Covid Effect Promote ICT in agriculture

Dr.Parvani Sharma

The coronavirus (Covid-19) continues to wreak havoc on many countries. National lockdown strategy, as a panacea has been adopted by almost all countries as a strategy to impose a plethora of Covid-19 protecting measures (such as border closures, restrictions of movement, closures of restaurants, community quarantines, and market, supply chain and trade disruptions). This strategy has significantly affected agricultural production, food supply, and demand. Globally, around 820 million people are experiencing chronic hunger – not consuming enough calories to live healthy lives. As a result, they are highly vulnerable to any disruptions to their livelihoods or access to food. Likewise, small and marginal farmers are badly affected as they are unable to carry out field operations, earn remunerative product prices, and gain access to markets for purchase or sale. Evidence also indicates that panic occurred during the time of other epidemic diseases like Zika virus, ebola, Spanish flu and swine flu which led to an increase in mortality rate, hunger and malnutrition. In India, the lauding efforts have been taken by our Honorable Prime Minister Shri. Narender Modi from Janta Curfew on 22nd March, 2020 to first phase of lockdown from 24th March to 14th April, 2020 and now second phase from 15th April to 3rd May, 2020. During these precautionary measures, our PM has assured that Country will have ample and reserves of medicines, food and other essential goods and one of India’s primary economic sector i.e. Agriculture will revive all in the time of this challenge.
But this lockdown phase has coincided with the time of harvesting of Rabi crops and has hit the farmers and agriculturalists both directly and indirectly. The pandemic is impacting global as well as domestic food systems, disrupting regional food value chains, thus posing risks to household food security. The further extension of this lockdown would have adversely impacted this harvesting season had it not been for the timely action undertaken by the central as well as various State Governments. In short, the impact of movement restrictions and disease containment efforts are negatively affecting all kind of food supply chain, from producers to processors, marketers, transporters and consumers. An advisory issued by Indian Council of Agricultural Research advocates to maintain hygiene and social distancing by instructing farmers to take general precautions and safety measures during harvesting, post-harvest operations, storage and marketing of rabi crops. The digital tools and technologies enable information flows in spite of physical distancing and mobility constraints by exploring simple, available, accessible and easy to implement Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) solution like Short Message Services(SMS), Interactive Voice Response(IVR), Radio and TV, drones, online marketing, e-extension platforms, social media etc. Taking the advantages in crucial times from the existing formal and informal contact, mechanism and local networks such as cooperatives producers’ organizations, community and farmers leaders, self-help groups and religious group to widespread information and advice when measure constraining mobility are in peace. Despite of the fear of unstable livelihood of the Country’s 140 million farmers are adversely impacted. In times like this, the business continuity of agricultural value chain activities is crucial to make food items available which ensure that livelihoods of farmers are not disrupted. In this phase of lockdown farmers across the world get updates about the status of their crop, essential parameters such as weather, information about buyers, sellers, and other service providers all through ICT-based solutions. As, this was already happening before, but now we have to scaled up a little through public and private investment. To cope up with the situation we should generate an idea that are sustainable and beneficial for the country when things go back to normal. The 2 thoughts like:
* Promoting and strengthening farmer collectives
* Promoting more of ICT in agriculture
These two concepts are not new but the business has to invest in them further, are more convincing than ever before as this will prepare the Indian farmers for the future.
* Talking about the first one “Farmers’ Collective” i.e. a group of farmers who collectively participate in agricultural value chain activities. This is a legal entity that is responsible for managing commercial transactions among individual farmers, sellers and buyers. For example Mewar Green Agro Producer Company, a collective of close to 500 tribal farmers operating in south Rajasthan, has ensured that farmers have access to critical technical advisory services through phone calls. The company is also reaching out to potential buyers to secure market for their produce beyond mandis. It is also engaging with agri-input (seed, fertilizers, etc) providers so that its members are prepared for the upcoming monsoon crop.
* The second about ICT has further strengthened the belief that adoption of ICT on a large scale is a requisite for the farmers to access vital services. For example the Government’s e-NAM (National Agriculture Market) platform to strengthen agriculture marketing for farmers, including the collectives, is an initiative in the right direction. The platform is expanding its features based on the current lockdown situation as well. Like, the platform has aggregated the services of transport companies bringing at least 375,000 trucks accessible to the farmers. In this pandemic situation the e-NAM can become the next Uber-like on-demand service for agriculture in India. Not only the mixing of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blending of other predictive model, can become a long-term solution.
Moreover, State like Kerala where local vegetable vendor has started door to door mobile vegetable truck services which are widely accepted for an easy accessibility to fruits and vegetables. Another initiative taken by Kerala state government to protect food security by setting up of community kitchens all over the state. The first-ever move to provide cooked food for the needy. Where district administrators were given the duty to monitor the food assistance program whereas the local representatives took responsibility in distribution and logistics. Not only this, Punjab government ensured that the transportation of wheat to mandis can be done in a staggered manner to ensure social distancing. All this is done under the care of district administration with the help of police. Farmers are also provided with the passes to go the mandis with their produce. The one who are not able to come to mandis, the State Government has taken effort to pick the produce from their respective place and has also increased the number of procurement center to maintain the social distance.
* Farmers will be given passes to go to mandis with their produce. They have also asked the Central Government for incentives for farmers who delay bringing their food-grains to mandis. The government has also increased the number of purchase centers and sheller yards to spread out the operations. In this pandemic times, Electronic warehouse Receipts (ENWRs) can break barriers and to promote a national market in agricultural goods can be beneficial for the farmers which may encourage the farmers to use e-NAM facilities and hedge through futures and increased use of warehouse receipts.
* Food security policy and research should focus on a resilient society in which the population is able to fend for itself. Community-oriented activities like community gardens, community markets, community kitchen, etc. need to be promoted as a part of strengthening local food production system. Urban and peri-urban farming can also be promoted and Panchayat Raj Institute (PRIs) may plan for local governance of food systems in the country.
* Traditionally, the focus which was only on food security is on linking production with distribution and processing industries, and less on retailers and consumers, but now this needs to be changed. In this respect, there is a need to strengthen village markets like in place of malls in urban areas, malls in rural areas may be set up to sell fresh and processed produce of farmers.
* Strengthening of MNREGA can also be pushed for the welfare of the farmers. The laborer’s returning to villages due to lockdown can cause a sudden rise in rural unemployment levels. As a safety net, MNREGA guidelines have to be modified and permission given to use the programme’s labour in farm related marketing activities.
” Though the extension system has taken many pro-active measures to help farmers, there is a need for more involvement and formulation of innovative practices to enable them to address marketing challenges. Organizing capacity development programmes for extension personnel and farmers to empower them to overcome challenges can be taken up.
The question arises that are the farmers ready to use such solutions? As the adoption of such technology-driven solutions depends on the investment that the government and other stakeholders put to make farmers digitally literate. Also, the investments in creating digital infrastructure, i.e. IOT platforms which will have to be pushed and now COVID-19 has demonstrated the need and the opportunity to invest in this. More investments to set up and strengthen producer collectives as well as to promote large-scale adoption of ICT in agriculture is the need of the hour. Specific interventions will vary according to the area and farmers, though investment will have to be universal. This will secure farmers livelihood, protect rural community and ensure there is food on our plates.
(The author is Assistant Professor, Shoolini
University, School of Agriculture)


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