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Home / India News / Covid-19 update: High-tech farm management system on anvil

Covid-19 update: High-tech farm management system on anvil

India will deploy an array of smart technologies, from satellites to remote sensing and artificial intelligence to drones, to help authorities track sowing, acreage, crop health, weather and undertake pest surveillance, a government official familiar with the matter said, requesting anonymity.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2020 06:46 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Agriculture employs nearly nearly 500 million people or half the population in India.
Agriculture employs nearly nearly 500 million people or half the population in India. (PTI File Photo )

Authorities will harness high-tech systems on an “unprecedented scale” to manage the vast farm sector, which heads into its crucial kharif or summer-sown agricultural season, even as experts wonder if the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) farming will disrupt farming itself.

India will deploy an array of smart technologies, from satellites to remote sensing and artificial intelligence to drones, to help authorities track sowing, acreage, crop health, weather and undertake pest surveillance, a government official familiar with the matter said, requesting anonymity.

“A lot of information will come from sky, rather than the ground,” he said. Summer output accounts for half of the country’s annual food output.

Millions of farmers during the summer-sown season grow a range of food and cash crops, including various types of paddy, soyabean, lentils, oilseeds, vegetables, horticulture crops, coarse cereals, jute; tea, coffee, gram and onion, among others.

Agriculture employs nearly nearly 500 million people or half the population in India. According to data from the National Sample Survey Office, India has nearly 90.2 million agricultural households, which accounts for about 57.8% of the total estimated rural households. An agricultural household is defined as a household having at least one member self-employed in agriculture.

Sowing of key crops happens with the arrival of monsoon rains in June, but a range of perishables essential to keep inflation under control are grown during spring.

There are important intermediate crops that farmers must sow between now and June, such as cotton and maize, apart from some cereals and vegetables. “Cotton seeds must go into the ground by mid-April and then of course maize,” Balwinder Singh Sandhu, agriculture commissioner, Punjab told HT.

Cotton offers livelihood to 6 million growers and nearly 50 million are employed in the cotton-textile trade, according to data from the National Food Security Mission.

Besides, harvest is due for India’s biggest staple, wheat, apart from crops such as potato. The national lockdown till April 14 has upended farm activities. “Availability of labour to market access, everything is uncertain,”said Amra Ram, the Rajasthan leader of All India Kisan Sabha.

The Modi government on Thursday announced that 80 million eligible farmers would be paid Rs16,000 in all under the government’s cash-for-farmers scheme, PM Kisan.

The government official cited in the first instance said that the main challenges are twofold: keeping crop data flowing in; and, more critically, ensuring farmers are able to sow. Sowing could be tricky if Covid-19 cases spike and the outbreak continues because farming involves supply of so-called agricultural inputs (anything farmers need for cultivation, from seeds to fertilisers).

Yet, the government should be able to get critical nationwide crop-related data flowing fairly robustly and in a timely manner, the official said. Such data is critical to ascertain the progress of farming and make estimates of food output and farm incomes. Essentially, the country’s food security depends on it.

The government’s management of agriculture has modernised considerably over the past five years, backed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), Indian Remote Sensing Centre and the Mahalanobis National Crop Forecasting Centre, New Delhi. These three institutions are gearing up to mount a high-tech, grid-by-grid watch on agricultural operations across states. A grid refers to a unit of area as seen by satellites.

During a nationwide experiment last year, authorities flew remote-controlled drones just under 150 feet across 180 districts to monitor horticulture crop health as part of a hi-tech mission aided by Isro applications.

“If district agriculture officials are bound by the Covid-19 epidemic from constantly venturing out, drones will be deployed to get the data,” said a second government official who asked not to be named.

In fact, ground data in India is often unreliable, militating against precise stocktaking when droughts cut output and food prices rise.

“The fundamental aspect is the digitisation of the farm and farmer. We have a platform that is crop and location- agnostic, local language friendly and combines data sources like satellite, field surveys, weather and ground data points,” says Krishna Kumar, founder & CEO, CropIn Technology, a Bangalore-based firm that offers artificial intelligence applications in agriculture.

The federally developed “Kisan Suvidha” android app, downloaded for free by over 100 million registered users, will help farmers with relevant information on weather of the current day and next 5 days, market prices, dealers, agro advisories and plant protection, the second official said.

An Isro-backed, satellite-based geo-portal platform called “Bhuvan” will be a central server where all information will be seeded to present a comprehensive national picture, according to a third official. “It will be like clearing house for agri satellite data.” Another android app, Bhuvan Hailstorm, is designed to predict hailstorms and losses.

The official added that the National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring System, a remote-sensing based grid-by-grid satellite scanning system will generate vegetation index data to watch out for drought, as will the India Meteorological Department, the country’s main weather bureau.

“What is required, first and foremost, now is exempt agricultural activities from the lockdown and offer passes to farmers and those in the sector to carry on,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

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