In search of a tech-savvy farmer

Will e-governance initiatives of ministry of agriculture, valuing hundreds of crore, be able to save the average farmer who has no access to technology?

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Pratap Vikram Singh | February 16, 2016




Sunil Kumar Dhanda is an agricultural scientist at krishi vigyan kendra (KVK) in Sadalpur village of Hisar district, Haryana. He helps farmers increase their farm yield by providing valuable information during training programmes held at the block level. To reach out to a larger audience, Dhanda logs on to ministry of agriculture’s web portal – mkisan.gov.in – types out an advisory and ends it to 1,500 farmers registered in vigyan kendra’s database. “In past two years we have sent 10 to 15 advisories to farmers every month,” Dhanda tells Governance Now.

As easy as it may sound, but sending an advisory is not simple as clicking a button. “During the daytime there are long power cuts in Sadalpur. Even the inverter doesn’t work. Many times we are not able to use computer due to unavailability of power,” says Dhanda. Internet connectivity – provided by BSNL, the only service provider in the locality  – is slow too. Due to budget constraints, the ministry has asked to restrict the number of messages to two a month. Dhanda and his KVK colleagues have not sent any message in the past two months following an order from senior officials in the agriculture department.

Scientists and agricultural workers across the country encounter numerous such challenges in using technology to help farmers.
This is despite the fact that the agriculture ministry has spent several crores of rupees every year over a decade to empower the country’s 12 crore farmers with information and technological knowhow. Sadly, many of these initiatives have neither been properly implemented nor have made any mark on the farmers’ income. A review of some of the internet-based initiatives on agriculture – including the '885 crore mission mode project (MMP) under national e-governance plan (NeGP) – and a series of interactions with ministry officials by Governance Now show that most of the initiatives have not yielded desired results.

The agriculture sector contributes close to 14 percent to India’s GDP, according to the now-defunct planning commission. Majority of farmers in India are dependent on rain-fed irrigation, struggle to get the minimum support price for their produce and depend on the local moneylender to make ends meet. Whenever crop yield goes down due to drought or hailstorm, poor farmers are left with little option but to end their lives.

The objective of the MMP was to help the farmer and raise, as the project document states, “farm productivity and farmers income to global levels”. This was to be achieved by giving farmers information about farm practices and market trends and equipping them with technical knowhow.

Although there is no definite account of the project timeline, the work related to MMP started in 2007. The department of agriculture and cooperation (DAC), the nodal agency within the ministry for the rollout of MMP, outlined 12 services covering 60-plus categories of information, which were to be delivered through a one-stop portal, farmer.gov.in.

According to ministry officials, the government approved funds for piloting the project in seven states – Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Assam – in 2010. The pilot, according to the ministry, was “complete” and the full project was implemented across the country in October 2014. “Complete”, as an official associated with the project clarifies, means releasing some portions of the allocated fund to the states.

Out of the 60-plus components, only 22 were rolled out during the pilot. Even for these components, most states didn’t provide the complete set of data. The portal still doesn’t have data for many of the 187 districts covered under the pilot. It says “no records found” under a number of information categories for these districts. The categories include farm mechanisation, information on pesticides, fertilizers and seeds, notified seed varieties, soil health, organic farming, crop insurance, information on crop, farming, machinery, training, pest prevention and cure. The portal does provide data for certain districts and under certain categories, but even in these cases the data has not been revised by states, the official says. The quantity and quality of data are not reliable, adds the official who does not wish to be identified.

The government had approved '227 crore for the pilot phase. However, only '98.59 crore was released and only '88.52 crore spent. Of the total amount spent, a major portion has gone into hardware and site preparation in states. Bihar and Haryana haven’t spent a single penny from last year’s budget, says another official associated with the project.

Push-pull strategy
 

The NeGP MMP includes the mkisan initiative in which central, state and district officials send advisories to farmers. The advisories sent unilaterally by agriculture officials are called ‘push’ messages and advisories sent in response to an SMS query by the farmers are called ‘pull’ messages. The push messages can be sent in seven languages. Till date, 328 crore ‘push’ messages have been sent to farmers.

For ‘pull’, however, the farmer has to type the message in English. As a result, till date less than a lakh messages have been sent in the ‘pull’ category, says an official involved in project implementation. “Less than one percent of the total messages sent were the ones requested by farmers,” says VP Sharma, director, IT, documentation and publication, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad. The extremely low number of the ‘pull’ messages indicates the poor demand and awareness among farmers. Despite repeated email requests, the ministry has not publicised the exact number of advisories requested by the farmers.
Narendra Bhushan, joint secretary, department of agriculture and cooperative (DAC), admits that there is no way to ascertain if the 300-crore plus messages sent to farmers were of any use to them. The dashboard on the mkisan.gov.in portal shows most advisories have been from the state headquarters and not from districts. District advisories, which are sent by agricultural scientists at the kisan vikas kendras (KVK), are more suited to local needs and requirements of farmers.

Most of the 2 crore messages sent out every day, says Sharma of MANAGE, are sent by Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh (in descending order). He attributes Tamil Nadu’s success to the strong linkage between KVKs, the state agriculture university and the agriculture department. The state government has provided computer tablets to even block-level agricultural functionaries.

Bhushan says the department is now trying to ensure that messages are tailor-made to the extent possible and sent locally by district- or block-level officials. The idea is to make advisories more relevant to the local farmers.

The department, says Bhushan, asked IIM Ahmedabad in November to assess the m-kisan initiative. “The study will ascertain whether messages are targeted,” he says. It will measure how many farmers understood messages and how many found it useful. “We can also compare the number of callers from districts and whether there is any increase in the productivity,” Bhushan says. “It shouldn’t be supply-driven. It’s been 30 months.”

Before NeGP, the ministry had a project called agricultural resources information system (AGRISNET), approved in 2005, to create an ICT backbone and network all directorates and field units. The project started two major initiatives to provide information to farmers: kisan call centre and agricultural marketing information network (AGMARKNET). While the call centre programme has been applauded, the other has not been up to the mark.

Under the call centre scheme, farmers can call on the toll-free number 18001801551 to seek advise related to agriculture. At present, there are 14 kisan call centres which are manned by 452 agriculture graduates and experts. These centres, according to a ministry official, receive over 15,000 to 20,000 calls a day.  The centres are being managed by IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited (IKSL).

The other initiative, AGMARKNET, aims to computerise mandis and provide mandi rates on a daily basis. The portal gives a model price for agricultural commodities, which is calculated after taking the average of minimum and maximum prices on which a commodity was sold in the mandi. “This methodology, however, doesn’t give any weightage to the quantity of commodity sold at minimum and maximum prices while calculating the average,” says a ministry official. Also, there are 7,000 mandis in India. So far only 3,000, or less than half of them have been connected to AGMARKNET.

Agriculture 2.0

Under the Modi government’s much touted Digital India campaign, the agriculture ministry plans to strengthen and integrate these initiatives with a single portal on agriculture both at centre and state levels. The project would subsume the work planned for the second phase of NeGP.

DAC calls it Agriculture 2.0. It hopes to rollout all 60 plus components in all states and UTs under the new project. The department would create an IT platform for agriculture census, cooperation, credit and integrated cold chain availability under the Agriculture 2.0 initiative. It plans to integrate all farmer-oriented services on one hand, and research and development initiatives on the other. Services falling under animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries would also be made online. Also, the focus would be on developing apps for delivering information and services. Apps would also be developed for intra-departmental functions.

The ministry has already launched hailstorm app in October, developed by indian space research organisation (ISRO). The idea is to crowdsource geospatial accounts of the loss of hailstorm affected crop. The app captures image, location and details of the crop and land. The app has been integrated with ISRO’s Bhuwan GIS portal. Once a user submits the geolocation and other details, it gets added on the GIS map.

“This is a decision-making tool which would help the central government in verifying the claims made by the state governments in the wake of hailstorms,” says Shibendu S Ray, director, mahalanobis national crop forecasting centre, the coordinating agency between ISRO and agriculture ministry based in the Pusa campus in New Delhi.  Similarly, the state governments can also use this platform for disbursing relief to farmers, says Ray. 

The DAC official says the in-house IT team is developing an app which will provide farmers advisories on crop health and related matters. “If you want to ask about a crop disease, why crop leaves are getting yellowish, you will have to just capture the image. The app will recognise the disease and advise what ought to be done in that situation.” Though this was almost ready by the end of December, it may be officially launched in April, he says.

The team is developing an app to capture the irrigated and non-irrigated area. “Through this app, we can go to district, block and village levels and ascertain how much area is covered under irrigation.” The colour-coding in the GIS map will show green and red zones, showing the covered and uncovered areas. It will help in rational distribution of resources in these areas.

Similarly, the DAC would also plot mandis and cold storage facilities on the GIS map. Another app being developed by the IT team is crop insurance. The app would help in calculating the premium for crop insurance.

While it will be safe to assume that most officials may have a smartphone, there is no official estimate of the number of farmers who access internet through mobile phones. “Our challenge is to reach the farmer who doesn’t have a smartphone,” says the senior DAC official.

“We are proposing to give smart handsets to extension workers, who will go around the village and capture data. Touch screens will also be set up at block offices,” he says.  At present, Krishi Bhawan officials are preparing a detailed project report on Agriculture 2.0. 

pratap@governancenow.com

(The story appears in the February 1-15, 2016 issue)

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