#StandWithFarmers: Joint Letter by 55 Groups | Hold the Agriculture Ministry and Microsoft India Accountable

The government recently announced that Microsoft would be conducting a pilot for the Agristack. Along with several other organisations, we wrote to the Union Minister for Agriculture, asking for further consultations, highlighting the need for statutory backing, and demanding greater transparency.

06 May, 2021
7 min read

Tl;dr

The Government recently announced that Microsoft would be conducting a pilot programme to implement the Agristack across 100 villlages of India. Along with several other organisations, we wrote a letter to the Union Minister for Agriculture, in which we asked for further consultations with all stakeholders, highlighted the need for statutory backing, and demanded greater transparency with regards to the financial details of the project.

Background

On the 14th of April, 2021, the Press Information Bureau put a press release stating the Ministry of Agriculture had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Microsoft for a pilot project in 100 villages. Under this MoU, Microsoft has been roped in to

"to develop farmer interface for smart and well-organized agriculture, including post-harvest management and distribution".

The press release also stated that the government is preparing a farmer database by linking the land records of farmers across the country that would integrate data from PM Kisan, Soil Health Cards, and the Pradhan Mantri Crop Insurance Scheme as well as other data. Geo-tagging of agricultural assets shall also take place.

Subsequent media reports have thrown further light upon on the project: the Union Minister for Agriculture, Narendra Singh Tomar, said that Microsoft would be helping farmers with

"post harvest management solutions through building a collaborative platform and capturing agriculture datasets such as crop yields, weather data, market demand and prices".

The media reports have quoted senior officials in the Agriculture ministry as saying that Microsoft and its local partner CropData will be "leveraging" (using) a master database of farmers that will be shared with them by the government. This database would contain the data of 50 million farmers along with their land records.

The Agristack

This pilot sounds very similar to the "Agristack", which is the collection of technologies and digital databases, proposed by the Central Government focusing on India’s farmers and the agricultural sector. The Government confirmed the existence of the Agristack in an answer to a Lok Sabha question on 9th March, 2021. In the answer, the Ministry stated that a task force has been constituted to develop the IndEA (India Enterprise Architecture) Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture, on the basis of which a Unified Farmers Service Platform will be prepared. In other words, the Agristack is coming.

We have written about the Agristack before: last year in December, we worked with several volunteers and created a brief for analysis to serve as a primer on the Agristack. In the primer, we explained how the Agristack would function, provided some historical and legislative context, and looked at some of the issues with the project. These issues include:

  1. A lack of consultation with farmer organisations
  2. Increased algorithmic decision-making without accountability
  3. Concerns about the privacy of farmers' data

Given the existence of such significant concerns, the Agristack would have an extremely deleterious impact on farmers as:

  • Their data may be exploited by private companies for purposes such as predatory lending or land grabs.
  • Aadhaar and mandatory authentication-based exclusion from welfare measures and agricultures services
  • Reduced agency on the part of the farmers with potential impacts on legal rights through databasing and surveillance

Thus we had recommended that comprehensive consultations with farmers groups be carried to generate feedback for the implementation of such technologies. We had spoken about the need for academics, technologists, civil society, and digital rights organisations to engage with, and study the Agristack programme, so as to understand the genuine problems faced by farmers. Lastly, we had called for an examination of the relationship between personal data and digital policies such as the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture and highlighted the need for a rights-centered data protection regime to undergird such policies.

Joint Letter to the Agriculture Minister

Along with organisations such as the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) - Kisan Swaraj, we have collaborated and co-signed onto a joint letter that has been sent to the Union Minister for Agriculture. We have also filed an RTI regarding various aspects of the pilot project and the MoU.

The joint letter co-signed by close to 55 organisations, collectives, and groups is reproduced below; the original can be found here.

To,
Shri Narendra Singh Tomar,
Hon’ble Minister of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare,
Government of India.
Cc:
Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Law and Justice, Electronics and Information Technology
Dr. Rajiv Kumar, Vice Chairperson, NITI Aayog
Shri Sanjay Agarwal, Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare
Shri Ajay Prakash Sawhney, Secretary, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology
Shri Anant Maheshwari, President of Microsoft India
Shri Sachin Suri, Managing Director of CropData Technology Pvt. Ltd.
Subject: Direction and Partnerships of the digital push by the Ministry of Agriculture
Dear Sir,
The Union Ministry of Agriculture and Microsoft India have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 13th April, 2021. As per news reports, “Microsoft through its local partner CropData will leverage master database of farmers to address challenges of individual or group of farmers. “The government has a verified database of more than 50 million farmers along with their land records,” a senior agriculture ministry official said.” Another report states, “the creation of Agri-Funds based on the National Farmers Database. The government is preparing a farmer database by linking the land records of farmers across the country. The data related to PM Kisan, Soil Health Card and Pradhan Mantri Crop Insurance Scheme, available with the government, have been integrated and the process of inclusion of other data is going on.”
These developments seem to allude to the AgriStack and seem to be taking place in a policy vacuum with respect to the data privacy of farmers and other related issues. At a time when “data has become the new oil” and the industry is looking at it 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. All this is apart from the widely documented exclusion and other issues related to the central role that Aadhaar plays in this ecosystem.
Ultimately, any proposal which seeks to tackle the issues that plague Indian agriculture must address the fundamental causes of these issues - something the existing implementation of the Agristack fails to do. Indeed, the current model relies on ‘tech-solutionism’, in which it emphasises using technology to solve structural issues. Such an approach may fail to solve structural issues and instead gives rise to new problems, as has been witnessed in Indian agriculture in the past. In this case, these problems would include:
1. Usurious lending practices.
2. Further exploitation of farmers by procurers, including because of reduced local traders and competitors reducing the chances of getting a better price.
3. Reduced agency on the part of farmers.
4. Reduced transparency on the part of the government through algorithm-based decision-making. This includes the strong possibility of the database leveraging process using AI techniques that has the danger, either inadvertently or intentionally, of control systems becoming autonomous and even misaligned intelligence directing goals that are not set to our purpose. Lack of an AI policy and a legal security net in India, enhances such a danger.
5. In India, we find that real cultivators and farmers are still not part of data systems and they are not recognised as Farmers. Digitisation of land records created new problems which have not been addressed so far.
The government’s official press release states that “[t]ransparency at the central government level is benefiting the farmers”. In keeping with this government’s espousal of the idea of transparency, and in order to truly benefit farmers without compromising on their autonomy and agency and clear the air on the government’s vision for greater digitisation in agriculture we request the following immediately:
1. The Ministry should hold consultations with all stakeholders, especially farmers’ organisations, on the direction of its 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, the central government should consult the state governments also.
2. All initiatives that the government has begun with private entities to integrate and / or share multiple databases with private/personal information about individual farmers or their farms be put on hold till (i) the policy framework mentioned in the earlier point is finalised by the ministry and (ii) a data protection law is passed by the Parliament. This agreement and any other such agreements with any IT organisations must be backed by adequate legal systems in India. 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.
3. The MoU signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and Microsoft India on 13th April, 2021 should be put in the public domain on the website of the ministry, apart from being put on hold as per Point 2 above. Further, any financial commitments or implications must also be put on hold and be disclosed.
Sincerely,
Organisations
Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) - Kisan Swaraj
Amrita Bhoomi
Article 21 Trust
Association For Democratic Rights (Punjab)
Bhoomi Ka
Breakthrough Science Society, Howrah Chapter
Cashless Consumer
Citizens Forum for Mangalore Development
Darbar Sahitya Sansada
Desi Seed Producers Company Ltd
Durgapur Biogarden Pvt. Ltd
Federation of Tamil Nadu Rice Mill Owners Association
Gramya Resource Centre for Women
Growthwatch
Gurgaon Organic Farmers Market
Inclusive Media for Change Project at Common Cause
Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF)
Internet Freedom Foundation
IT for Change
Jai Kisan Andolan
Jan Chetna Sansthan
Kalanjium Women Farmers Association
Karavali Karnataka Janabhivriddhi Vedike
Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha
Krishi Patasala
Lipok Social Foundation
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)
Nalla Keerai
Nalla Sandhai
National Adivasi Alliance
National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM)
Organic Farmers Market
Paatasala
Poovulagin Nanbargal
Punarchith
reStore
Restore Gardens
Rethink Aadhaar
Rythu Swarajya Vedika
Safe Food Alliance
Samajwadi Samagam
Samanvaya Consulting
Save Our Rice Campaign Network
South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements
South Indian Organic Producers and Retailers Association
Sunray Harvesters
Tamilnadu Organic Farmers Fedeartion
Telangana Rythu JAC
Thaalanmai Uzhavar Iyakam
Tharchaarbu Iyakkam
Thirunelly Agri Producer Company Limited
Thiruvallur Organic Farmers Group
Thondaimandalam Foundation
Women's Collective
Yugma Network

Important Documents

  1. Joint Letter to the Minister for Agriculture and Farmer's Welfare (link)
  2. Primer on the Agristack (link)
  3. Infographic on the Agristack (link)

Our work on the Agristack is a continuous process, and we will continue to analyse the project as more details become clear. In the meantime, if you have any comments on the Agristack or on our work on the issue, please do let us know here, especially if you are yourself a farmer or belong to a farmers' organisation.

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