The farmers, mostly from Punjab, who have been protesting at the borders of Delhi for more than a month against the new farm laws, which intend to make agriculture more market oriented, seem to be resisting change.
On the other hand, agriculture is also being animated by feverish innovation. Digital start-ups are connecting smallholder farmers with large buyers, automating farm operations, helping monitor fish ponds, taking the drudgery out of dairying, curing deficient soils, minimising post-harvest losses, matching finicky consumers with farms associated with ethical practices or those that avoid chemicals, insuring farmers against weather risks, incentivising trust among trading parties on remote trading platforms and enabling smallholders to obtain institutional finance by building their credit profiles.
It is hard to talk of farmers as an undifferentiated mass, says Mark Kahn, Managing Partner of Omnivore Partners, which has raised ₹961 cr in two rounds and invested in about 25 start-ups over eight years. There are progressive farmers who are working on crops that are demand driven. “Digital transformation is happening now; with 4G it is being transformed,” says Kahn, who has been involved in Indian agriculture for 15 years, six of them at Godrej Agrovet.
Some of the services which Omnivore finances are commonsensical, but would not have been possible without digital technologies.
Last August, Arya Collateral Warehousing Services launched A2ZGodaam.com, an online directory of private warehouses in the country. Prasanna Rao, Managing Director and CEO of the company said at the launch event that the country has 143 million tonnes of storage capacity, but users find it hard to locate the warehouses because they are not visible. The portal was an attempt to “democratise” warehousing. The godowns are searchable across many parameters like lease rental, insurance status, accreditation for warehouse receipt financing, banks that will lend against the receipts, distance from regulated market yards or railway sidings, the availability of fumigation services and so on.
Bijak, an online trading platform mainly for fruits and vegetables, enables remote transactions between buyers and sellers without prior business relationships. Using algorithms and rankings, it incentivises trust by driving business to suppliers who deliver as per specifications and buyers (that is large traders) who do not default on payments.
Stellapps Technologies strives to improve milk productivity, quality and safety with devices on cows and cans and at collection centres, bulk chilling points and processing centres. Analysis of data thrown up by these devices helps in inseminating the bovines at peak ovulation to minimise failed attempts. Sitting and standing patterns throw up information for diet management. Other prompts alert the managers about infections and the use of antibiotics. Instant fat analysers enable prompt and accurate payments to milk suppliers.
CEO Ranjith Mukundan is an electronics engineer with an advanced degree in software and telecommunications but no prior experience in the milk industry. “We want to be the Google of dairying,” he asserts. Stellapps, according to Mukundan, provides services to dairies that have 2.5 million animals between them.
Doing something similar in aquaculture is Eruvaka, a Vijayawada-based start-up. The company helps in remote monitoring of shrimp ponds. It claims to have proprietary software which helps automate feeding of shrimp and prawns by analysing a unique sound they emit when hungry. Monitoring the temperature of water and its dissolved oxygen content are among the suite of services it provides.
But for the full promise of digital technologies to be redeemed, farmers must be receptive to them. Surendra Bahadur Singh who is promoting cooperative dairying in Uttar Pradesh’s Jalaun district, says about 50 per cent of the 12,000 milk farmers he is working with have refused to part with their bank account details fearing they will be taxed or their savings will be stolen. He says this prevents his dairy from implanting something as basic as online payments. Singh had spent his pre-retirement career in Gujarat’s Vasad and Navsari districts teaching dairying to tribal farmers who were ignorant of the art.
The farmers of Punjab are progressive and quick to adopt technologies. Their protests, therefore, cannot be dismissed as the handiwork of special interest groups. If thousands of farmers have braved cold and Covid-19 to make their voices heard, their fears must be real. There are no alternative crops that are as remunerative as wheat and rice procured assuredly at minimum support prices. Hence, the farmers demand that there should be a legal guarantee of procurement at support prices. But assured procurement regardless of demand will result in accumulation of stocks that will have to be disposed of at a loss.
Geneticist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, Deepak Pental, says intensive research has resulted in the breeding of wheat and rice for high yields. Research into the development of resistance against pests and pathogens has stabilised these high yields. The only other crop that has seen as much research is maize. But that cereal is more feed for animals, pigs, poultry and fish than food for humans. As prosperity rises, maize consumption increases as people tend to prefer animal proteins to calories from cereals. But Indians do not consume meat products to the extent that those in the West or in East Asia do for reasons of culture and affordability.
Maize prices in the open market are much below the minimum support prices. With avian flu breaking out, demand for maize will fall, further depressing prices.
The protesting farmers are aware that if wheat and rice are left to the vagaries of the market, their incomes will be uncertain. But the reckoning with market reality can only be postponed; it cannot be denied. The government could incentivise Punjab farmers to grow other crops that the country needs like pulses and oilseeds while also revving up research in them.
Digital technologies can make agriculture more efficient. But profitability of agriculture depends on a host of factors, including fewer people being engaged in agriculture, more productive and resilient seeds, and price stabilisation policies.
(The writer is a journalist and blogs on www.smartindianagriculture.com)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)