What we have ended up doing is using technology to give advice based on macro indicators. Most advice is not farmer-specific, though scientifically correct
T Nanda Kumar
Data is the new oil”. This is the new mantra, currently in circulation. The original is credited to Clive Humby, UK mathematician and architect of Tesco’s Clubcard. He said, “it’s valuable, but if unrefined, it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc, to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value”. The idea in this article is not to argue whether data is indeed as valuable as oil or to examine how big businesses make money from “big data”, but to make out a case for using data in the agriculture sector to further the prosperity and income of farmers. Such an approach pre-supposes access to data for use for the largest common good.
A large volume of data related to agriculture exists, but in a number of segregated silos. They are collected at different intervals of time for different purposes and collated, summarised and published by various government agencies. Historical data sets have been used extensively for analysis, understanding trends, estimating impacts of weather and policy on crops and prices, etc. These have helped policymakers and researchers to suggest changes in policy prescriptions, and design, implement and monitor schemes. But these have, unfortunately, not helped farmers take timely decisions to increase their income or even reduce losses in the event of a change in the situation.
Agricultural statistics is not easy to collect and compile, hence the dependence on the government. We have been using these statistics for many years in spite of the fact that it suffers from three major handicaps: timeliness, reliability and integrity. Let me cite just one example: published statistics tells us that the production of wheat was 92 million tonnes in 2015-16 (6 million tonnes more than the previous year) and 98 million tonnes in 16-17, another 6 million tonnes more.
In spite of this, wheat imports in 16-17 were 5.75 million tonnes. Since consumption trends did not show any surge to justify such large imports, the only logical conclusion is that the government itself was not confident of this data. The fact that information comes in late is well known, be it of sowing or crop-cutting data. The elaborate exercise of collection of primary data on crops that have time-honoured systems (rice, wheat, etc) still has design errors and implementation gaps.
Crops like sugarcane and cotton are more difficult, not to speak of tree crops like mangoes. Even the compilation and publishing of data deserves better attention to detail. For example , there is no data on production of chicken meat for 2013-14 and the compiled data available on government’s websites for 2012-13 for this item will not pass a school level statistical test! The question is how can data become reliable and useful for farmers? How can it help the government take the right policy decisions? To start with, let us look at the volume of data available with the government in various silos.
A quick list includes data on land, ownership of lands, weather and rainfall, irrigation, electrification, crop-wise sowing, production and yield, fertiliser consumption, market arrivals and prices from APMCs,wholesale and consumer prices, procurement, etc. The list can go on. Then there are the new ‘data-driven’ schemes like soil health, PM crop insurance, PM KISAN etc, which have a wealth of details. All this information is available in different silos, not correlated, and often not inter-operable. Add to this the ‘JAM’ data and the electoral rolls, and we have ‘big data’, probably the new bio-fuel.
The question is: is big data going to create wealth for a few who can access it or capture such data or will it help farmers take more informed decisions? To start with, let us accept the hypothesis that the farmer will be better off if provided with specific crop, soil ,weather and market information advisories. This requires that his land is identified and linked to his name, and that micro-climate details like rainfall, moisture levels, soil fertility, etc, are mapped along with his crops as also advisories on fertilisation and irrigation schedules, pest control measures and market trends are given on time.
Today’s technology is capable of doing this in real time. What we have ended up doing, however, is using modern technology to give ‘unsolicited’, often irrelevant, advice based on macro indicators. Most advice is not farmer-specific, though scientifically correct. We fill their ‘inbox’ with multiple, often confusing, messages. Modern technology offers better options. There are enough young entrepreneurs in the country today who can offer farmers specific solutions using data from the sky, the soil and the market. These new start-ups, though not a large number at present, are struggling with two core issues: access to existing data and the revenue model.
Primary data in the government is mostly a ‘no-entry’ zone. Generating usable data is costly and the farmers do not pay for expensive options. Institutions who have interest in micro-climate, crop monitoring, etc, are banks and insurance companies. So the revenue model focuses on their needs rather than farmers’ needs. If the government were to change the entire extension system to a more specific, farmer-oriented, data-driven, real-time advice model, the game will change. We need to start with two things: First, give open, but ‘limited’ (limited on account of privacy and national security issues) access to primary data in the government. The government can, if they choose, levy a small charge for access. Second, provide technical backstopping to agri start- ups and enable a revenue model to enable them to participate in the extension space. Let this new bio-fuel be used in a retail format to power farmers’ prosperity!
The author is former secretary of food & agriculture, Govt of India, and is currently a visiting fellow with ICRIER