A Thoroughly Bad IDEA: Our comments on the Agristack Consultation Paper

Tl;dr

IFF has submitted its comments on the consultation paper on the ‘India Digital Ecosystem for Agriculture' i.e. the Agristack. Our core suggestion is that all implementation with regards to the Agristack be halted till extensive consultations with farmers have been carried out. Beyond this, we have addressed issues of data localisation, federalism, data protection, user rights, the need for public investment, and the necessity of robust data standards.

Background

On 4th December last year, we released an explainer on the project colloquially known as the Agristack. Since then, we have continued to engage with the issue:

  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 the various MoUs signed by the Ministry with companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Patanjali regarding a pilot for the Agristack (see here and here).
  3. Last week, in our #PrivacyOfThePeople series, we looked at how the Personal Data protection Bill, 2019 would impact digital agriculture.
  4. Along with other organisations, we have jointly organised a public webinar on the Agristack.

The project has also begun to receive a significant amount of public attention, as several media organisations have begun to highlight the issues at hand:

  1. The lack of consultations with farmers and farmers’ organisations has been criticised.
  2. The potential threat of the erosion of privacy and data exploitation has been highlighted.
  3. Several reports (see here, here, and here) have discussed the fear of a ‘corporate takeover’ of agriculture.
  4. The danger of land grabs and exclusion (see here and here) that emerges from the linking of land records with Agristack has been pointed out.
  5. The lack of provisions for data protection and consent (see here and here) in the MoUs (that would provide private companies such as Microsoft and Amazon with unfettered access to farmers’ data) has been discussed.
  6. The larger political economy of this vision of ‘agri-digitisation’ has also been spoken about.

Now,  in an answer to a Lok Sabha question on 9th March, 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture and farmers’ Welfare had stated that a task force has been constituted to develop the IndEA (India Enterprise Architecture) Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (i.e. the Agristack), on the basis of which a Unified Farmers Service Platform will be prepared. On 1st June, the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare finally uploaded a consultation paper on the ‘India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture’ (IDEA).

We have 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, we have also provided our own submission on the consultation paper. Here, we will explain our suggestions and comments on the consultation paper, as well as why we feel all progress on the Agristack must be halted till thorough consultations with farmers have been held.

Our Suggestions

All through the IDEA process, farmers have been left out of the policymaking process. When news emerged about the Agristack, farmers were not consulted. The composition of the Task Force for the development of a Centralised Farmers’ Database and creation of framework for Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture and the various Working Groups for the implementation of IDEA reflect the lack of farmer representation.

Even the consultation paper has simply been uploaded onto the Ministry’s website. The paper itself is in English, and in very technical English at that. How can the vast swathes of farmers, who belong to rural areas and may not be able to understand English, be expected to effectively engage with the proposals contained therein? Furthermore, a period of only 30 days was provided to respond to the paper.

Thus, our core recommendation is that the implementation of IDEA be halted until large-scale consultations have been held with farmers and farmers’ organisations on both the vision and implementation of IDEA. The consultation paper should also be made available in vernacular languages as well, and the period for consultation must be extended. Additionally, academics, technologists, civil society and digital rights organisations must engage with the development of IDEA both as a policy framework and its execution proceeding from the concerns and experiences of farmers. This will require long term study and constant engagement through vernacular modes and implementation frameworks to assist better understanding emerging from farmers groups across the country.

Our specific recommendations are the following:

  1. Need for Digital infrastructure and digital literacy programs: India is facing a significant digital divide. While India’s internet penetration is improving, evidence from government reports suggests that the country has a long way to go before attaining universal internet penetration. For example, TRAI data states that India has 795.18 million internet subscribers, which indicates an internet penetration rate of only 58.51%. Rural-urban disparities prevail, as indicated the rural penetration rate of 34.69%, with 308.17 million rural internet subscribers, is not even one third of the urban penetration rate of 103.98%, with 487.01 million urban internet subscribers. In such a context, given the massive rural-urban differences, farmers may not fully make use of the Agristack platform. Additionally, farmers may not understand the functioning of data collection processes, and so may be exploited into providing their data without their effective consent or without compensation. Thus, we recommend that the creation of digital infrastructure be ramped up on a mission mode basis. Additionally, the scale of digital literacy schemes must also be increased, while the quality of the training imparted must be improved.
  2. Localisation and federalism: A truly federated framework for IDEA should include key roles for district and block level entities. This would serve two key purposes. Firstly, given the asymmetries of power, information, and resources, the farmers, who may not be able to adequately access their data if stored in a central database elsewhere, would be truly able to engage and gain access to the data that has been collected from them. Secondly, this would also provide a significant economic base, as the demand for both manufacturing and human capacity for database processing and handling in rural areas Thus, we recommend that the paper incorporate data localisation as a central principle of the IDEA project and provide a significant role of local district level entities in the implementation of IDEA. Additionally, central assistance in agriculture must not be made conditional on the implementation of IDEA, and that large scale discussions be held with states to arrive at a consensus regarding the vision and implementation of IDEA.
  3. Robust data protection standards and the protection of user rights: The approach proposed by the paper does not seem to adequately address privacy concerns. For example, the framework may allow a certain amount of arbitrariness and laxity with respect to data protection standards among entities, resulting in an overall loss of security within the system. This is even more important given that IDEA may be implemented in the absence of robust data protection legislation (the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is yet to be passed). However, even once sufficient security standards have been prescribed, it is important that their locus and applicability is established. Thus, it is vital that stringent data standards are imposed upon all participating entities, and that a proactive approach to ensuring data protection is followed. Moreover, all agricultural data must be categorised as personal data, and it should be regulated as such. Lastly, standards of fair and true interoperability must be adopted, and service providers must not be given  the option to deny portability requests.
  4. Need for public sector involvement: Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have been touted a lot in recent years, but the success of the model is yet to be comprehensively demonstrated. Often, the private firms involved in PPPs have been unable to bear the regulatory burden and have led to long delays. The issue is that PPPs, despite what its proponents have said, have not been found to reduce costs or increase inefficiencies. In fact, it has been the opposite, as the cost of capital has been higher, delays have been more, and project failures needing failures are more frequent. Private interests also begin to dominate projects, and rent seeking behaviour increases leading to higher costs for the public exchequer and higher prices for consumers. Meanwhile, agriculture has seen a significant decline in public investment and resources. This has, as might have been expected, had a significant impact on Indian agriculture: the share of indebted cultivator households increased from 25.9% in 1992 to 45.9 in 2013. Alongside this, debt-asset ratios for rural households increased from 1.78 to 3.23 in the same period - an increase of more than 80%!  Clearly, public investment is important for agriculture. In fact, public investment in agriculture is generally a spur for even higher private investment and also results in improved returns for private investment.Thus, we recommend that the implementation of IDEA be undertaken by the public sector. The government can then sell the right to operate in the IDEA ecosystem to potential private partners as license. This would also allow the government to effectively regulate the actions of the participating private entities and hold them accountable.
  5. Strong regulation for Agri Data Exchange: India’s agricultural datasets are plagued by incompleteness and inconsistencies, and so, to this extent, an Agricultural Data Exchange (ADEx) would help to clean up and organise this data. However, the reasons for the same need to be understood. For example, with respect to land records, these problems are due to fundamental issues in land record keeping, from centre - state disparities to the nature of land disputes to a lack of land titles. Resolving such problems in an adequate manner may involve time and patience, and so, as an example, the government should not speed up the land records digitisation process arbitrarily, as this may lead to dispossession and land grabs. Thus, we recommend that the ADEx be implemented with robust provisions to ensure the protection of user rights over data. However, in the rush to implement the ADEx, community concerns about the ownership of data must not be ignored. Currently, while valuable data is often aggregated, group, or anonymized data, the communities from whom the data is collected or to whom the data belongs are either not recognised as the community owners of that data or are not adequately compensated for the use of this data. Thus, public ownership of data is an issue of economic justice. Additionally, we recommend that farmers and farmer organisations be recognised as the owners of their data. This would imply that when participating entities use the farmer’s data, they must a) take the farmers’ explicit consent for the use of data and b) they must provide the farmers with compensation for the use of their data. When data is being collected from the farmers, data minimisation must be followed, and only that data which is necessary for the purpose it is being processed for must be collected. Lastly, the principle of data localisation must be adopted. Participating entities can then use this data, but they can only carry with them the insights gleaned from the processing of the data - the original data must stay with the local data centres.
  6. Regulatory sandbox must help facilitate compliance and not evade it: Given the large-scale changes that would result as a result of implementing IDEA, a regulatory sandbox may be helpful in testing services in a new environment. However, the approach must be one that allows potential entities to test whether they can provide services within the IDEA environment (with no laxity of standards) and allow them to gain insight as to potential challenges. Regulatory sandboxes have also been criticized for their use as an avenue to avoid compliance burdens. Consumer groups have raised questions about regulatory sandboxes, including the lack of public and consumer input, exemptions from liability for unfair or deceptive practices, and the lack of protection for consumers and users. In this context, it is important that potential participating entities be made to experience the IDEA environment as it would be implemented, so that any obstacles to compliance can be addressed, and entities get a better understanding of how the environment would operate, from both a consumer dynamics and a regulatory perspective. Thus, we recommend that the I-Box be implemented along the lines of the actual IDEA environment, and not as a tool of regulatory evasion.

Important Documents

  1. The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare’s consultation paper on ‘India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture’ (link)
  2. IFF’s comment on the consultation paper (link)
  3. IFF’s Public Explainer on the Agristack (link)
  4. Previous blog post dated May 06, 2021, titled “#StandWithFarmers: Joint Letter by 55 Groups | Hold the Agriculture Ministry and Microsoft India Accountable” (link)
  5. Previous blog post May 20, 2021, titled “Revealed: Ministry of Agriculture’s MOU with Microsoft on the Agristack. Urgent need for transparency and consultation!” (link)
  6. Previous blog post dated June 29, 2021, titled “MoUs for Nothing and Data for Free: 4 new MoUs signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and private companies, including Amazon and Patanjali” (link)
  7. Previous blog post dated June 30, 2021, titled “#PrivacyOfThePeople - Agristack and Farmers’ Issues” (link)