The AgriStack: A Primer #SaveOurPrivacy

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Tl;dr

Spurred by conversations over the past week we have created an explainer on the 'AgriStack' proposed by the Centre. The Agristack is a collection of technology based interventions in the farming and agriculture sector that hold the potential to result in dramatic changes. Through the explainer we hope to provide an introduction to the 'Agristack' and its potential benefits and drawbacks, with a larger aim of starting a public conversation about this issue.

What is the AgriStack?

The AgriStack is a collection of technologies and digital databases proposed by the Central Government focusing on India’s farmers and the agricultural sector. The central government has claimed that these new databases are being built to primarily tackle issues such as poor access to credit and wastage in the agricultural supply chain.

Under the government’s latest proposed solution, each farmer will be provided with a digital ID, which will be linked to their Aadhaar number. Data to be collected by the AgriStack may include personal details, profile of land held, production details, and financial details.

What are its policy and legislative origins?

Document Recommendations
Report of the Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income Volume XI The report discusses the role of digital technologies and digitalisation in agriculture. Chapters 7 & 8 examine the potential use of Big Data, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Blockchain technology in agriculture.
NITI Aayog’s Discussion Paper on National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence The paper from page 30 discusses various strategies for commeditised agriculture using big data and specific use cases around Artificial Intelligence
Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 Section 4(2): The Centre may prescribe a system for electronic registration for a trader, modalities of trade, and the mode of payment for farm produce. Section 5: Allows the establishment of an electronic trading and transaction platform for farm produce by private persons, for which the Centre may specify norms and rules. Section 7: The Centre may set up a Price Information and Market Intelligence System for farmer’s produce. Section 17(2a): The Centre Government may specify rules with respect to the system of electronic registration for traders and farmers.

What are the proposed benefits of a proposed, “AgriStack”?

The NITI Aayog states that diverse problems such as inadequate access to credit and information, pest infestation, crop wastage, poor price discovery, and yield forecasting can be sufficiently addressed by use of digital technology. This is done through market and state based mechanisms that rely on improving four central areas:  financing, production inputs, farming methods, and supply and distribution.

What may be potential issues with an Agristack?

Firstly, no farmer organisations seem to have been consulted during the drafting of the recent agricultural reforms. Further evidence of the undemocratic, non-transparent policy making process can be witnessed by the current farmer protests going on across the country, where several farmers unions have criticised the government precisely for introducing laws without any consultations in the midst of restrictions of a raging pandemic

Secondly, it is alarming that without adequate consultations, MEITY has stated that the blueprint for AgriStack is already in the advanced stage. Databasing which then is utilised towards algorithm based decision making will impact farmers' rights without transparency or accountability. With the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2020 yet to be passed, implementing the AgriStack without adequately addressing such issues may lead to harms.

The proposed framework for Agristack faces serious questions related to privacy. Farms generate a huge amount of data in their daily operations, and so are fertile ground for agritech and fintech firms. Thus, in their quest to provide farmers with better services, they may end up harvesting and processing farm data without the consent of the farmer, leading to a situation where, “banks and insurance companies [know] more about the incomes and businesses of farms than the individual farmers themselves”. Farmers may also be unable to adequately judge the value of their data and so may end up with compensation that is incommensurate with the same.

How may the loss of privacy impact farmers?

  1. Financial lending models relying on technology towards farmers may offer usurious rates for those in dire need. Given the incomplete nature of land title records, farmers may also be exploited by land grabs by large agribusinesses. Besides, the framework seems to extract sensitive fiscal data without solving credit issues: the Report of the Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income itself states that land-holdings only become profitable above 2 hectares (and barely even then). Given that 86% of Indian farmers are small or marginal, it is understandable that farmers are having to resort to debt-funded consumption.
  2. There exist risks of exclusion which has been well documented by studies on Aadhaar linked welfare delivery systems have already faced criticism for exclusion, with several studies showing that the verification system is rife with technical errors such as biometric failures that have led to significant exclusion.
  3. Algorithm based decision making may further reduce the agency of farmers if and when AI based decision making becomes widespread, possibly impacting on legal rights.

Recommendations

  1. Comprehensive consultations on the merits of the proposal with farmer groups and unions on their very premise before any policy document is implemented. The utilisation of technology must happen on the basis of feedback that emerges from these conversations.
  2. Academics, technologists, civil society and digital rights organisations to be engaged with on the development of the “AgriStack” 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 twith farmers and farmers' organisations to understand the real issues of the farmers.
  3. Examination of the relationship between personal data and digital policies such as the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA) to be conducted in the context of the ongoing process of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Data Protection Bill. Hitherto identified issues within the existing draft of the Draft Data Protection Bill must be addressed and also contrasted against the rights centric proposed by the The Personal Data and Information Privacy Code Bill, 2019 as introduced as a private members bill by Mr. D. Ravikumar, Member of Parliament.

As mentioned earlier, this blog and the explainer  mark our initial attempt to understand the issues surrounding the AgriStack and start a conversation on the same.

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. Additionally, we have attached a small poster that can be easily shared with friends as a quick intro the AgriStack; please feel free to share it!

Important Documents

  1. An explainer on the Agristack (link)
  2. Infographic on the Agristack (link)
  3. The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 as introduced by the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad (link)
  4. The Personal Data and Information Privacy Code Bill, 2019 as introduced as a private members bill by Mr. D. Ravikumar, Member of Parliament (link)