MoUs for Nothing and Data for Free: 4 new MoUs signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and private companies, including Amazon and Patanjali

Tl;dr

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare has recently signed 4 more MoUs regarding the Agristack pilot project with Patanjali Organic Research Institute, ESRI India Technologies, Amazon Web Services, and Star Agribazaar. In this post, we analyse these MoUs, and explain what they mean for Indian agriculture.

Introduction and context

On 19th May, 2021, in response to an RTI query by us, the Ministry of Agriculture provided us a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Department of Agriculture and Microsoft. Now, the Department of Agriculture has made public its MoUs with Star Agribazaar, ESRI Technologies, Patanjali and even Amazon. All these MoUs are part of the Agristack project, for which these entities will be helping to create a pilot program in 100 villages across India (to understand the Agristack better - please see our public explainer).

Before we discuss the MoUs between the Agriculture Department and the various private stakeholders, we ought to set out that a memorandum of understanding is a non-binding document, it is not enforceable in a court of law, and it ordinarily has very bare, broad and illustrative provisions. Typically an MoU is executed only to set out, in writing, what the understanding is between two parties, and to provide a roadmap for negotiations pursuant to which a binding contract is executed between those parties. However, since the MoU is a roadmap for negotiations towards a binding agreement, and also sets out the understanding between two parties, it is extremely important and helpful for us to understand some of the conversations around AgriStack and data protection.

We had previously analysed the MoU between the Department of Agriculture and Microsoft, and found some interesting points. Exhibit A of the MoU (page 7) has a summary of the project and bullet points on what the government will contribute and what Microsoft will contribute. Broadly, the solution proposed is that farmer’s data will be used to authenticate their identity for the receipt of entitlements under agricultural schemes. Under the Microsoft MoU, ownership of the data, and the responsibility for its security will reside with the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the Ministry will share its datasets with Microsoft. Absolutely no clarity has been provided on how the data will be protected.

New MoUs

Like the Microsoft MoU, the MoU with Patanjali Organic Research Institute has a summary of the project and bullet points on what the government will contribute and what Microsoft will contribute. It proposes to build a “Farmer Registry for Farmers Data & Analytics Services'' with the purpose of consolidating farmer information. The Farmer Registry makes several proposals, including the following:

  1. Unified Farmer Service Interface: Data related to farmer welfare, farm management, and farmer advisory services along with an analysis of existing Government schemes will be pooled to build a unified farmer service interface, which will also consider the farmers' eligibility for various government schemes & its actual beneficiaries. A national farmer database is, thus, proposed to be integrated with participation from states. The MoU claims that this will further accelerate the 360 degree engagement with farmers to support them across their ecosystem like providing farmer identity on platform, support for imparting benefits of the government schemes.
  2. An App containing various data sets: Patanjali will build this farmer interface, and also an app version, which will contain data sets including nutrient profiling of soil, accurate quantification of the farmer crop and yield, and even the demographic details of farmers combined with geo-tagging and geofencing.

The AgriStack proposes a 'Nation Agriculture Geo Hub', for which the MoU with Esri India Technologies, has been entered into:

  1. Collection of Geo-spatial information: This will establish a framework to collect and integrate available geo-spatial information with other associated information, perform spatial analytics, share results and data, and deploy apps to support policy planning and monitoring requirements.
  2. Data hosted on cloud services: It is proposed to create and collate farmer and other agriculture data/ services on Esri’s geographical information system (GIS) platform. This Geo Spatial Agri Platform for Farmers shall be hosted on cloud/ on premises.

Another key part of the Agristack project is the proposed digital platform for  farmers that would include an integrated marketplace and access to other services. It is for this purpose that the Ministry of Agriculture has also signed an MoU with Agribazaar, which will host this platform on its server during the pilot. Agribazaar will provide access to this platform to any users or partners permitted by the Ministry, and must be integrated with other government initiatives such as the eNAM platform, and schemes like PM-KISAN. Beyond this, Agribazaar will have to undertake certain other activities, including:

  1. Sanitisation of Farmer Data: On the basis of data from three central government schemes (PM-KISAN, Soil Health card, and PMFBY), Agribazaar must compile and prepare a dataset that will be compared to land records data. Any mismatches will be notified to the Department of Agriculture, for which field surveys will be conducted. This field data shall then be assimilated into the cleaned dataset.
  2. Agri-land profiling and crop estimation: Through remote sensing technology, Agribazaar shall conduct land cover mapping, soil degradation mapping, crop identification, crop yield and modelling and production estimation, and past and current weather data analysis.
  3. Advisory Platform for Farmers: The farmers’ platform will be an advisory platform for farmers that must be available in app form. It will include pre harvest services (such as weather forecasts, soil preparation advisory services, and other crop management services), post harvest services (such as lists of APMC yards, data about arrivals and price trends, and lists of warehouses and their charges), marketplace services (such as a unified digital agriculture marketplace), and financial services (such credit scores for farmers on the abscess of past data and a unified platform for credit services for farmers)

Lastly, this entire apparatus will require backend support in terms of cloud services and data management, for which the Ministry has signed an MoU with Amazon Web Services (AWS). Under this MoU, Amazon will have two main obligations:

  1. Building the National Agri Data Stack: AWS will help in building an open and scalable platform for farmers. This would extend to both a larger planning role, in terms of identifying further partners for the project and assisting in finalising the scope of the project (including the final use cases to be rolled out), and a more technical support role, which would include offering its cloud services platform as well any other technical support. AWS will also develop a leadership paper on AI in agriculture along with the Ministry, and provide inputs on the proposed PPP model.
  2. Enabling the startup ecosystem: AWS will extend its Startups program to the Ministry. It will provide technical training and guidance to identified startups, assist the Ministry in organising innovation challenges, create mechanisms for connecting startups with potential customers, and help in bringing in other potential ecosystem players such as VCs and impact investors.

Concerns

As with the earlier MoU with Microsoft, the Ministry of Agriculture will share all the data sets with Patanjali, Esri India, Amazon and AgriBazaar, 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) at Appendix A 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 this MoU, 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 Patanjali, which offers to Patanjali a large amount of data, particularly 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.

Additionally, at a more granular level, the MoU with AWS seems to imply that the Ministry  of Agriculture may designate the security and ownership of a given dataset to AWS, meaning that Amazon will get access to further swathes of data, most of it without the consent of farmers. The MoU also seems to provide Amazon with a significant amount of sway over the direction of the Agristack Project. 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.

Meanwhile, the MoU with Agribazaar seems to give Agribazaar a central role in building out the platform for the pilot project. This would give it control not only over massive amounts of data, but also over the functioning of the platform. However, no measures for accountability seem to be visible. Furthermore, the MoU effectively allows Agribazaar to share data with third parties. Now, while the MoU does 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.

Similarly, the MoU with Esri India in relation to the development of the ‘Nation Agriculture Geo Hub’ appears to imply not just the sharing, but also the creation of detailed data sets, by integrating existing farmer data with their geographical data.

More MoUs on the way!

On 9th July, an office memorandum in the Department of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare 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, it is likely that we will see more MoUs signed in the near future.

Once again, it must be noted here that consultations with farmers and farmer groups are yet to be held, while more and more private companies are being solicited to harvest farmers’ data. Meanwhile, government capacity is being discarded or disregarded: for example, the Ministry of Earth Sciences had launched a weather app for farmers known as Meghdoot in 2019. This app provided both general and crop specific weather advisories for free to farmers. Under the current implementation of the Agristack, however, it is likely that private services will be favoured over initiatives such as Meghdoot, thereby increasing costs without resulting in significant increase in value. Thus, once again, we urge the government to put the Agristack project on hold and conduct extensive consultations with the supposed beneficiaries of the Agristack: the farmers of India.

Important Documents

  1. MoUs signed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare with Amazon Web Services, Patanjali Organic Research Ltd, Esri India Technologies Pvt Ltd (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)