The Digitisation of Agriculture in India: How AgriStack Infringes Informational Privacy

by | Sep 26, 2021

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About Vrinda Bhardwaj and Trisha Pande

Trisha Pande and Vrinda Bhardwaj are Research Associates at the Land Rights Initiative, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India. Trisha's interest lies in the intersection of technology and society whereas Vrinda's research focuses on technology law and human rights. The authors thank Rohin Garg, Internet Freedom Foundation, for his valuable input while researching this article.

As digital capitalism paves the way for a new world order, Big Tech entities are increasingly participating in building digital architecture for developing nations to gain public trust. In India, agriculture accounts for about 42% of India’s workforce, 14% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (‘GDP’), and ensures food security for roughly 1.3 billion people. Due to a myriad of socio-economic issues, the government has publicised the role of technology in bettering agriculture for several years. The Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income records the use of the internet, machine learning, big data analytics, and artificial intelligence in transforming agriculture. Adjacently, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 provides electronic registration and trading for farmers. Significantly, on April 13th, India signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Microsoft to digitise agriculture in India by creating a ‘Unified Farmer Service Interface’ through its cloud computing services, raising troubling questions for informational privacy.

In 2018 NITI Aayog, India’s leading think tank, devised a National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence that discusses how AI can enhance farmers’ income, increase farm productivity, and reduce wastage. The paper propounded ‘AgriStack’ to create a set of common agricultural data standards and sharing mechanisms. It states that the Central Government will collaborate with private companies to develop the architecture based on open-sourced data. The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation, and Farmers Welfare is laying down a framework to build AgriStack, called the ‘India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA)‘. AgriStack seeks to build a National Digital Agriculture Ecosystem to enhance agriculture’s efficiency and productivity and improve farmers’ welfare and income outcomes. Harnessing the power of digital services through a PPP model involving technology companies, it will provide all farmers with unique farmer IDs to access services on the platform. It will also link publicly available data in government silos with digitised land records.

The implementation of AgriStack will happen in the same undemocratic vein as many other public welfare systems in India, most recently the National Digital Health Mission, which creates a Unique Health Identifier for beneficiaries. Assigning a unique identification number to farmers and providing them with a Digital ID linked to their Aadhar is problematic due to errors of exclusion when beneficiaries access welfare schemes through centralised databases. Moreover, handing over personal information to private companies – the likes of which the farmers have been protesting since mid-2020 regarding farm bills – suppresses their voices in a democracy. The introduction of AgriStack compromises farmers’ privacy as without a stringent data protection law, it will be challenging to establish liability for a data breach of the collected, used, and stored data. Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity about using this data for algorithm-based decision-making in the future.

The government has published a report by the Committee of Experts on Non-Personal Data Governance Framework wherein the classification of the data harvested by AgriStack could be Non-Personal Data and therefore would be subjected to lesser protections. Like IndiaStack, which claims to make India’s government systems’ paperless, AgriStack makes a grand promise of digitally revolutionising India’s massive agriculture sector. However, in a country with deep social rifts, the agricultural industry is reflective of this disparity, and introducing a techno-deterministic approach to alleviating the significant financial problems in the industry will ignore those who need the reforms the most. Moreover, for this revolution to occur, Indians would need to be equally digitally literate across caste, class, tribe, and gender, which is far from the case at present.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights & Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognise the human right to privacy. Moreover, in Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd) v Union Of India, the Supreme Court of India held that the right to informational privacy is a human right and a fundamental right under Article 21, i.e. the right to life. Under AgriStack, data relating to farmers’ details, land holdings, crops produced, and credit details will be shared with commercial entities, raising various privacy concerns and potentially infringing Article 21. The question is, if the State must digitise public services to enhance the agricultural sector, will AgriStack truly revolutionise farmers’ lives or merely end up creating larger problems by sponsoring away their right to informational privacy?

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