India hovers over the Pause button for Big Tech's march onto one hundred million farms

By revisiting farm reform, PM Modi has left the future of the contentious 'AgriStack' uncertain

India has scrapped plans to reform its agriculture sector – a decision that looks like a win for the nation's farmers, but a setback for Big Tech.

Reform of India's agricultural sector, which employs over half the nation's workforce, is a signature policy of prime minister Narendra Modi. In 2020 his government passed laws that would erode long-standing policies such as guaranteed floor prices for commodities, with government the buyer of last resort.

Indian farmers are often dependent on government assistance and guaranteed pricing, so have protested vigorously for over a year because they feel that a more open market will lead to lower prices and see the sector consolidate into the hands of big players. Modi insisted that the sector must be reformed and face competition. Modi's plan included measures to improve farmers' productivity, so that even the hundred million farms with two hectares or less of land could deliver a livelihood to their owners. Food security for India is another goal, as more productive land could reduce the need for food imports. Yet another goal n the list was reducing subsidies.

Many of those plans centred on an effort called AgriStack – a platform envisaged to let farmers manage their land, participate in electronic markets to sell their produce, and interact digitally with government to secure subsidies based on uploads of data such as descriptions of the state of their soil.

The way the whole architecture is proposed there is no grievance mechanism

India's farmers did not like the reform legislation, because they feared it would drive prices down and make it impossible to make a living from the land. Many protested vigorously both before and since the laws were introduced. Protests often turned violent and Indian authorities imposed frequent mobile internet blackouts to stop farmers communicating ahead of rallies.

Opposition also emerged to AgriStack on grounds that it would see farmers' data passed into the hands of Big Tech. Microsoft, Cisco, and AWS all signed memorandums of understanding to explore how their tech could contribute to AgriStack. Microsoft won a pilot project. Big Indian companies also signed on to explore the concept, and are thought to have suggested Redmond's Azure FarmBeats tool was a good fit for the platform.

"At the outset, we agree that it is necessary to make into a reality some potential benefits of digital technology for empowerment of farmers in India and for improving their livelihoods," wrote India's Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. "It is, however, absolutely essential that any such digital infrastructure developed is owned and controlled by the government and not in private hands." The Alliance also expressed concerns that the details of AgriStack were published only in English, and that MoUs were signed before farmers were consulted.

The Oxford Human Rights Hub argued that AgriStack lacked proper privacy protections and represented "a techno-deterministic approach to alleviating the significant financial problems in the industry [that] will ignore those who need the reforms the most".

"Moreover, for this revolution to occur, Indians would need to be equally digitally literate across caste, class, tribe, and gender, which is far from the case at present."

Indian activist Nachiket Udupa shared similar concerns with The Register.

"[AgriStack means] They will know the size of my farm, they will know nitrogen deficiency, they will link insurance records. If I am taking a crop loan they would as a result know what crop I am growing," he said. "The way the whole architecture is proposed there is no grievance mechanism," he added. "We are not against digital and bringing tech to this, but we want it to be a regulated space."

Udupa said farmers, whose digital literacy is often not brilliant, feared decisions they could not understand would be imposed on them with tech they're not well-equipped to use

Big Tech, however, loved the idea of AgriStack and saw it as a chance to bring their IoT, analytics, and cloud expertise to the table – for a potential market of tens of millions of farms.

The Register had begun to explore Big Tech's involvement in AgriStack before Modi's decision to revisit his reforms. Our efforts met some resistance: Microsoft, for example, acknowledged our interest but did not respond to four inquiries about the status of its work on the project.

In his speech announcing that his government would not pursue current reforms, Modi said "Let's make a fresh start. Let's move forward with a fresh beginning."

He also announced a committee "to decide on matters like promotion of zero budgeting farming, i.e. natural farming, scientifically change the crop pattern keeping in mind the changing requirements of the country, and make minimum support price more effective and transparent".

Modi is a huge believer in tech as a tool with which to transform India. But tech to improve farming didn't rate a mention in his plan to revisit his agricultural reforms. ®

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