The government is not rushing into taking a call on making it mandatory for all farmers to enrol in a nationwide digitised agricultural ecosystem that is being set up to connect farm services' companies and cultivators, a move that farm unions have opposed citing privacy and data concerns.
The government is holding discussions with experts on privacy and data protection in order to take a stand on the proposed enrolment of farmers in a new digital infrastructure that will contain vital economic data about farmers – from their land records to farming patterns – worth potentially thousands of crores of rupees, officials aware of the development said.
The agriculture ministry is, however, is moving swiftly to create a core digital base for the farming economy, which supports half of all Indians, with currently available public data. The ministry is in the process of "finalising the India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)", which lays down the framework for building "Agristacks", which are channels of data related to farmers, according to an official.
The government seeks to transition towards a fully market-driven digital farm economy, which contributes nearly 17% to the GDP of Asia's third largest economy.
Such a move will help the government in planning better, raise farmers' income levels, and bring efficiency to the sector dominated by a majority of poor smallholding peasants, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar said in Parliament on Tuesday.
Farm unions, however, have been deeply sceptical of the government's farm policies. In December, the Modi government scrapped three major farm reform laws following year-long protests by tens of thousands of farmers.
Farm unions have rejected policies announced in the recent Union Budget to harness startups, drones and digital tools to spur farm incomes, demanding instead a law to guarantee assured minimum prices for their produce.
"What will drones do? How will farmers afford drones when farmers don't get even minimum prices?" said Hannan Mollah, a leader of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the platform of farm unions behind the year-long agitation of farmers.
While the government wants more private participation in the vast agricultural sector, farmers fear that big firms will dictate prices, monopolise services and make them vulnerable to exploitation. These arguments are at the heart of the stand-off.
In September 2021, the agriculture ministry signed agreements with five private companies to push its project to harness big data from the farm sector for a digital ecosystem, a move the government hopes will attract new technologies and more private investment.
The digital repository, it is said, will aid precise targeting of subsidies, services and policies. The database will assign each farmer of the country what is being called an "FID", or a farmer's ID, linked to land records in order to uniquely identify them. India has 140 million operational farmland holdings.
"It is unlikely that farmers will be forced to join in. They will have a choice," an official said.
The hi-tech database will be available publicly, give agribusinesses unprecedented insights into the rural economy and even individual land parcels, allowing them to target farmers with customised products.
The database will connect data points - the number of occupational farmers, how much land they own and where, what they grow, and which agro-climatic zones they fall in. "These data points will be triangulated, throwing up a far more complex but illuminating picture of the agricultural economy," said an official of one of the companies onboarded by the government.
The next step would be to create a model to monetise the data, he said. Five companies that the government has signed contracts for the database are CISCO, Ninjacart, Jio Platforms Limited, ITC Limited and NCDEX e-Markets Limited (NeML).
I-T experts said digital services would drive up productivity, while the issue is not about privacy but data rights. "Once a drone flies over a farm, a company will have very minute data related to it. This will help firms provide accurate services. But once they own the data, they can manipulate prices by creating lock-in periods for farmers," said Parminder Singh, the executive director of the non-profit IT for Change. Singh advises the Samyukt Kisan Morcha on digital farm policies.
To begin with, the proposed farmers' database is being built with the data of farmers already registered under PM-Kisan, a cash transfer scheme for landed farmers. "The ecosystem will unleash a digital revolution for farmers. It will bring advanced technologies to the doorstep of farmers with greater competition and increase farm income," an official said.