Digital agriculture is picking up momentum across the world, particularly in developing countries, and the expanding technology is playing a significant role in this regard. Studies indicate in developing economies more than 80% of the people have a mobile phone and close to 45% of people have used internet in 2019. There are quite a few individual success stories in digital agriculture but they are mostly confined to large and medium farmers.
Digital ag solutions with promising business models struggle to achieve the scale due to lack of funding support at their growth stage. Constraints in scaling up the capabilities to handle the digital expansion and fragmented and scattered land holdings of small and marginal farmers too pose several challenges. Agricultural markets in developing countries are not only fragmented and less efficient, they also suffer from information gaps, price asymmetries, bottlenecks in aggregating outputs, issues in quality control, poor logistics and transportation. These gaps enable the middlemen to thrive at the cost of both the farmer and the consumer.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of things are revolutionizing and modernizing agricultural value chains. Bharat is still in the early phases of digital adoption like many developing economies. The share of the agriculture and allied sector in total Gross Value Added (GVA) of Bharat’s economy is almost 18.8 per cent in 2021-22. It is estimated that by 2025 Bharat’s agriculture sector will grow to $ 24 billion.
Scenario of agriculture in Bharat
Our country produces 17 percent of total global agriculture and at the same time, is the home for the world’s largest number of malnourished people. Agriculture provides livelihoods to more than 60 percent of Bharat’s population and most of them are small and marginal farmers.
Bharat has the second highest cultivable land after the USA at 160 million hectares, but the yield levels in the country are far lower than other major agriculture producing countries. Fragmented land holdings are one major reason behind low farm yield in our country. Whereas, rising input costs, supply side bottlenecks and dominance of middlemen are forcing even large farmers to give up farming and shift to real estate activities.
The average debt of small holding farmers has risen fivefold in a decade, while farming incomes have not increased proportionately and more than 350,000 Bharatiya farmers have committed suicide since 1995, mostly due to financial distress.
National e-Governance plan in agriculture (NeGP-A)
A centrally sponsored scheme, it was initially launched in 2010-11 in 7 pilot States, which aims to achieve rapid development in Bharat through use of ICT for timely access to agriculture related information to the farmers. In 2014-15, the scheme was further extended for all the remaining States and 2 UTs.
Unarguably, digital technology has solutions to some of the major issues being encountered by Bharatiya farmers. The Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income (DFI) in its Report has highlighted the role of Digital Technology, which can play a transformational role in modernizing and streamlining the agricultural sector. Digital technologies are finding increasing use in the agricultural value system, and farmers are increasingly becoming more informed, as various measures are taken to provide them ready access to technology and market information. However, the fruits of the digital technology in agriculture are yet to reach the small and marginal farmers, who constitute a major percentage in the rural population.
In order to connect the current Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and provide a uniform national market for agricultural commodities, the Electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM) was introduced in April 2016. It covers 1260 markets in 22 States and 3 UTs. As on date 17.4 million farmers and 237,799 traders are registered on this site. It supports farmers in selling their farm products pan India without the use of middlemen by earning remunerative returns on their investment.
Union government has launched Digital Agriculture Mission 2021–2025, to advance digital agriculture through pilot projects. It aims to encourage and accelerate projects based on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, block chain, remote sensing, geographic information systems, and the use of drones and robotics.
As of 2021, Bharat has around 1.2 billion mobile subscribers of which 750 million use smartphones. Rural mobile market in Bharat is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6%, whereas the urban sector’s growth will be at a CAGR of 2.5 percent from 2021 to 2026. The rise of internet-based devices in the rural market will also get a boost from the nation’s plan to fiberize villages by 2025 under the Bharat Net programme. The mobile revolution will enhance digital innovation in agriculture but we need a robust physical infrastructure to go along with the digital technology platforms to reap the benefits.
Some of the major digital technology initiatives in the field of Bharatiya agriculture
AI driven initiatives: –
- Weather forecast: Agriculture across the world is dependent on climate and application of technology has improved the level of accuracy of weather predictions. There are several initiatives launched in Bharat to predict weather conditions with reasonable accuracy both by government and corporates like IBM and Google by using AI.
- Crop Monitoring through Image processing: Through satellites, drones and robots, images are captured and processed to assess the crops on real time basis for monitoring the pests, yield prediction and soil assessment.
- Harvesting robots: There are various robots being built for doing harvesting work.
- Driverless tractors: The unavailability of farm labour has led to multiple companies across the world, introducing self-driving tractors. Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, Bharat’s largest manufacturer of tractors, showcased its first driverless tractor in Sept 2019. Mahindra’s tractor can steer automatically using GPS-based technology, lift tools from the ground, recognise the boundaries of a farm, and can be operated remotely using a tablet.
- CISCO, ITC and Jio too have launched few pilot projects on digital technology in agriculture.
- Commodity exchange NCDEX has proposed a digital marketplace project offering services in market linkages, demand aggregation, financial linkages and data sanitisation to farmers in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur, Karnataka’s Devanagere and Maharashtra’s Nasik districts.
These pilot projects are part of the Digital Agriculture Mission and will draw on the National Farmers Database of around 5.5 crore farmers who are using existing national schemes. The Centre has asked States to attach their land records to the database so that it will expand the National Farmers Database.
Central Agri Portal for Direct Benefit Transfer is a centralised portal for agricultural initiatives across the country. Through government incentives, the portal assists farmers in adopting modern farm machinery. (63 Crore beneficiaries linked through mobile)
Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has a long-term ambition to develop ‘AgriStack,’ a unified platform that would provide farmers with end-to-end services across the agriculture food value chain. The AgStack Foundation seeks to improve global agriculture efficiency through the creation, maintenance and enhancement of free, re-usable, open and specialized digital infrastructure for data and applications. AgriStack is expected to benefit the farmers as they will have the data on their farms in real-time and do not have to apply excess pesticides, fertilisers, or minimise total water use.
Government has finalized the core concept of India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) framework which would lay down the architecture for the federated farmers’ database. Further, the databases related to the schemes governed by the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare have been integrated. The IDEA would serve as a foundation to build innovative agri-focused solutions leveraging emerging technologies to contribute effectively in creating a better Ecosystem for Agriculture in Bharat.
AGMARKNET is a G2C e-governance portal that caters to the needs of various stakeholders such as farmers, industry, policy makers and academic institutions by providing agricultural marketing related information from a single window. The AGMARKNET portal also serves as a single window for assessing websites of various organisations concerned with Agricultural Marketing. It also provides weekly price trend report for important markets in respect of major agricultural commodities. It is linked with the Online Exchange Portals for providing spot and future prices for important commodities. International price trends of various agricultural commodities are also accessible through this portal.
National Mission on Horticulture: It Promotes holistic development of Horticulture sector (including bamboo & coconut) HORTNET project is a web enabled work flow-based system for providing financial assistance under MIDH (Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture).
National Project on Soil Health and Fertility: Soil Health Card is basically a printed report that a farmer is given for all his land or holdings. It contains the status of soil considering 12 parameters – Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium (Macro-nutrients), S (Secondary- nutrient), Zinc, Iron, Copper, Manganese, Boron (Micronutrients) and pH (acidity & alkalinity), EC (Electrical conductivity – measure of amount of salt in soil, Organic Carbon. The Soil Health Cards also specify fertilizer recommendations and soil changes required for the farm. This information enables the farmer to provide timely and enough nutrition to the soil.
Kisan Suvidha mobile application is developed by National Informatics Centre, MeitY, for Agriculture and Animal Husbandry to facilitate dissemination of information to farmers on the critical parameters viz., Weather; Market Prices; Plant Protection; input Dealers (Seed, Pesticide, Fertilizer) Farm Machinery; Soil Health Card; Cold Storages & Godowns, Veterinary Centres and Diagnostic Labs.
The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) has also compiled more than 100 mobile apps developed by ICAR, State Agricultural Universities and Krishi Vigyan Kendras and uploaded on its website. These mobile apps developed in the areas of crops, horticulture, veterinary, dairy, poultry, fisheries, natural resources management and integrated subjects, offer valuable information to the farmers, including package of practices, market prices of various commodities, weather related information, advisory services, etc.
Since independence we have seen green revolution, white revolution, yellow revolution, and blue revolution so far. The need of the hour is “income revolution” in agriculture through digital technology. Smart use of ICT will enable to increase the scale and reduce the cost of operations in agriculture. Direct market access to farmers through digital technology will eliminate the middlemen and enhance the farmers’ incomes.
Digital interventions in agriculture at micro level can address several challenges that are faced by the farmers. However, for this digital literacy and farmer friendly digital technology are very essential.
Legislative measures are needed to address the right to privacy issue so that the digital technology initiatives can be done smoothly without legal hassles.
Agriculture is a state subject and therefore, the centre must adopt a consensual approach in order to win the support and cooperation of the States in the true spirit of “cooperative federalism.” Niti Aayog should be roped in to play the role of facilitator in this regard.
Along with farm insurance, price insurance too should be provided and the farmers to be guided to take part in commodities futures through their federations.
Robust rural supply chain to be created to provide forward linkages from farm to markets in order to eliminate the middlemen and provide direct market access to farmers with remunerative prices. Upgrading and extending the existing PDS infrastructure as a use and pay model (at affordable cost) to the farmers is one such options that is to be explored.
Panchayats to be actively involved in digital agriculture initiatives and the field level primary data of the farmers and the soil conditions to be digitised at the panchayat level.
Lead banks in the districts and reputed IT companies to be roped in by the government to build the pan India digital platforms in agriculture and corporates to be encouraged to part fund the cost of creation of digital infrastructure under their CSR activities, under PPP Model.
In the long run the maintenance and upgradation of the digital infrastructure platform to be made a self- financing model by collecting affordable user fees from the beneficiaries, i.e., farmers.
Needless to mention that all these digital technology initiatives should not only enhance the agricultural yield and improve the farmers’ incomes, they should also not result in surplus labour in agriculture migrating to cities. Bharatiya agriculture has complex problems like- Unemployment, under employment and disguised unemployment. Therefore, the policy measures should aim at creating a value chain in agriculture, aligning the agriculture with allied activities and agro based industries through an integrated approach to retain the rural population in the villages with better livelihoods. A strategic approach with a long-term vision is the need of the hour.