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Editorial Articles


Issue no 40, 31 December 2022 - 06 January 2023

The Transforming Face of India's Agriculture Role of Digital Tools in Farming

 

Jagdeep Saxena

 

"One important aspect of changing India is digital agriculture. This is our future and the talented youth of India can make a great contribution in this regard. There have been relentless efforts to empower the farmers of India with digital technology. There is the increasing use of technology and artificial intelligence in crop assessment, digitisation of land records, spraying of insecticides and nutrients through drones." -Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi

 

Digital agriculture essentially promotes the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and data systems to develop and deliver targeted information and services to make farming more profitable and sustainable. New and emerging technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), drones, remote sensing, block chain, artificial intelligence etc. are poised to transform traditional agriculture into a data-driven precision farming system. More than 40 critical farming and allied activities have been identified in which application of digital technologies may significantly enhance efficiencies. At the pre-harvest stage, digital applications have been found very effective in crop and input selection based on soil health records and weather forecasts. During the crop growth stage, pest and disease monitoring management, irrigation scheduling and timely weather advisories are key areas in which digital technologies have proven their efficacy. At the post-harvest stage, digital platforms help farmers by real-time data transmission on domestic and overseas markets. Producers also get region specific facilitation on processing, value addition and transportation. Digital applications also provide guidance and facilitation for securing best credit and crop insurance facilities and also help farmers in availing benefits of various Government schemes. Adoption of digital technologies modernise production practices and leads to reduced risk of crop failure, increased and sustainable yields, and stable annual returns. In addition to farming community, digitisation of agriculture opens up new opportunities for non-traditional players in the agriculture value chain, such as software/App developers, data analysts, digital agriculture entrepreneurs, etc.

The Vision: In 2015, Government of India launched a very comprehensive Digital India Programme to transform the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. Concerted and targeted efforts under the mission have led to establishment of a safe, secure and stable digital infrastructure across the nation including difficult rural areas. Over 1.72 lakh Gram Panchayats have been made service-ready with broadband infrastructure to provide digital services to farmers and other rural communities. More than 5.58 lakh villages have now wireless broadband coverage. Over 50 percent of the 692 million active internet users in India are from rural pockets, according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India. The report further points out 'much of the growth continues to be driven by rural India (351 million users) as urban India seems to have hit a plateau (341 million users). The report estimates there will be 900 million internet users in India by 2025. Another study says India will have 1 billion smartphone users by 2026 with a major push coming from rural areas. As of 2021, India had around 1.2 billion mobile subscribers of which 750 million used smart phones. Backed by a robust digital infrastructure in rural areas, the Government is implementing a Digital Agriculture Mission (2021-25) to enhance efficiency, transparency and productivity in agriculture sector. Besides promoting digital technologies, the Mission strives to develop a Farmers Database, Unified Farmers Service Interface and a host of other farmer-friendly online platforms. The Farmers Database will help Government in better planning and management of schemes and cash benefit transfers. Government would be able to communicate with the farmers directly and vice-versa. Central and State Governments and their respective schemes, and financial institutions and banks will be brought on a single platform. This will help farmers to avail full benefits of all the schemes in a transparent manner. Recently, the Government finalised the core concept of India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) framework. The IDEA would serve as a foundation to build innovative agri-focused solutions leveraging emerging digital technologies. It is a major step towards creating AgriStack in the country that will provide end-toend services across the agriculture food value chain. Basically, AgriStack is a collection of technologies and digital databases focusing on farmers and agriculture sector as a whole. The digital repository will aid precise targeting of subsidies, services and policies. Under the programme, a unique Farmers ID will be created with linkages to their land records, area of cultivation, financial status etc. This will bring transparency and accuracy in cash benefit transfers, and precise estimate of beneficiaries. Government is also implementing a National Egovernance Plan in Agriculture in which funds are released to States/Union Territories for the projects involving use of new digital technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), Blockchain, IoT, drones etc. States are also getting funds for customisation/shifting of web and mobile applications already developed by the states to the new digital platform. Meanwhile, a farmers' portal (farmer.gov.in) is serving farmers as 'one stop shop' for getting all relevant information on specific subjects around his village/block/district or State. This information is delivered in the form of text, SMS, e-mail and audio/video in the preferred language. Another portal (mKisan.gov.in) provides centralised 2-way extension system wherein farmers get information through SMS in their local language specific to their location. Farmers can also raise their queries on specific issues. The portal maintains a repository of advisories on many common issues and had now been integrated with various farmercentric services. Kisan Call Centres harness digital technologies to answer queries of farmers on a telephone call. KCCs are working in 14 locations covering all states and UTs and provide information in 22 local languages. To improve digital awareness, 'Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan' (PMG-DISHA) has been launched to make persons in rural areas digitally literate.

Means and Modes: Keeping pace with modern digital tools, the Government has launched 'Kisan Suvidha' app which already has about 100 million registered users. This smart app provides useful information and integrates all agricultural schemes/services under one umbrella. This is a robust app with security certificate and under cloud hosting. It provides critical information on various relevant issues such as weather of the current day and next five days, market prices, input dealers, agro-advisories and plant protection methods. Currently, the app is providing information in seven languages, but many more are to be added shortly. Various government schemes and services such as crop insurance, e-market, land records etc. have their own mobile apps to facilitate farmers and other stakeholders. Presence of apps in individual smart phones help farmers in taking informed decisions quickly and facilitates interaction with service providers/experts on real-time basis. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), an apex public sector R&D (research and development) institution, has developed over 300 mobile apps across the entire spectrum of agriculture and allied enterprises. Many of these apps provide advice and information in regional/local language on region specific crops. This enables farmers to take care of the entire value chain, right from sowing to harvesting through agri-business and marketing. Some of these apps offer digital monitoring of fields by taking regular updates on the health of the farm through pictures. In view of the high number of apps, ICAR has developed KISAAN 2.0 (Krishi Intergrated Solution for Agri Apps Navigation) to facilitate farmers in navigation of desired apps. This app integrates more than 300 mobile apps developed by ICAR in aggregator mode. KISAAN 2.0 app provides a single interface in multiple regional languages for farmers to access agricultural knowledge in various related disciplines including agricultural education and extension. In addition, a large number of companies in private sector have floated mobile apps in business mode. These apps mostly provide information on market intelligence, weather forecasting, pest and disease management and processing and value addition.

Artificial Intelligence (AI): Use of AI in agriculture and allied activities is revolutionising the processes in the interest of farmers by providing accurate advisories on related issues and challenges. In view of its infinite potential, NITI Aayog has prepared a national strategy (2018) and roadmap for implementation of AI in various sectors in India. The strategy recognises agriculture as one of the priority sector area for implementation of AI driven solutions. Government of India, during 2020-21 and 2021-22, has allocated funds to the tune of Rs. 1756.3 crores and Rs. 2722.7 crores to the states for introducing new technologies, including AI, in various agricultural activities. AI applications and machine learning are enabling remote sensing technologies to identify and manage plants, weeds, pests and diseases. An AI based sowing app sends sowing advisories to participating farmers on the optimal date to sow. Farmers need not install sensors in the field, they get text messages on smart phones. AI solutions are enabling farmers not only reduce wastage, but also improve quality and ensure faster market access for the produce.

Artificial Intelligence (AI): Use of AI in agriculture and allied activities is revolutionising the processes in the interest of farmers by providing accurate advisories on related issues and challenges. In view of its infinite potential, NITI Aayog has prepared a national strategy (2018) and roadmap for implementation of AI in various sectors in India. The strategy recognises agriculture as one of the priority sector area for implementation of AI driven solutions. Government of India, during 2020-21 and 2021-22, has allocated funds to the tune of Rs. 1756.3 crores and Rs. 2722.7 crores to the states for introducing new technologies, including AI, in various agricultural activities. AI applications and machine learning are enabling remote sensing technologies to identify and manage plants, weeds, pests and diseases. An AI based sowing app sends sowing advisories to participating farmers on the optimal date to sow. Farmers need not install sensors in the field, they get text messages on smart phones. AI solutions are enabling farmers not only reduce wastage, but also improve quality and ensure faster market access for the produce.

Internet of Things (IoT): IoT driven solutions have huge potential in agriculture sector mainly for improving supply chains and farm practices. IoT is poised to revolutionise the way farmers sow, fertilise and harvest the crop in the next decade. IoT device and solution providers are focusing on low-cost sustainable solutions to reduce the cost of farming. In the IoT policy of Government of India agriculture sector has been outlined and its potential uses in smart agriculture have been enumerated.

Applications and Advances

National Agriculture Market in e-mode (eNAM): In a bid to eliminate middlemen and provide best prices to farmers for their produce, Government of India in 2016 launched eNAM. It's a pan-India electronic trading portal that networks existing APMC (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee) mandis and thus facilitates the farmers to sell their produce without barriers and at best prices. It's a digital platform that enables farmers to sell their produce through online competitive and transparent price discovery system and online payment facility. Since the launch of eNAM portal, 1260 mandis from 22 states and three UTs have been integrated on the platform and 1000 more mandis will be integrated soon. It's a hugely popular platform with 1.76 crore farmers and traders on board (July, 2022). In addition, around 2200 FPOs (Farmer Producer Organisations) have also been registered for commercial trading benefitting a huge number of farmers. Currently, over 200 commodities are being traded across the country. Based on digital innovations, a Platform of Platforms (PoP) has been launched to integrate the various platforms of service providers operational in the agriculture value chain. eNAM is now a multilingual (12 languages) trade portal and a robust mobile app, is also available free of cost for all stakeholders, through which stakeholders can track progress of respective lots online. To promote eNAM further, the Government provides financial assistance upto Rs. 75 lakh per mandi for development of related hardware and infrastructure including various equipments needed for electronic trading.

 

Startups: Agritech startups/ companies are foraying into digital technologies providing services in blockchains, weather and crop advisories, marketing, finance, input supply, processing and value chain. Most of the agri-tech startups are providing services mainly in marketplace segment with quality assurance. In most of the cases, they supply fresh and organic fruits/ vegetables to consumers procured directly from farmers. Some startups supply organic milk and dairy products on daily basis through specific mobile apps. But recently many startups have started providing innovation and sustainable solutions for smart and more profitable agriculture. Startups are now providing solutions such as biogas plants, solar powered cold storage, fencing and water pumping, weather forecast, spraying machines, etc. These startups are acting as a missing link between the farmers, input dealers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers connecting each other and providing strong market linkages and quality produce on time. To promote agritech startups using digital technologies, Government is implementing a programme called Innovation and Agri entrepreneurship Development in which selected agri-tech startups are provided financial and technical support with mentoring/hand-holding services. Government has recently launched a Rs. 500 crore accelerator programme for taking forward and popularizing the successful initiatives of agri startups. Digital technologies are creating immense opportunities for employment and self employment in rural areas, particularly for youths. From production to inspection, storage, transportation, and finally marketing and consumption, digital technologies are generating livelihood opportunities for diverse group of professionals at different tiers. Besides, benefits of digital agriculture include food security, better quality of soil, air and water; better economic returns; and ultimately a better quality of life for farmers and other partners. Agriculture certainly stands to gain with digital disruption. No wonder, this sector is attracting large conglomerates, leading IT companies, investors and young innovators and entrepreneurs. Digitisation of agriculture promises high and inclusive growth in a sustainable manner. To conclude, digitisation is poised to change the scene of Indian agriculture in future and guarantee higher income to farmers and reduce distress.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, popularly called drones, have recently registered a strong presence in agriculture sector due to their many uses in farming activities. Drones/Kisan drones are generally used for aerial spraying of pesticides and fertilizers, monitoring fields for crop health, detecting outbreak of crop disease or insects/pests at an early stage, field mapping, and assessment of crop damage. Drones are well equipped with multi-spectral camera, sensors, precise sprayers and other sophisticated electronic gadgets to gather data accurately which is analysed on real-time basis using Artificial Intelligence technology. Many agri-startups have developed drone based planting systems which allow drones to shoot pods, their seeds and spray vital nutrients into the soil. Drones have been found very effective to increase consistency and efficiency in crop management, besides reducing cost and increasing income of farmers. Increasing use of drones in agriculture is creating ample employment opportunities in rural areas.

Government of India has implemented a slew of measures to promote use of drones in agriculture. The demand for drone pilots and engineers is increasing in rural areas which is an opportunity for rural youth to take up employment in their home tract. Government has also released Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for use of drones in pesticides application and spraying of nutrients.

The subsidies/financial assistance to promote use of drones in agriculture include:

(a)    50 % or maximum Rs. 5.0 lakh subsidy to SC-ST, small and marginal, women and farmers of northeastern states to buy drones. For other farmers, financial assistance upto 40% or maximum of Rs. 4 lakh

(b)    Farmer Producers Organisations (FPOs) are provided grants @ 75% for purchase of drones for its demonstration on the farmers' fields.

(c)    Financial assistance @40% of the basic cost of drones and its attachments or Rs. 4 lakhs, whichever is less, is provided for purchase of drone by Custom Hiring Centres (CHCs) under Co-operative Society of farmers, FPOs and rural entrepreneurs

(d)    Agriculture graduates establishing CHCs are provided financial assistance @50% of the cost upto a maximum of Rs. 5.0 lakh.

(e)    Financial assistance @100% of the cost of drone together with the contingent expenditure is provided for its demonstration on the farmers' fields to identified institutes (ICAR and its Institutes, KVKs, State Agricultural Universities and Farm Machinery Training and Testing Institutes).

 
(The author is former Chief Editor at Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi. He can be reached at jagdeepsaxena@yahoo.com) Views expressed are personal.