Agriculture in India still remains the main source of livelihood for the majority of the rural population and more importantly the small holding farmers. With an average annual growth rate of 3.3%, the major challenges facing this sector include a shrinking land base, dwindling water resources, the adverse impact of climate change, shortage of farm labour, increasing costs and uncertainties associated with the volatility of international markets.
A pertinent factor that continues to impinge upon these challenges is the lack of timely information about market prices, crop varieties, production techniques, seasonal risk and disease control strategies. The critical question thus is — how can we effectively apply information and communication technologies (ICTs) in agriculture to mitigate the factors that lead to the physical isolation of the rural smallholder during the ensuing 12th Five Year Plan period.
The agricultural public extension chain in India is being strengthened through the establishment of the Agricultural Technology Management Agencies that are to work in collaboration with Krishi Vigyan Kendras at the state, district and block levels. These institutions are expected to utilise the expanded telecommunication networks that have increased the speed, reliability and accuracy of information exchange among farmers and other stakeholders in the rural space. In this context, Kisan Sanchar Limited (KSL) is an instance of a joint venture between telecom network operator Airtel and public sector giant Indian Farmers and Fertilisers Cooperative that provides relevant advice to smallholders on animal husbandry, rural health initiatives and the availability of products like fertilisers. KSL’s information arrives successfully via voice to 40,000 cooperative societies in 98% of India’s villages.
In addition, ICTs such as ‘cloud computing’ now offer pooled and very elastic resources demanded on the Internet. The National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP) funded jointly by the Government of India and the World Bank has successfully connected over 300 research institutions on the World Wide Web. Similarly, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is now running an online software that tracks agricultural research initiatives, evaluates research outcomes and prevents overlaps besides spurring creative thinking that can be shared at the grassroots.
New forms of knowledge brokering have also been made possible through ICTs. As digital literacy increases, farmers, traders and others are offering advisory services leading to reduction of pressure on the public extension system. Digital Green is an initiative started with the support of Microsoft Research in India that disseminates timely agricultural information to small and marginal holders through cost effective digital videos produced by both farmers and experts. Similarly, e-choupals, kiosks run by the agribusiness firm ITC, effectively reach out to four million farmers and provide information on prices, selling of products, buying of inputs and farming practices.
Abhilaksh Likhi is an IAS officer and currently a Senior Fellow at South Asia Studies, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC
The views expressed by the author are personal