Enabling agriculture

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eAGRICULTURE India 2007 which was a part of eINDIA 2007 Conference, was a new initiative on the part of Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies (CSDMS), to understand the role of ICTs (Information and Communiction Technologies) in agricultural development. The present report will cover the discussions and recommendations which came up during the various sessions on eAGRICULTURE India, 2007. The objective behind the special sessions on e-Agriculture was to look at the potential of ICTs in serving the various needs and demands of the rural farming community in India and abroad.

August 1, 2007

Agriculture development policy towards faster and more inclusive growth-How to ease agrarian crisis using ICTs?

The first session of eAGRICULTURE India 2007, was chaired by AK Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Minstry of Agriculture, Government of India. The other panelists were: Dr. SA Patil, Director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, J Satyanarayana, CEO, National Institute for Smart Government, Hyderabad, and from the corporate side S Sivakumar, Chief Executive, ITC-IBD, Secunderabad. In the initial remarks, Dr S A Patil showed his genuine concern over the aspiration of 4 percent growth rate per annum in agriculture, which has not been happening in the recent past. He informed that agriculture has become a non-profitable venture. However, those in the upper echleons of the production and supply chain are earning more. Quoting a simple stance of a cotton producing farmer, he said that the poor farmer can’t even imagine what amount a meter of cloth fetches when it is sold under a brand name. The farming families don’t want their sons and daughters to continue farming anymore.

Dr. Patil also informed about the problem of unskilled rural youths. The extension machinery in India is not able to absorb the rapid changes happening  in technology. Under all these constraints, the role of ICTs appears as a potent tool. ICTs can help disseminate knowledge which is derived from the wide and strong network of education and research institutions. While talking on the role of ICTs in achieving 4 percent per annum growth rate in agriculture, Dr. Patil pointed out that: (a) The knowledge of seed production should be given to farmer so that he can produce the seed at his farm, which will save him from the cost he bears on purchasing extremely costly seeds from the companies; (b) Providing protection and support to agriculture through assured irrigation, minimum support prices, crop insurance etc. is vital; and, (c) Dryland development, which once done can yield growth rate even higher than 4 percent.

While making a well structured note, S Sivakumar, highlighted three points viz.: (a) Sluggishness of Indian agriculture despite huge investments from both public and private sectors, and India having resources of large arable lands, multiple agro-climatic zones, large market, strong research and development, hard-working and innovative farmers, etc.; (b) Potential of ICTs to prevent the agrarian crisis; and, (c) Determining the non-ICT factors so as to make ICTs work for agricultural development. He said that the per capita income of the farmers is one-fifth of the rest of an average Indian. He reasoned out three fundamental aspects responsible for this: (a) Fragmented land holding which has an average size of less than 1.5 hectare, leading to weakening of the bargaining power of  farmer. The market access has to happen through a series of intermediaries; (b) The geographical dispersion of the farmers across more than 6,00,000 villages has implication on bringing information on a real-time basis, which can provide information on weather forecast, market prices, news affecting markets etc.; and (c) Heterogeneity of context, by virtue of the capacity of investment of each farmer, his/ her risk bearing ability, knowledge a farmer possesses, requirement for more customised information etc.

Generic information is of little use when seen at the individual-level. He told that virtual aggregation of small stakeholders (producers) across multiple geographies to get the power of scale is possible through the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICTs). He informed that real time multicasting, customisation of information, and personalisation of the content on the basis of knowledge of who is logging in and who is participating, can be done through ICTs. He mentioned about four things, while speaking on non-ICT factors: (a) To create real choices through complementary services such as good roads and infrastructure (storehouses, vehicles for transportation etc.). Simply, broadcasting prices or making them available online, through SMS, on radio, etc is not good enough.; (b) To set up complementary infrastructure to bring the power of scale to the small. This includes human infrastructure which is important to understand first mile issues of the farmers and customising at the last mile; (c) Bringing the benefit of specialisation by leveraging the power of partnership and building a network of specialized organisations in their respective fields is absolutely critical; and, (d) Sustainability of any ICT model is very important.

J Satyanarayana in his opening remarks said that agriculture sector is a victim of several gaps. Foremost of these gaps accordingly to him was the intelligence gap. Farmers have little information on the kinds of crops s/he should grow, how s/he should grow, what planning s/he needs to do with respect to his/her area and soil conditions, what are the market dynamics etc. The other gaps mentioned by him included credit gap, productivity gap, marketing gap, price realisation gap and infrastructure gap etc. Barring the infrastructure gap, all the above-mentioned gaps can be dealt to an extent using the ICTs. Pointing towards number of government schemes and policy initiatives from the government side, he felt that an equal role from the private sector is required. To enthuse private sector in handling information poverty and asymmetry, the policy had to be conducive, he added. Later, during the open house discussion, various issues were raised by the participating delegates who hailed from diverse backgrounds including, progressive farmers, researchers, academicians, IT professionals and foreign delegates. The existing extension, research and education mechanism had very limited skill set to use ICTs.

ICTs can be introduced by imparting needed training and inducing new courses on Agriculture Information Technology. The right information on prices and other personalised content can be done through ICTs. There was a call to formulate National Agricultural Information Technology Policy. Lack of investment in agriculture sector was seen as major bottleneck. One question that came up was: Can Indian agriculture keep itself abreast of the newer technological breakthroughs? The link from lab to land was weak but the link from land to lab was missing altogether. Summarising, the whole discussion A K Agarwal said that every crisis offers new opportunity to rectify past mistakes. He emphasised on the need to increase productivity to meet the growing demand for food grains. He cleared that intervention had to be made at all the levels. He told that the production gaps existed within smaller areas in a given district. He asked for harnessing ICTs keeping in mind the diversity of India.

AGRISNET-Strengthening agricultural informatics and communications

Sharing the state’s vision, Om Prakash, Secretary Agriculture, Government of Uttarakhand said that the basic vision was to move away from subsistence to sustainable agriculture. In Uttarakhand due to its terrain and non-existence of formal extension machinery, ICTs was the only option, he informed. Commenting on a strategy, he said that it was needed to blend domain knowledge with technology to enhance effectiveness and efficiency in agriculture sector. In his presentation he shared various initiatives undertaken in the state which included, agriculture-based portal, agro-climatic planning and information bank (APIB) etc.

The agriculture portal was to be a one-stop-shop for all including farmers,government, businesses and other institutions. APIB shall be very useful in land monitoring, watershed planning, yield forecasting, cropping pattern analysis, analytical modeling, etc. The third general application, eAgriclinic was a knowledge management system based on a series of questions and their answers to reach the diagnosis. This iterative dialogue would also enable to arrive at optimal solutions. He mentioned that ICTs cannot succeed on a stand alone basis and needed to be supplemented by other programmes.

Mohd. Qamar Iqbal Khan, Joint Director of Agriculture, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, said that farmers in Andhra Pradesh needed information on unlimited topics and shared the initiative made by the state government in that direction. The idea was to make university online which had a lot of information but was not reaching out to the farmers. In the initial phase, state aimed to reach 1104 blocks and later reached down to village level with hardware support and customised software. Since all the areas were not connected via Internet, it was planned to supply DVDs.  In the future, it was proposed to provide spatial information, satellite images of high resolution to help the grower take decision on his crops’ health and the state of field with reference to other neighboring fields.

Amit Majumdar, Principal Systems Analyst, NIC, West Bengal, while sharing the goals of West Bengal Agriculture Department, told that the main objective was to provide advice, improve information dissemination and exchange among various stakeholders, through the use of latest ICT tools. There were various G2G/G2C/G2B/G2E projects already implemented or were under the process of implementation in the state of West Bengal. He also described about the portal named which was providing information on a number of issues to the agriculture stakeholders. According to Amit Majumdar, lack of infrastructure at the site of implementation, absence of appropriate human resource with the right attitude and lack of training were the major challenges in implementing the various ICT-based projects.

J Satyanarayana, CEO, National Institute for Smart Government (NISG), Hyderabad, while illustrating the salient features of mission mode project (MMP) in agriculture told that the project was divided into two parts. The first part emphasised on what were the requirements, whereas the second part dealt with how the objectives of the first part were to be achieved. He also shared that the first part of scoping the requirements had been completed, and the second phase was about to commence. A set of twenty services had been prioritised based on a consultative process amongst central government, state governments and private sector. It was further seen where the ICT interventions could be made. At the very first place and as a single largest message from his side, he felt the need to create an ICT-based agri-ecosystem which was to grow and evolve continuously thereafter. He also encouraged the participation of private sector during the second phase of  ICT intervention, as long as the standards and protocols were maintained. While summarising the session, AK Agarwal remarked that in a vast country like India with 127 different agroclimatic zones and the need for personalised services becoming bigger, it was the technology which could bring success.

Agricultural marketing: From farm to firm to fork

The session was chaired by KS Money, Chairman, Agricultural and Processed Food Products  Export Development Authority (APEDA), New Delhi. The first speaker of the session UKS Chauhan, Agricultural Marketing Advisor, Department of  Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, said, “Hailing from a village background whenever I go back to village home, the farmers ask me the question that where they would sell their produce.”  Showing the concern over the information deficit, he deliberated on Agmarknet which attempts to provide information on prices, arrivals, availability, trends, analysis, laws, etc. Currently, Agmarknet covers 2800 market nodes and 300 commodities and provides information in ten languages. He admitted that the programme had to be reliable and accurate for which data collection and date validation were to be taken into account. The programme aspires to become revenue generating and self-sustaining by the end of XI Five Year Plan. Realising the need of strategic alliance for wider dissemination of market information to the end users, he specifically mentioned 1,00,000 common service centres (CSCs) and other private and public kiosks, which were coming up in rural India.

Lamon Rutten, Joint Managing Director, Multi Commodity Exchange of India Ltd. (MCX), Mumbai while sharing the vision of his company said, “The synergy of exchanges,warehouses and a modern information/communication system will make it possible to cross over into a new era for agriculture”. He told that electronic exchanges act as bridge to the future as they create profit opportunity and efficiency, and help integrating the market. He said that without empowering farmers, the benefit of better organised supply chain will bypass them. MCX has arrangements with India Posts, TERI, MSSRF and Akshaya centres to develop and demonstrate sustainable and replicable ways for getting markets to the farmers.

Donald Taylor, Chief of Party, Growth Oriented Micro-Enterprise Development Programme, Jaipur made a mention of agriculture retail which had immense potential to bring farmers to commercial supply chains. Mentioning about two missing links in agriculture, he said that both the extension and marketing were very crucial. Specially in horticulture an intensive extension and handholding is required. He also added that just providing information alone is of no use; the exercise needs to be supported by enabling farmers to market his produce. Further supplementing to Don Taylor’s presentation, PS Krishna Kumar from the same organisation shared that the organisation’s plans to reach out to the field using the mobiles. This was mainly for two reasons, it was more practical approach under the fairly deep penetration of mobiles and lack of infrastructure needed for other media. Secondly, it was keeping in view the need of real time information in agriculture. The two modules were being  developed keeping in focus the supply chain management and farmers’ technical information needs, told Mr. Kumar.

Sameer Gupta, Joint Managing Director, Samtech InfoNet Ltd, New Delhi, said that the farmers are struggling with various issues, and ICTs has a lot to offer to resolve these concerns. He felt the need of integration and channelisation of information, which already existed. While summing up his discussion he made a remark that technology can only take the role of an enabler and not the driving seat. The domain knowledge is of utmost importance, he added. Human intervention is important to take the best out of the technology and should be given due attention. While summarising the session KS Money said that there existed few gaps and the working environment is not perfect.

Digital inclusion for fostering rural prosperity and grassroots development

M Moni, DDG, NIC, New Delhi in his opening remark talked about the history of ICT in agriculture and the very first beginning which was made in 1995 in this direction. Highlighting the issue of content, he stressed on the importance of developing expert systems, knowledge bases, decision-support systems in agriculture. The major challenges with ICT programme was organisational non-promotional interest and destabilisation through the administrative process. Talking about the development made over the years, he informed that currently fifteen information networks have been given a shape, and they have come up as a scheme with more than INR 1000 crores budget. He asserted on the need to take ICT applications beyond the level of using e-Mail or word processing. Computer education should be a  part of course curriculum of agriculture education system. “Future lies in rural computing” he said further. He said that institutions located in field areas should carry on research at local-level and communicate in local languages. He also suggested for establishing the supply chains, mapping the farmers and to start a 24X7 hours TV channel dedicated exclusively for agriculture.

The first speaker of the session Rajesh Khullar, Director Agriculture, Government of Haryana shared his interesting experiences. He told that over the past 6-7 years, the productivity of wheat had actually gone down on account of global warming and high temperatures prevailing during the months of February. The research suggested that an early sowing can help in avoiding the ‘February Heat’ and resulted in productivity increase. But the given proportion of 1extension worker per 8 villages, was a limiting factor to communicate this finding with every farmer. Rajesh Khullar and his team made an innovative approach of touching all the farm families via children from schools and colleges. These children communicated the idea of early sowing to get better yields to their families, and it resulted in an increase in the productivity. Known for his innovative ideas, Rajesh Khullar started a unique SMS-based service for the farmers. He told that most of the farmers were already mapped through mobile network. This service was started wherein any farmer can send free of cost SMS mentioning the problem s/he is facing in the field or the information s/he desires to seek. In return the extension people either visit his farm or advice him over the phone.

The next speaker Deepak Chanduka, GGM(IT&NW) Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd. (TCIL), New Delhi, deliberated upon the Kisan Call Centre, it’s working and the future plans. He told that there were currently 144 call centres, which were spread over 14 locations. Sharing his future plans, he told that  a Kisan Knowledge Management System shall be developed as a back-end database for the effective utilisation of the service. He suggested to make relevant changes in the course- curriculum to better equip the agriculture graduates to deal with the farmers’ problems in the field. In the discussion, it was observed that the Kisan Call Centre number should also be accessible from a mobile and not only from a landline.

Ritoban Roy of Wipro which is engaged in developing a business model for Media Lab Asia, shared his work with the delegates. He said that technology should not dazzle the end-users. ICT should support and not drive the service meant for the farmers. He also emphasised on the need of the involvement of a local partner in the delivery of the service. According to him, charging the customer for the services, even in the pilots, will act as a significant mechanism to put strict discipline on the market. Rikin Gandhi, Asst. Researcher, Microsoft Research India, Bangalore told how ICTs are used for the transfer of technology to the farmers in Karnataka. He informed that in their work, they have added a digital component to the extension, which was cost-effective. Capturing a local farmer using the technology (to be transfered) in a film and showing it to the community was the idea behind his work. Due to this, a farmer becomes a star in front of the community, and this participatory approach helps community to generate local content. Peers adopt fast what they see being conducted in their own settings. Provision of ingredients required to follow the technology increased the chances of conversion and adoption, he further informed.

Bijay Nanda, Executive Director, Sandhan Foundation, Bhubaneswar, said that people who depended upon coast, realised the importance of the Mangroves after the events like Tsunami. His work was in the same direction. The project aimed at the use of ICTs to educate the coastal-poor on the wise usage of natural coastal wetland-marine resources. He informed how Coastal Community Resource Centre had tried to educate local people on the use of resources by technological innovation. He informed on shooting films on various themes of diversity of the ecosystem, its components and inter linkages etc. The films made were later shown to the community to pass on the message.

Ghan Shyam Bansal, State Informatics Officer, Haryana, presented on Agriculture Resource Information System, the pilot project of NIC at Rohtak district. He elaborated on how the sustainability had been affected in the area because of the over-exploitation of the resources. To address this problem, he said that the information on what to produce, how much to produce, where to produce should be provided to farmers, and the requisite changes in the agricultural policy be brought in. He told that how the project was aiming to use ICTs for knowledge management with village as a unit. Locally relevant content was the critical success factor for the project, he said.

Summarising the session M Moni said that the task of converting 110 million farm families to get into e-Farming was huge. He said that the solution lies in expert system, decision-support system and knowledge bases. Commenting on e-Governance, he said that the approach should be ‘G for C’, and not ‘G2C’. During the discussion it was suggested that agriculture should be included as a subject in the school curriculum.

2 August, 2007

ICTs in education, research and sectoral growth

Dr. H Chandrashekharan, Head, Unit of Simulation and Informatics, IARI, while presenting on behalf of Dr. SA Patil, Director IARI, mentioned ICTs as a tool to carry out proper agriculture research, teaching and extension. Combination of ICT tools to various component of agriculture research was well identified as new discipline of ‘Agri-Informatics’. He also shared how satellite images can help in taking decisions based on information provided on soil, moisture content, land use etc. He further discussed how virtual education through the use of  ICTs can address the needs of a wide area of education in agriculture, not only for students but also for the farmers. He ended up by saying that ICTs in agriculture have to go a long way.

Dr. Gyanendra Sharma, Professor, Agricultural Communication, G B Pant University of Agriculture  and Technology, Pantnagar presented on behalf of Dr. PL Gautam, Vice Chancellor of the same university. Deliberating on the role of ICTs in education, he said that there is need for a paradigm shift from instruction-centric system to learner-centric system. Computer alone is not the end. He mentioned about the evolution of smart class rooms. ICTs had to play a role in regular course content update, better student-teacher interaction, distance education, sharing of resources, etc. Indicating towards the inherent risk in present ICT scenario in universities, it was the general inertia at senior level to move towards the new technologies. He also shared the proactive approach of his university which already had an ICT policy in place.

Dr. VC Patil, Head of the Division of Plant and Soil Sciences,University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, who was representing Dr. JH Kulkarni, Vice Chancellor of the same university, said that society has moved from agricultural society to industrial society and then to a knowledge society. Under the present scenario, knowledge has become a critical factor. He also shared how the digital libraries were a source of explicit knowledge, and were the gateways to knowledge outside. He said that lack of finance, lack of IT experts and lack of networking were the major constraints in front of Indian agricultural libraries. He also touched upon the role of ICTs in precision farming, and how it can actually be used to manage spatial and temporal variability.

Prof. ML Madan said that the growth in agriculture had to be inclusive. He said that ICTs have to be relevant in the process. He specifically mentioned about the role of ICTs for livestock sector. The usage of ICT for marketing, for forage conditions, disease management, water availability etc., is quiet relevant. Animal disease monitoring and surveillance to have early warning, diagnosis and vaccination programme was emphasised by Prof. Madan. Health kiosk as a touch screen disease system if made available at villages can reduce the time lag and help address many serious concerns of the sector. He also stressed on creating a cyber corridor  given the big role of  livestock.

During the open floor discussion, it was agreed that there should be use of ICTs to take the refined technology to the farmers. During the discussion it was found that the separation of animal husbandry from agriculture and it being treated separately has hampered the concept of integrated agriculture.

Agriculture finance and risk management

Dr. R Balakrishnan, Executive Director, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), Mumbai, during his very interesting opening remark said, “If we know where to go, ICT can show the path”. Agriculture has to be networked with sections of the economy, he emphasised. It has to be supply-chain managed. Leadership and management were the two most important inputs for agriculture. He also emphasised on an electronic system, which could manage financial services, savings, credit, investment opportunity, hedging negotiation, etc for the farmers. He also pointed towards the establishment of the identity of the farmers through Kisan Credit Card. He said that a farmer’s dream is no different from an urban citizen’s one, and both should be given equal opportunity and means.

Starting the session with a very important subject of agriculture insurance, M Parshad, Chairman-cum-Managing Director, Agriculture Insurance Company of India Ltd (AIC), New Delhi, told that agriculture was a risky activity which is vulnerable to natural forces and accordingly risk management assumes its significance. He also shared that the crop insurance programme being run in India was the largest in the world. He informed that for the first time, his company had made the use of latest techniques like remote sensing to estimate crop yield. Further sharing the potential of GIS, he said how it could cover a wide area at regular intervals and helped in minimising the problems of asymmetric information, do away with frequent field visits, etc. He told that the use of such technologies had helped the company in designing suitable products (with in time payment of compensation). He also told about the utility of automatic weather stations to help develop the weather index. He also brought to notice the limitations of the usage of latest ICTs such as frequency of quality satellite images, clarity during rainy season, requirement of system of ground truthing and validation, high cost, lack of legal framework etc.

KK Gupta, General Manager, NABARD, New Delhi raised points pertaining to rural credit–first,   about the amount of credit from non-formal sources, and second, the exclusion of small and marginal farmers from the formal sources of credit. He said that ICTs in universal access to financial services should not merely be limited to the access but take into account the process and the end-usage. He specifically mentioned the use of ICTs for land records, future price discovery, market intelligence, agricultural database management, e-Banking, mobile-based payment, etc. He wished that every village should have one knowledge centre to fill in the ground gap, which existed between village panchayats and farmers, on one hand, and the financial institutions based at national and district levels, on the other.

Alok Gupta, Managing Director, Samtech InfoNet Ltd, New Delhi deliberated on the benefits of technology for microfinance and what principles should be followed while implementing technology.  Using ICTs the processes should be automated and the applications should be customised and made more flexible. He said that there were already several connectivity options and many access devices present but we also need to consider unconventional delivery technologies like ATM, digital cash, mobile banking etc to make microfinance reach till the last mile. He also touched upon the idea of energy-electricity network to be used to connect villages with mainstream. Another possibility was of Wi-Max for making financial inclusion of rural areas. According to him, mobiles using GSM could be another way in this regard.

Dr V Shunmugam, Chief Economist, MCX, Mumbai, told that the commodity exchange were based on the latest ICTs which was indicative of the potential ICTs have for agricultural finance and risk management. He discussed about the various gaps and other basic characteristics of agricultural finance. Suggesting various innovative uses of ICTs, he told that each farmer should be given a unique identity card which has to be machine readable and must provide electronic and biometric access. There should be commodity bank, scientific warehousing, collateral management linked to national level common database and with an access to commodity exchanges. He also urged to provide a comprehensive solution to the farmers’ financial needs, through the use of ICTs.

Dheeraj Rajpal, Zonal Manager, Strategic Initiatives and Channel, ICICI Bank, New Delhi, pointed out the transformal role of agriculture credit and risk management in the economy. For transforming the economy, he said there was a need to develop a comprehensive rural information system to  identify credible borrowers. He told that a biometric smart card or e-Passbook could be used to access the account, which ICICI bank was doing as a pilot with the involvement of another company called FINO. While talking on weather insurance he said that advanced weather parametres measuring techniques should be used as it was being done in other countries. He also suggested the sharing of database amongst various financial player in order to bring down the cost of financial services. While summarising the session, the Chair remarked that farmers are honest and don’t intend to default unless forced to do so. So accordingly for bankers, agriculture credit was a good bet. He added that the use of ICTs will induce a lot more transparency to the financial system.

ICTs: A golden promise for agriculture

Dr Youn-Min Park, Manager, Korean, Agency for Digital Opportunity and Promotion, Seoul said, ” We must analyse that ICTs are for whom and with what consequences ICTs benefit in development”. While sharing the Korean experience, she said that South Korea which is known for ICT pen

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