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Guest Column| Digital push to agriculture is inevitable

The digital revolution (DR) has accelerated growth and created new jobs, facilitating speedier globalisation and poverty reduction. The advent of new technologies has encouraged global value chains (GVCs) that contribute a significant share of the gross domestic product (GDP). The economic interdependence of countries has also increased despite apprehensions and reservations of the less developed countries (LDCs).

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Digital innovations have impacted all sectors in a big way, except agriculture. Farmers are yet to reap full benefits of technology-driven global growth. They remain away from global supply chains. Major multilateral or world trade agreements also do not fully address their concerns. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) covenants on agriculture are still not final despite negotiations. Protectionism remains a key factor in defining agriculture policies in many countries.

Whatever the compulsions of agriculture nationalism, the digital push to agriculture with a global perspective on economic growth is unavoidable. It can be achieved despite political and socio-economic barriers. Else, inter-sectoral disparities will widen, and the socio-economic divide will deepen across all nations, particularly the LDCs.

Otherwise also there is constant pressure to raise food production to meet the demand and maintain a decent level of food security. The World Bank estimated the world food demand will increase by 50% by 2050, and it will be more in countries that aim for a speedier reduction in poverty in the coming years. India is no exception.

FARMERS’ TWIN CONCERNS

Though not different from many other countries, agriculturists in India face two main issues. First, the cost of agricultural production is rising with the general increase in commodity prices; and second, market prices of agricultural produce are not commensurate with systemic efforts to maintain affordable food prices. The farmers’ margin, as a result, is shrinking, increasing their financial stress.

Food production can increase by bringing more and more areas under agriculture or raising productivity. It is tough to increase the cultivated area except in less developed countries. Greater attention is thus needed to enhance productivity. Information and communication technology (ICT) and digital innovations can help redirect efforts and lay down a new architecture of agriculture growth, which focuses on enhancing the productivity of soil, water, and other inputs to achieve higher outputs and incomes without much increase in the area under cultivation.

ICT and digital technology can help in intelligent irrigation, disease prevention, and weather-based input adjustments. It can facilitate better extension and advisory services, networking with peer groups, and transparency in logistics. Digital market intelligence at the organisational and individual levels can facilitate producers’ direct access to markets with better price discovery and backward and forward linkages. Gender neutrality is a unique feature of digital tools. The technologies, above all, facilitate the inclusion of farmers not only in global supply chains but also make them active and effective partners in growth.

CUSTOMISE TECHNOLOGIES

The managers of agriculture policy can aim to customise existing technologies or design area-specific tech-driven projects of agriculture development or follow a hybrid growth model. GIS, Wireless sensor networks, mobile telephony, data mediation software, SMS, and IoT are some digital options. These can be adopted or innovated for better yield technologies, such as improved seeds, more efficient AI-driven pre and post-harvesting machines, better quality pesticides and fertilisers, and intelligent irrigation systems, depending on local context and demand. These can also help mitigate problems of farmers due to weather vagaries, market uncertainties, and shortage of skilled labour.

The successful adoption of existing technologies or the evolution of new technologies depends upon three pillars of digital agriculture: Affordability, accessibility, and adaptability. Low-cost and pervasive connectivity that facilitates easy and transparent technology transfers and opens access to data can perhaps work wonders with farmers. The democratisation of information and the development of innovative techniques through the active participation of farmers will be more acceptable than a mere introduction to technological instruments.

However, widespread poverty, illiteracy, and sociocultural barriers constrain access to and adoption of technology. These need to be mitigated by giving greater attention to building capacity and empowering farmers, more importantly, the small farmers.

Skilling rural youngsters in the latest agricultural information technologies will help retain the next generation of farmers in agriculture.

INCREASE PRODUCTIVITY

Post-green revolution (GR), efforts have been made to increase the use of technology for a second push to agriculture. Many states have customised available technologies, encouraged innovations, and even exercised both options, depending upon local requirements. The National E-governance Plan (NeGP) has a separate component on the use of ICT in agriculture. The Rashtriya Krishi Vigyan Yojana (RKVY) also provides for the promotion of ICT in agriculture. The National Horticulture Mission (NHM) gives a greater thrust on technology in promoting fruits and vegetables.

Agriculture services and advisory centres, sensor-based water conservation, and micro-irrigation systems are the most visible tech solutions followed in many states, including the original Green Revolution states. Digital technologies in horticulture are more pronounced in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

However, the benefits of technology in increasing farmers’ productivity and incomes remain scanty. Among other things, the lack of systemic efforts to build capacity and empower the farmers, the majority of who are small and marginal, is the primary cause of farmers’ apathy for digital technologies. The farmers remain indifferent because of a lack of knowledge and information. The second push for Green Revolution would be more successful if the policies impinging upon the development of agriculture gave greater thrust on digital technology, preparing farmers for technological transformation through updated or new structural arrangements. The agriculture policy should not remain in a silo. It should be pursued in an ecosystem that meets multi-sectoral demands and pressures, ensuring affordable new technology interventions developed through and with the farmers. [email protected]

The writer is a retired Punjab-cadre IAS officer. Views expressed are personal

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