Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Indian farmers in the IT age

Farmers are using features like SMS, Voice Message, Helpline, WhatsApp and Facebook to get information about rain forecast and wind speed alert

According to the Census of India 2011, there are 118.9 million cultivators across the country, or 24.6% of the total workforce of over 481 million. The proportion was about 50% in 1951. On the other hand the number of people working as agricultural labourers has increased from 19% in 1951 to 30% in 2011, standing at 144.3 million.

According to IndiaSpend, “If we add the number of cultivators and agricultural labourers, it would be around 263 million or 22% of the population (1.2 billion). Then where does the common perception of 53% of population being involved in agriculture come from? It needs to be remembered that over 600 million Indians dependent on agriculture are not farmers."

How information deficient are the 22% of the population who are Indian farmers? According to a survey of 11,000 farmers across 18 states, by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), only 10% respondents feel that government schemes benefit poor and marginal farmers; given a chance 76% would prefer to do any other work than farming; 61% of farmers will leave farming if they get an employment opportunity; 47% of farmers feel the overall condition of farmers in the country is bad; and 70% have not heard about the Direct Cash Transfer scheme.

The trend of data and analytics clearly shows farming is an ailing sector and it is not something that one aspires to become. I would like to share some more data from the perspective of how digital interventions are playing a role in the lives of farmers and the farming community, and also, how because of the usage of digital tools like mobile and Internet, we get to know about our farmers much more than we would know from any traditional survey. I am talking about the Kisan Sanchar or KS (not to be confused with IFFCO Kisan Sanchar) project, which was started in Haryana. We had identified, awarded and grant funded them to scale up their project.

This was in 2011, when KS was fresh and had just about 60,000 farmers subscribed to their information services provided through text messages. Gradually, KS scaled down their SMS service because of the increasing cost of SMS, and introduced IVR (interactive voice response)-based call services including web-based and helpline- based services. As of today, Kisan Sanchar has 700,000 farmer members across 30 states; in Haryana their members number about 125,000. The most important aspect of KS membership is that it’s mostly through word of mouth, group meetings, farmers’ clubs and reference-oriented. The unique selling points of KS are few but incomparable: the information service is totally free to the farmers; every piece of information that a farmer wants is provided to him customized almost personally, leading to the building of a relationship; and finally the data that KS collects from the farmers then becomes the product that is sold to various agencies including the government and private sector to earn revenue.

For example, have a taste of this data about the farming community of KS database, and tell me if you won’t pay for it: 9% of the farmers have smartphones, 17% in Haryana; every farmer has at least one phone; the farmers who are strictly into farming practices never change their mobile number, but those who are either students or also do some additional business keep changing their number as well as operators; only 8% of the registered farmers are female and in general their access to knowledge-based services is negligible; about 70% farmers have minimum qualification of 10th grade; 52% of the farmers have their own irrigation source while 7% are organic farmers; 73% farmers have their own land, 12% are landless and 15% are agricultural labourers; and only 27% of the members of KS are linked with the banking system.

It is also learnt that the major features that the farmers use on their mobile phones are: SMS, Voice Message, Helpline, WhatsApp, Facebook and group meetings. According to Kamal Jeet of Kisan Sanchar, “the most demanded service from the farmers are: information about rain forecast and wind speed alert". The other range of services that KS members avail are: weather, agronomy, insect pest management, market rates, career counselling for young members of farming families, agribusiness opportunities and networking among the farmers.

Ironically, it is mostly the 40-plus age group of farmers who are on the knowledge network of KS and using the helpline to avail of the information services, while young farmers are pretty much absent and barely show an interest in farming.

Osama Manzar is founder & director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and Chair of Manthan Award. He is also a member of working group for IT for Masses at ministry of communication and IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar