Digitization of farmer data is a good IDEA but safeguards are needed

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The statement by Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar that data for up to 8.5 crore of farmers will be digitized by December attests to the seriousness with which the Center is pushing forward its IDEA – the ‘Indian Digital Ecosystem for Agriculture’ – which is being built by global tech giant Microsoft under the umbrella of the Department of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare (DoAFW). The National Farmer Database is part of ‘Agristack’, a collection of digital technologies and databases focused on Indian farmers and the agricultural sector. The database, which will include digitized farmer land registers, is expected to help deliver proactive and personalized services to farmers, increase their incomes and improve the efficiency of the agricultural sector.

The National Farmers Database is being created by taking data from existing programs like PM Kisan, Soil Health Cards and PM Fasal Bima Yojana Insurance Program, sowing it with Aadhaar and linking it to the land registers database to create an FID, or ID, linked to the land registers to uniquely identify each farmer. The digital database, according to the government, will help accurately target subsidies and ensure better delivery of services and policies, the government said. Under the program, every farmer in the country will get what is called an FID, or farmer identifier, linked to land records to uniquely identify them.

The database will allow ‘single sign-on’ to access all services offered by the government, such as direct benefit transfers, soil health cards and plant health advisories, weather advisories, etc. . The government’s argument is that this unified database will help provide credit and insurance services to farmers, as well as information on fertilizers, pesticides and seeds.

At first glance, the need for such a database is indisputable. India has over 140 million operational farms. An integrated database will help to give unique information on land use, cultivation patterns, use of agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizers and chemicals for crops, and thus help to create evidence-based policies for the agricultural sector. It is also expected to improve market efficiency by allowing better forecasting of demand and supply, as well as price estimates for agricultural production.

There are, however, several areas of concern that have been noted by a wide range of interest groups, from data protection activists to farmer groups. Indian digital freedoms organization Internet Freedom Foundation, in an open letter to the government, pointed out several areas of concern, including non-consultation with farmer organizations, increased reliance on computerized algorithmic decision-making without traceable accountability for decisions and serious concerns regarding the privacy of farmers’ data is passed on to the private sector in the absence of a data privacy law in India. He argued that Agristack could be abused for purposes such as predatory lending or land grabbing.

Aadhaar and mandatory authentication lead to the exclusion of social measures and agricultural services for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. There are also concerns about the potential impact on legal rights through the creation of databases and monitoring. Farmer groups have flagged the lack of transparency and the government’s unwillingness to share project details as matters of concern. Since the database only covers farmers with land, it automatically excludes sharecroppers and sharecroppers, who form a significant proportion of the country’s marginal small farmers.

By linking it to land ownership, the movement automatically excludes sharecroppers, fishermen, pastoralists and dairy farmers without land, and those who collect forest products. Farmer groups pointed out that in most farm families, land titles are usually in the name of the male head of the household. This excludes women who, according to a recent Oxfam survey, represent up to 75 percent of the full-time workforce on farms. It also excludes agricultural work without land.

While cleaning up India’s messy land registers is a compelling necessity, experience to date has shown that the process has many pitfalls. Even a simple data entry error can lead to major problems, as anyone who has had to correct an error in an official database can attest. Tying it to all aid provided to farmers can also put the power of a ‘stop switch’ in the hands of government officials, who can freeze all subsidies and aid to targeted farmers if they wish. .

As the government takes an increasingly harsh stance with farmers who oppose its reform measures, such omniscient powers lead to justified fears of abuse and arbitrary enforcement. There is also a clear intention to privatize government services extended to farmers, such as extension services. The Center would do well not to repeat the mistakes it made with agricultural laws by trying to impose such drastic changes without consulting and integrating as many farm groups as possible. He must also put aside his contempt for political consultation and engage with political parties across the spectrum to develop consensus on these reforms.

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Posted on: Wednesday September 08, 2021, 2:30 AM IST


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