertaining to farmers, farm lands and related areas were in different silos in the Government of India.

These were publicly available but were not coherent or usable.

Taking the PM-Kisan scheme (through which government grants direct payments to farmers) as a base, a database was slowly built, integrating data from other schemes like PMFBY (crop insurance scheme), and Soil Health Cards.

These were verified with the land record database, another publicly available database.

Thus, a database with around 55 million farmers’ data has been built so far and the work is ongoing, despite the pandemic induced disruptions in the process.

By this year end, it is hoped that a database of around 100-120 million farmers would be ready. Data which is available in other data silos of the government are also slowly being integrated with this.

The farm machinery data and Kisan Credit Card data are being linked. The fertiliser data and procurement data of Food Corporation of India are likely to be integrated shortly with this.

Once complete, this would the biggest and most diverse database of farmers anywhere in the world. Though in the current phase only farmers who legally own the land as per the State’s land records are included, it is expected that the database would cover other farmers as well and also might include those who are involved in allied activities like animal husbandry, dairying, inland fisheries etc.

Development Of PoCs On Services And Solutions To The Farmers Based On Data

Another major initiative which has been recently started is the engagement of leading Agritech, Agriculture and Startup companies in India for building PoCs (proof of concepts).

As of writing this article, GoI has entered into a partnership with five companies: Microsoft, Amazon Internet Services, Agribazaar, Patanjali Organic Research Institute and ESRI India.

These partnerships are through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which will go on for a year and on a pro-bono basis. The government shares a portion of data (100 villages or 3 districts) with these partners.

At the end of the MoU period, GoI would evaluate the services and solutions developed by the partners using the data and if these services/solutions are found to be beneficial to the farmers, it would take up the best services and scale them up at the national level.

Some of the partners have also proposed linking up the various startups that are nurtured by these partners in the Agritech domain.

Thus, this enables the government to tap into the enormous talent that is available with Indian startups and use their talents for benefiting our farmers.

These also would improve the farms, in case these services are successful and would give a fillip to sustainable farm practices across the country.

The services and solutions proposed by these partners and others who are expected to strike a partnership with the government is exciting.

Some have proposed leveraging the data for fintech in agriculture sector — a farmer need not run around and submit multiple documents to financial institutions for loans, a bank also need not collect, scrutinise and physically send someone to verify the farm.

We could see deployment of algorithms that analyse the past profile of the farmers with his track record of crop insurance, procurement of his/her crops by the government, remote sensing data pertaining to the current crop, their health and the expected harvest, and land ownership details.

This would cut down enormous red tape and also reduces the cost and time for the farmers as well as the banks or other financial institutions.

Some of the partners have already tied up with some banks and would test such solutions in the field.

Similarly, partners like Agribazaar and Microsoft’s strategic partners such as CropData have proposed models for better monetising of farm produce by cutting down middlemen and ensuring better prices for the farmers.

Some of the startups like Ninjacart claim that the deployment of digital technologies in supply chain management increases the farmers' incomes by 20 per cent.

Many have proposed rendering crop advisories to the farmers with the help of these digital technologies. Thus, a vibrant ecosystem for farming is expected to emerge out of these new initiatives, aided by technology.

Development Of India Digital Ecosystem For Agriculture (IDEA)

Similar to the UPI, which enabled the use of digital payments across the country, the Agriculture Ministry is involved in creating a nationwide architecture for the Digital Eco-system in the Agriculture sector.

A task force has been working during the pandemic under the joint leadership of Sanjay Aggarwal, the Agriculture Secretary and J. Satyanarayana, former Secretary of Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

Mr. Satyanarayana is a renowned bureaucrat and specialist in Information Technology and has led many such initiatives in the past, including development of a ‘Digital Health Blueprint’ for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

IDEA is expected to ‘lay down a framework for public digital infrastructure in the Agriculture sector, outline the principles and standards and act as a catalyst of the digital agriculture ecosystem in the country with the goal of building a National Digital Agriculture Ecosystem, elevating Indian Agriculture to higher levels of efficiency and productivity, and improving the welfare and incomes of the farmers’ (IDEA concept paper).

The federated farmers database would act as a core building block of the Agristack that would contain layers of data both from States as well as private players and the IDEA framework would enable this ecosystem in the country, thereby bringing a paradigm shift in the Agriculture sector.

Digital Agriculture Mission — A New Initiative

To facilitate all the above and to further propel the digital technologies in the Agriculture sector, the Government of India is in the process of bringing out a Digital Agriculture Mission with increased funding.

The mission would further give impetus to these initiatives and would create appropriate mechanisms at the national and state levels for taking these initiatives forward.

Currently, the mission is under examination with various departments of GoI and is expected to be announced shortly.

Way Forward

The Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, along with various State Governments has worked extra hard during the pandemic to ensure that the Agriculture sector remains undisturbed due to the pandemic.

This has reduced the stress on the part of farmers and also ensured India’s Agriculture exports scale up, pushing India to the top 10 Agri-exporters of the world.

This ensures that the surplus produce at home is moved out, relieving our farmers, who mostly are small and marginal and look forward to improvement of their lives by better marketing of their produce.

Not merely getting satisfied by ensuring the sector functions without disruptions, policy makers and thinkers have worked overtime during the pandemic to ensure we move further forward and these initiatives during the pandemic are some of the examples of the work done in this sector.

The Government of India has welcomed the participation of private individuals and organisations and is not shy of utilising the enormous talent that is available outside the government.

Startups, academic Institutions, research bodies, think tanks and experts should further pitch in and lend a helping hand to these initiatives by coming out with innovative services, solutions and on-ground deployments.

Together, we should build scalable solutions through which farmers' lives are made better using the latest and emerging technologies.

(The views expressed are personal)

Vijay Rajmohan is a civil servant, working with the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare as Director (Digital Agriculture). Views are personal.
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