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India sidelines Big Tech in push for farming cloud, goes open source instead

Also cuts import duties to attract EV-battery makers and keep smartphone factories humming

India has sidelined Big Tech in its pursuit of a cloud for its agricultural industry.

The nation's government has long sought to modernize its farming sector and spent several years pursuing a plan called AgriStack that it hoped – with help from the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, and AWS – would give farmers tools to better manage their affairs. India subsidizes its farmers in various ways and AgriStack would have required them to share information such as the composition of their soil to determine eligibility for some payments.

Farmers did not like the idea and they found allies who worried that Big Tech might not be the best trustees of data about Indian resources.

After some vigorous protests – some quelled with internet shutdowns – the Modi government scrapped AgriStack, but promised to revisit the concept.

A revised vision emerged yesterday during finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman's speech introducing India's 2023 budget.

"Digital public infrastructure for agriculture will be built as an open source, open standard and interoperable public good," Sitharaman declared. "This will enable inclusive, farmer-centric solutions through relevant information services for crop planning and health, improved access to farm inputs, credit, and insurance, help for crop estimation, market intelligence, and support for growth of agri-tech industry and start-ups."

India is very keen on open source public goods – it has already developed and operates the Aadhaar identity system, Unified Payments Interface digital payments platform, and the Open Network for Digital Commerce that aims to provide an e-commerce alternative to Amazon's and WalMart's Indian presences. Those projects, and more, have even been bundled as IndiaStack and offered to other nations.

Adopting the same approach to an agricultural cloud is therefore on form – but also a big change from India's former approach of innovating for farmers hand in hand with Big Tech.

The nation's budget also proposes to lift import duties on equipment needed to build batteries for use in electric vehicles, signalling an intent to attract more manufacturers of such cells. India's usual approach is to seek investment from manufacturers who wish to address domestic and export markets.

Sitharaman also announced reductions to import duties on items like camera lenses used in smartphone manufacturing, pointing out that Indian smartphone makers have increased their output from 58 million in 2014 to 310 million in 2022 – or around a quarter of global production.

Another tax tweak will encourage TV-makers to operate in India.

The budget also allocates money to a new initiative to ensure India develops expertise in wide-area sensor networks, plenty of cash for the nation's space program, and further promotion of digital payments. The latter is also a form of tax policy, as it has the potential to shrink India's cash economy. ®

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