With Covid having made us increasingly dependent on digital technologies, now is the time to ensure that this revolution does not leave behind India’s poorest communities, most of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Strategically increasing investment in technologies to assist the country’s small-scale farmers will yield far-reaching benefits long after the passing of Covid. It will also narrow the unacceptable socioeconomic divide in India, and help end poverty and hunger faster throughout the country, especially in the hinterland, where the majority of our population resides. At the same time, we need to remember that India’s agricultural sector is vast and diverse. The same technology that yields results in one part of the country, could be unproductive (or even counterproductive) elsewhere. To this end, a customization of digital technologies for each region is essential.
The government’s recent digital push in agriculture (Agristack) is a step in this direction. Under this scheme, each farmer would be provided a unique ID, which would be linked to their Aadhaar number. It will contain details relating to land ownership, the crops grown therein, soil health and the benefits available under government programs such as direct cash transfers, crop insurance, and subsidized credit. The objective is noble, but all leakages in the system should be thoroughly plugged. For example, if data ends up in the hands of vested interests, it could enable them to manipulate markets to their advantage. Other valid concerns in this regard pertain to information asymmetry, data privacy and consent, profiling of farmers, mismanaged land records and the unfettered corporatization of agriculture.
There are bound to be glitches along the way, but the digitalization of agriculture should be seriously attempted. The current revival is a golden chance to transform farming practices, and spur us to redefine how we feed a billion-plus people. Today, many farmers even in India’s remotest regions have mobile phones, and thus are equipped to receive targeted agricultural inputs through simple text or voice messages, even without internet access. By providing actionable information to the right people, in the right way, and at the right time, marginalized farmers can be empowered to improve their livelihoods, mitigate risks, and advance environmental sustainability.
Digitalization has the potential to transform India’s agricultural sector. But doing so will require further innovation and strategic partnerships between stakeholders. It will also call for a suitable regulatory environment to ensure that technology remains affordable and accessible to even the smallest players. In this regard, the private sector should be incentivized to advance, adopt and reengineer technologies for, and in collaboration with, small-scale farmers. Investing in digital agriculture today offers the promise of exceptional returns.
Digital technologies can be made to work for farmers, consumers, farm workers and the environment. But technology does not develop in a vacuum … it has to be nurtured by the resources and priorities of the system. Thus, taking a visionary stand matters. By accelerating investment and innovation in agriculture, we can protect vulnerable populations from some of the worst effects of Covid. Upon emerging from the pandemic, one hopes that we will already have laid the foundation for building a fairer, more prosperous, and self-sustainingIndian economy.