The case of the missing consultation response: Missing submissions to the Agristack consultations

Responses to our RTIs indicate that submissions from some organisations on the Agristack consultation paper were not received. Together with the AIKS, we wrote to the Agristack Working Group and the DACFW, re-submitting our suggestions and asking why they were not received in the first place.

15 September, 2021
5 min read

tl;dr

Responses to our RTIs indicate that our submissions, as well as those from other organisations, on the Agristack consultation paper were not received. Together with the All India Kisan Sabha, we wrote to the Agristack Working Group and the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare, re-submitting our suggestions and asking why they were not received in the first place.

Introduction

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 of June to provide their comments and suggestions on the policy (this time 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). This is a project that we have had significant engagement with:

  1. We had written a joint letter with 55 other organizations to the Ministry of Agriculture highlighting our concerns with the project.
  2. We had 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. In our #PrivacyOfThePeople series, we had 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.

Our recommendations on the consultation paper

In our response, our core recommendation was 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. We also made certain granular recommendations in response to the questions asked in the consultation paper:

  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. We recommended 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. We recommended 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 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: 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: Agriculture has also seen a significant decline in public investment and resources. This has 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%! Thus, we recommended that the implementation of IDEA be undertaken by the public sector and sell the right to operate in the IDEA ecosystem to potential private partners as licenses. 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, we recommended that the ADEx be implemented with robust provisions to ensure the protection of user rights over data. In the rush to implement the ADEx, community concerns about the ownership of data must not be ignored -  public ownership of data is an issue of economic justice. Additionally, we recommended that farmers and farmer organisations be recognised as the owners of their data.
  6. Regulatory sandbox must help facilitate compliance and not evade it: 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. We recommended that the I-Box be implemented along the lines of the actual IDEA environment, and not as a tool of regulatory evasion.

So what happened next?

Missing consultation responses: a dangerous precedent

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), have also stated that their responses do not seem to have been received.

In line with the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy, 2014 (PLCP),

“The Department/Ministry concerned should publish/place in public domain the draft legislation or at least the information that may inter alia include brief justification for such legislation, essential elements of the proposed legislation, its broad financial implications, and an estimated assessment of the impact of such legislation on environment, fundamental rights, lives and livelihoods of the concerned/affected people, etc.”

The PLCP is an important constituent of the law-making process. The policy is the only way citizens can have a direct impact on the framing of legislation, as the policy allows citizens and organisations to contribute their perspectives on potential legislation and provides them with a way to remedy any problems that they perceive.

Consultations must be held with the aim of genuinely listening to feedback. Now, if consultations start being held only for the sake of “ticking off the checklist”, India’s democratic law-making process will be severely impacted. Moreover, when the suggestions of key stakeholders, such as, in this case, a farmers’ union like the AIKS, are ignored or not even registered, it is clear that the PLCP is being followed only in letter and not in spirit.

In light of this situation, IFF and AIKS have written to the Chairperson of the IDEA Task Force and the DACFW, re-submitting our consultation responses and asking them why our earlier consultation responses were not received. The regulatory and technological framework proposed by the Agristack is radically different from what has existed hitherto, and so it is important the comments of the key stakeholders in this sector i.e. the farmers of India are engaged with.

Important documents

  1. IFF and All India Kisan Sabha's joint letter to the IDEA Working group and the DACFW regarding the missing consultation responses (link)
  2. Previous blogpost titled ‘A Thoroughly Bad IDEA: Our comments on the Agristack Consultation Paper’ dated 6th July, 2021 (link)
  3. IFF’s Public Explainer on the Agristack (link)

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