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55 orgs, groups write to govt seeking transparency on Agristack and other digital moves around agriculture

Credit: Kisan Ekta Morcha Twitter

As many as 55 organisations, collectives, and groups have written to Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, criticising the government’s recent projects around farmers and technology, particularly Agristack. The organisations include Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) – Kisan Swaraj, Article 21 Trust, Association For Democratic Rights (Punjab), IT for Change, Jai Kisan Andolan, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), South Indian Organic Producers and Retailers Association, Internet Freedom Foundation, among many others.

Pointing to the memorandum of understanding between the Ministry and Microsoft, which the groups say allude to Agristack, the letter stated that the developments are taking place in a policy vacuum around data privacy of farmers and other related issues. On April 14, the government said it had signed an MoU with Microsoft to a pilot project in 100 villages “to develop farmer interface for smart and well-organized agriculture, including post-harvest management and distribution”. The release stated that the government is preparing a farmer database by integrating land records countrywide with PM Kisan, Soil Health Cards, and the Pradhan Mantri Crop Insurance Scheme as well as other data; geotagging of assets would also be done.

This sounds very similar to the union government’s Agristack, a collection of technologies and digital databases focused on India’s agriculture, per the groups’ letter to the Minister.

It will not be surprising that corporations will approach this as one more profit-making possibility, as a market for so-called ‘solutions’ which lead to sale of unsustainable agri-inputs combined with greater loans and indebtedness of farmers for this through fintech, as well as the increased threat of dispossession by private corporations. All this is apart from the widely documented exclusion and other issues related to the central role that Aadhaar plays in this ecosystem.

Agristack relies on techno-solutionism and will give rise to new problems such as usurious lending practices, exploitation of farmers by procurers, reduced agency of farmers, reduced transparency around algorithmic decision making, among other things, the letter noted.

According to the statement, reduced transparency around algorithmic decisions “includes the strong possibility of the database leveraging process using AI techniques that has the danger, either inadvertently or intentionally, of control systems becoming autonomous and even misaligned intelligence directing goals that are not set to our purpose. Lack of an AI policy and a legal security net in India, enhances such a danger”.

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The groups and collectives have requested the government to:

  1. Hold stakeholder consultation, especially with farmers’ organisations, on the direction of the digital push and the basis of the partnerships, and then issue a policy paper. State governments must also be consulted.
  2. Put on hold all initiatives with private entities on multiple databases with private information about farmers until:
    1. The policy framework mentioned above is finalised by the ministry
    2. The data protection law is passed by Parliament
  3. Place the MoU between the government and Microsoft in the public domain; along with any financial commitments or implications

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