MoUs for algorithms and data for profit: 4 new MoUs signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and private corporations, including Jio and Cisco.

tl;dr

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare has recently signed 4 more Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreements regarding the Agristack with Cisco, Ninjakart, ITC Limited, and Jio. In this post, we analyse these MoUs, and explain the issues that arise as a result.

Background

On 1st June, 2021, the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare (DACFW) uploaded a consultation paper on the ‘India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture’ (IDEA). The DACFW gave the public time till the 30th June to provide their comments and suggestions on the policy (this time period was later extended to 16th August).

Now, IDEA is essentially another name for the project known colloquially as the Agristack (you can see our explainer on the Agristack here). We have engaged with the Agristack before:

  1. We have written a joint letter with 55 other organizations to the Ministry of Agriculture highlighting our concerns with the project.
  2. We have also analyzed previous MoUs signed by the Ministry with companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Patanjali regarding a pilot for the Agristack (see here and here).
  3. In our #PrivacyOfThePeople series, we have looked at how the Personal Data protection Bill, 2019 would impact digital agriculture.
  4. Along with other organisations, we had jointly organised a public webinar on the Agristack.

In continuation of this sustained effort, we had endorsed a submission by 90 other organisations (including several farmers’ organisations), highlighting several issues with the proposed framework for implementation of the Agristack. To complement this submission, we also parallelly provided our own submissions on the paper, in which we expanded on some of the issues raised in the joint submission.On 13th August, we received a response to an RTI we had filed asking for copies of all the consultation responses received for the IDEA paper. To our surprise, while the joint submission from civil society organisations had been received, our own response was not present in the consultation responses! Other organisations, such as the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), also stated that their responses do not seem to have been received. Thus, we wrote to the IDEA Working Group and the DACFW, re-submitting our comments and asking why our submission had not been received in line with the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, 2014.

Latest MoUs

On 9th July, an office memorandum in the DACFW was notified, which stated that,

“proposals are invited from leading IT companies/ Agriculture Companies/ FPOs/Start-ups/Research Bodies for collaborating with this Department on pro bono basis to build of PoCs/Use Case Scenarios/Layers around Farmers Database. The Department would be willing to enter into a year long MoU with the identified partners and work towards improving the farmers database based solutions addressing various areas of Agriculture”.

Thus, there were already signs that further MoUs would be signed. Subsequently, on 14th September, 2021, the DACFW announced that it had signed 5 more MoUs with private companies to implement pilot projects on Digital Agriculture.

The first of these is the MoU with CISCO. The MoU states that CISCO will help the DACFW with the implementation of two Proof of Concept (POC) projects related to Agricultural Digital Infrastructure:

  • Integrated dashboard for agri data: CISCO will provide software such as the Smart Agriculture Platform to integrate sensor and satellite data into a single dashboard. Such software will be provided at zero cost till 31st December, 2022.
  • Technical support for capacity building: CISCO will help the DACFW build digital infrastructure for the agriculture sector and provide technical expertise with respect to the use of ICT, IoT, AI, and ML technologies in agriculture.
  • Steps towards innovation: CISCO will conceptualise a model for a living lab for digital agriculture. Additionally, CISCO will link startups to the Agri-stak ecosystem by conducting agritech solution challenges and expanding the Krishi Mangal Accelerator and the Krishi Mangal Open Innovation platform.
  • Promotion and management: CiSCO will be responsible for the management and governance of the POC projects. CISCo must also hold one Agritech Summit within a year in partnership with the DACFW.

One of the key components of Agristack is the integrated online marketing platform it proposes, for which it has signed an MoU with Ninjakart. Ninjakart will be responsible for developing and hosting the AgriMarket place Platform (AMP) for a POC in the districts of Chhindwara and Indore in Madhya pradesh and Anand in Gujarat:

  • Implement the AMP: Ninjakart will be responsible for the development and deployment of the AMP. In the course of this endeavour, Ninjakart will implement algorithm driven processes to help with market creation and deploy tools such as ML and image recognition to increase efficiency. Ninjakart will also provide technical inputs to farmers organisations and mandis to enable onboarding onto the AMP.
  • Management and collaboration: Ninjakart will manage the AMP and undertake marketing and operational initiatives to help with the running of the AMP. Ninjakart will also collaborate with other players in the system and bring partners on board to help with the development of the AMP.

Another key service proposed by the Agristack is the customised crop advisory service, which would provide farmers with crop advice specific to their farm and geological conditions. For this, the DACFW has signed an MoU with ITC, which will implement a POC for customised crop advisory for 1 lakh farmers across 200 villages:

  • Customised crop advisory: ITC will provide a customised crop advisory service that will provide recommendations and advice on seed varieties to be used, the farming schedule, pest/disease management, nutrient and irrigation management, weather advisories, harvest schedules, and market linkages.
  • Data collection for POC: To implement this project, ITC will deploy on-ground staff and field monitors to collect information about existing farming practices, weather and climatic conditions, pest and disease prevalence, and nutritional levels of the soil. In addition to ITC’s own data collection, the DACFW will provide ITC with access to the Agristack’s farmer database, the Digitized Land Records under Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme database, and other relevant datasets.
  • Service delivery and onboarding: ITC will develop and provide advisory services through several mechanisms such as a mobile app and SMS. These shall be complemented by a call centre for answering farmers’ queries and an on-ground agri-extension team to help farmers implement the advisories. ITC will also conduct meetings with farmers to help with their onboarding onto the platform.

Lastly, the DACFW has signed an MoU with Jio to build a unified Agri Platform to help integrate digitalisation across the agricultural value chain. Jio will implement a POC project to this effect in the districts of Jalna and Nashik in Maharashtra:

  • Develop unified agri platform: Jio will help to develop a unified agri platform, which have modules such as farm management, farming advisories, IoT agri services, knowledge management, discussion forums, and information about government schemes.
  • Deployment of hardware and software: Jio will help to install Agri-IoT kits to record hyperlocal weather information. Jio will use data from the Agri-IoT kits, government sources, and weather stations to provide farm advisories. Jio will also integrate knowledge content from various sources and use algorithmic processes to analyse and disseminate this data.Onboard farmers onto platform: Jio will help to onboard farmers onto the platform  and help them acclimatise to the platform’s features. Furthermore, Jio will help farmers digitise their farmers activities end-to-end. Jio will also integrate query management services and government information services to help farmers access information in a streamlined manner.

Our concerns

As with all the previous MoUs, the DACFW will share all the data sets with CISCO, Ninjakart, ITC, and Jio, while retaining ownership and responsibility for security of the data. Absolutely no clarity has been provided in any of the MoUs regarding how the data sets are to be kept secure, beyond the role allocation of data security being given to the Ministry of Agriculture. Further, the Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) in the appendices of the MoUs are vague on the subject of whether farmers’ data shared under the respective MoUs is considered “confidential information”, and thus subject to protection under the NDA.  Another concern is that the State departments have not been made parties to these MoUs, even though agriculture is a state subject under the Constitution of India.

A GRAIN report titled ‘Digital fences: the financial enclosure of farmlands in South America’ has already brought to attention how digitalisation has enabled the land grabs by large scale agribusinesses in Latin America, while the requirement of digital land records for access to public schemes for agriculture has resulted in large scale exclusion. Thus, here, the Agristack may be a double-edged sword: in case such cases are rushed over and dealt with in a perfunctory manner, the resultant injustice in the form of dispossession would be locked in, whereas if land disputes are adequately addressed and resolved, India’s farmers could rest assured that their land holdings have been digitally enshrined. Thus, there is an urgent need to address all such land disputes before creating such a database, especially since compensation-based dispute settlements have generally led to highly inadequate compensation for farmers and lengthy delays in payment.

This is of particular concern when seen along with the MoU with ITC, which offers to ITC a large amount of data, not just with respect to land records but also in relation to soil quality, nutrient profile, crop yield, fertilizer quantities etc. The data also includes demographic data, which could mean more than purely commercial data - it includes socio-economic factors such as gender, age, place of residence and even religion. That this demographic data is sought specifically in relation to geo-tagging and geo-fencing presents a matter of great concern, in view of the GRAIN report discussed above.

These MoUs also give significant control of the pilot projects over to the private companies, as can be seen by the significant management responsibilities placed upon them. This would give it control not only over massive amounts of data, but also over the functioning of the platform. Given the absolute lack of consultation with main stakeholders (i.e. farmers) so far, this may further be an indication of the pro corporate nature of this undertaking. Now, while some MoUs do mention some sort of query service, these are mostly limited to any advisories farmers may receive from the companies and do not seem to include genuine grievance redressal. Furthermore, the MoUs effectively allow these companies to share data with third parties. While the MoUs do state that all parties must adhere to personal data protection laws, given that the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is yet to be passed, it is unclear whether the processing of data will be regulated in any significant manner.

Lastly, it would not be inaccurate to say that what we are witnessing is the government, in the absence of robust data protection legislation to protect our data, using citizens' data to generate revenue for itself and for private companies. We have already examples of this with the Vahan database for vehicle ownership, where the sale of the Vahan and Sarthi databases earned the government Rs. 111.38 crore. The pernicious effects of this can be witnessed by media reports claiming that the Vahan database was used to identify vehicles owned by a minority community during the 2020 riots in North East Delhi.With all these issues still present, it is essential, as others have also recently pointed out,  that the government put the Agristack project on hold and conduct extensive consultations with the supposed beneficiaries of the Agristack: the farmers of India (who are not likely to attend the fancy tech summits envisioned by the MoUs). Furthermore, the government must introduce robust data protection regulation to govern the processing of data to ensure that farmers are not exploited by private companies. Fundamentally, community concerns about the ownership of data cannot be ignored -  public ownership of data is an issue of economic justice!

Important documents

  1. MoUs signed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare with CISCO, Ninjakart, ITC, and Jio (link, link, link, & link)
  2. Office Memorandum (Z-11021/16/2021-IT) regarding "Inviting of proposals from leading IT companies/ Agriculture Companies/ FPOs/Start-ups/Research Bodies for collaborating with this Department on pro bono basis to build of PoCs/Use Case Scenarios/Layers around Farmers Database – reg." (link)
  3. Previous blogpost dated 20th May, 2021 titled “Revealed: Ministry of Agriculture’s MOU with Microsoft on the Agristack. Urgent need for transparency and consultation!” (link)
  4. Our public explainer on the Agristack (link)
  5. Previous blogpost titled ‘A Thoroughly Bad IDEA: Our comments on the Agristack Consultation Paper’ dated 6th July, 2021 (link)
  6. IFF and All India Kisan Sabha's joint letter to the IDEA Working group and the DACFW regarding the missing consultation responses (link)