MoU between the Union Ministry of Agriculture, Microsoft India and CropData Technology Pvt. Ltd for a pilot project to develop a farmer interface may lead to these private companies gaining access to farmers’ personal data

The Union government is preparing a national database comprising a wide range of data on farmers. But the project has raised serious questions because farmers and farmers’ organisations have not been consulted and private players, including multinational companies such as Microsoft, are likely to be given access to the data.

Published : Jun 17, 2021 06:00 IST

Farmers burning copies of the new farm laws during a demonstration against the Central government outside the BJP office in Amritsar on June 5.

Farmers burning copies of the new farm laws during a demonstration against the Central government outside the BJP office in Amritsar on June 5.

AS the pandemic continues to ravage the country and citizens are overwhelmed by sickness and death, the government is marching ahead with a slew of initiatives in the agricultural sector. It has quietly signed agreements with private players that apparently compromise farmers’ data across the country.

For more than six months farmers have been sitting at the borders of the capital in protest against three new farm laws: the Farmers’ Produce Trade & Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. These are expected to overhaul existing agricultural practices by removing minimum support prices, allowing private players to procure directly from farmers, drastically reducing the products in the essential commodities list, and opening up the farm produce sector to e-commerce and electronic trade in a big way. Faced with the eventuality that they would no longer have government protection, small and medium farmers felt threatened by the fact that big private players might eventually control the marketplace, and so they protested against the new laws. The huge farmers’ uprising took the government by surprise. The Supreme Court has since put the implementation of the laws on hold. Nevertheless, the government has gone ahead and introduced new schemes that supposedly expose farmers to the vagaries of the market through other means.

On April 13, according to a Press Information Bureau release, the Union Ministry of Agriculture signed a tripartite memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Microsoft India for a pilot project in 100 villages of six States—Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh—to develop a farmer interface apparently to “increase farmers’ incomes” by “reducing input costs”. The third party in the tripartite agreement is the Nagpur-based CropData Technology Pvt. Ltd, which was founded in 2016 and is one of the many new agritech start-ups that have emerged on the scene in India.

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According to the press release, the government is preparing a farmer database by linking the land records of farmers across the country. The data relating to PM Kisan, Soil Health Card and Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (crop insurance scheme) have been integrated and the process of inclusion of other data is ongoing. All farm asset data available with the Ministry of Agriculture are expected to be geotagged as per government directives.

Microsoft and CropData would bear the costs of the year-long project, and more such projects with other public and private players are in the pipeline across the country, according to Narendra Singh Tomar, Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare.

This initiative is in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of digitising the Indian agricultural space. Earlier, the government had announced the setting up of AgriStack, a national database for farmers that would create a digital agro-system. The idea of harvesting farmers’ data was first proposed in the February 2018 Report of the Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income, brought out by the Ministry of Agriculture. Subsequently, in June 2018, NITI Aayog released a discussion paper on “National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence #AIForAll” wherein it identified agriculture, along with health care, education, infrastructure and mobility, as an important sector for AI intervention.

The collection of farmers’ data is an ongoing process where every farmer is to be provided with a digital ID that would be linked to the Aadhaar number. According to the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), the nature of the data being collected could include the profile of the land held by the farmer, such as cadastral maps, farm size, land titles, and local climatic and geographical conditions. It could also include production details such as crops grown, production history, input history, quality of output, machinery in possession and financial details of input costs, average return and credit history.

According to the government, this database is expected to address nagging issues of farmers such as inadequate access to credit and information, pest infestation, crop wastage, poor price discovery and yield forecasting. But according to organisations such as the IFF, the proposed framework for AgriStack raises many serious questions around privacy. Of late, several agritech and fintech firms have shown great interest in providing farmers with last-mile connectivity. But in their zeal to provide farmers better services, the IFF feels, they may end up harvesting and processing farm data without the consent of the farmer, leading to a situation where banks and insurance companies know more about the incomes and businesses of farms than the individual farmers themselves. Farmers may be unable to adequately judge the value of their data and so may happily share information with a company, not realising that the company will make money from it. Even if the company pays for the data, the compensation may not be commensurate with the value of the data.

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This loss of privacy may impact farmers in various ways. Usury is a fairly common practice in India that has led to thousands of farmers dying by suicide. Large agribusinesses may exploit incomplete land title records of farmers to grab land. As per some studies, Aadhaar-linked welfare services suffer from risks of exclusion because of their reliance on biometrics. Algorithm-based decision-making may further reduce the agency of farmers. In the absence of widespread consultations with the affected parties, the farmers themselves, any collation of data becomes suspect and suffers from a lack of accountability.

Parliament is yet to pass the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. Implementing the AgriStack without adequately addressing the issues of privacy and protection of personal data may lead to harm, according to the IFF. The proposed Bill is itself controversial as it allows for personal data of individuals to be processed without their consent under many circumstances, including when the state requires the data to provide benefits to an individual. The fact that the Bill has not been passed, however, has not stopped the government from its data collection activities.

Letter to Agriculture Minister

Apparently, the government already has a verified database containing the details of more than 50 million farmers and their land records. Farmers have alleged that they were not adequately consulted about the same. Around 55 agricultural organisations, collectives and groups wrote to the Union Minister of Agriculture asking him to hold consultations with all stakeholders, especially farmers’ organisations, on the direction of the government’s digital push as well as the basis of partnerships, and put out a policy document in this regard after giving due consideration to feedback from farmers and farmer organisations. As agriculture is a State subject under the Constitution, State governments also need to be consulted.

Signed by the Jai Kisan Andolan, Krishi Pathshala, the Rythu Swarajya Vedika, the Safe Food Alliance, Thirunelly Agri Producer Company Ltd, Desi Seed Producer Company Ltd, Durgapur Biogarden Pvt. Ltd and the Federation of Tamil Nadu Rice Mill Owners Association among others, the letter to the Agricultural Minister demands that all initiatives begun by the government with private entities regarding farmers’ information must be put on hold until the policy framework is finalised and Parliament passes a data protection law. This agreement and any other such agreement with any information technology organisation must be backed by adequate legal systems in India, the letter said. Existing laws must be reviewed considering the advancements in the field of artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data and new laws need to be enacted accordingly. The signatories to the letter asked for the tripartite MoU to be put on hold and for it to be made available on the website of the Ministry.

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The letter stated that at a time when data have become the new oil and industry is looking at data as the next source of profits, there is a need to ensure the interest of farmers. “It will not be surprising that corporations will approach this as one more profit-making possibility, as a market for so-called ‘solutions’ which lead to sale of unsustainable agri-inputs combined with greater loans and indebtedness of farmers for this through fintech, as well as the increased threat of dispossession by private corporations,” said the letter.

Ultimately, “tech-solutionism” cannot be an answer to the problems that plague Indian agriculture, the organisations said. Instead of solving structural issues, such an approach could give rise to problems of usurious lending practices, further exploitation of farmers by procurers, reduced agency on the part of farmers, and reduced transparency on the part of the government through algorithm-based decision-making that might lead to autonomous control systems directing goals not set to human purpose. Besides, the government has so far not addressed the problems created by the digitisation of land records.

On April 23, the IFF filed a Right to Information application and, on May 19, in response to it, received a copy of the MoU along with a document titled “Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for verifying Farmers’ Database (100 villages)” from the Ministry of Agriculture. According to the MoU, the agricultural platform for farmers will be hosted on Microsoft Azure–based data and analytics services and is built with the purpose of consolidating the agriculture ecosystem across the value chain (farm to fork) to empower the farmer. AgriStack will have provisions for partners to build solutions on a Microsoft Azure workbench as the data pool will be created with the aim of providing end-to-end farm management and farmer advisory services.

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The Ministry of Agriculture will own and be responsible for data security but will share its datasets with Microsoft. In order to build the unified farmer service interface, the national farmer database would be integrated with those of States. This would further accelerate the 360 degree engagement with farmers to support them across their value chain, including imparting benefits of the government’s agricultural schemes and other public services for farmers, according to the MoU.

The IFF pointed out that there was no clarity on how the data would be protected. Further, State agriculture departments had not been made party to the MoU. The MoU has a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with regard to safeguarding “confidential information”, but is vague about whether farmers’ data shared under the MoU are considered confidential information and thus subject to protection under the NDA.

Major flaw in project

The IFF flagged a major flaw in the project: its silence on landless or tenant farmers. As per the Agricultural Census 2015-16, 68.5 per cent of all landholdings in India belong to marginal farmers or those with less than one hectare of land. Meanwhile, as per Census 2011, 14.43 crore people were landless agricultural labourers.

“These are astounding numbers, and so it is imperative that any support provided under agricultural policies address the landless. However, prima facie, the proposed database excludes landless farmers from its ambit, and so any potential benefits that are forthcoming will not be enjoyed by these households. Linking the identity of a farmer with land ownership brings other issues: for example, many estimates suggest that women constitute 60-70 per cent of all farmers, but since they rarely own land, most schemes and technological inputs would not be made available to them. Additionally, tenant farmers and sharecroppers, who also constitute a large section of all farmers, would also not be recorded in such a database,” said the IFF.

Also read: A case for privacy

As per the government’s own submission, agriculture is the backbone of the country’s economy. When all other sectors were adversely affected by the pandemic lockdown last year, the agricultural sector continued to sustain the economy. It is therefore imperative that the government listen to farmers and take them into its confidence rather than steamroll new policies through without adequate consultations.

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