Nearly 200 farmers received a text message on their mobile phones this month with a specific suggestion on how to deal with the poor monsoon. “Dear friends from the farmer community," the message read, “considering the deficient rainfall, please sow seeds of the short duration variety".

Scores of such messages are sent out every day by the Kisan SMS (Short Message Service) portal, a government service that completed its first anniversary on Tuesday.

According to government data, the messages go out to around 200,000 farmers every day from the website which was developed by the agriculture ministry, India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Launched to target 120 million farmers initially across the country, the portal has so far sent out 1.16 billion advisories.

The government now plans to roll out a host of new services on mobile phones, including providing buyer-seller platforms, broadcasting soil testing results and voice SMSes as it readies their integration into a rapidly growing market economy.

The first budget of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) laid out plans to create a national market for agricultural produce, encourage private investment in warehouses and set up farmer markets to allow farmers to sell directly to consumers, bypassing middlemen.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley in his budget speech last week said the government’s focus is to usher in a “technology-driven second green revolution".

Getting a good price for farmers’ produce is a key feature of the market economy, as is mitigating risks. The SMS portal seeks to fulfil this by facilitating easy access to information about the weather, such as this year’s late monsoon and low rainfall.

The portal, which has around 7 million registered farmers can send customized messages in 12 regional languages by harnessing the expertise of 3,000 officials and experts of central and state government departments.

Experts from 130 agricultural universities and government organizations are registered on the portal. Farmers can register with the portal as well as ask questions by calling Kisan Call Centres or sending in USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) codes, upon which the farmers get a text message with various options to choose from. Farmer can then select and send the option number to specify requirements, to which the portal replies by sending in the appropriate information.

“The best part is that the farmers are registered with their locations as well as (for) the crops they grow, which enables the portal to broadcast messages tailored for farmers under particular categories," said Sanjeev Gupta, joint secretary, Department of Agriculture, who is handling the portal.

According to Gupta, a service which brings together farmers and buyers on an integrated platform is ready for launch. “Buyers would be able to reach out to us by sending a text in a particular format. The information will then be relayed to registered farmers who have the crops required by the buyer through messages. The service will also help farmers negotiate prices."

Currently, there are 14 Kisan Call Centres with 25-30 field experts each. “We get around 10,000 calls per day, but currently, we only have a capacity to deal with half of them," said Gupta. A total of 89.3 million farmer families are listed with the government.

“Apart from broadcasting messages with expert advice, we try to resolve farmers’ queries by providing them information when they call Kisan Call Centres through call conferencing with experts. The answers are then transcribed and sent as text messages in the regional language," he said.

IMD provides information on the weather and climate to these experts, who then prepare an advisory for farmers, which is put on the portal from where it is disseminated to all the registered farmers’ phone numbers.

“As you know the monsoon is not behaving this year. There are instances of excessive rainfall or deficient rainfall and hailstorms which can adversely affect farmers. In such a case, sending timely advisories to farmers becomes even more important. Since it’s the crop sowing period, they take loans, purchase seeds, and when needed prepare for irrigation facilities. So monsoon advisories can have cost implications," said N. Chattopadhyay, deputy director general, agricultural meteorology division, IMD Pune.

Rainfall remains 41% below the 50-year average for this time of the year but is showing some signs of a pick-up. The IMD has also joined hands with the ministry of agriculture and sends regular weather updates to farmers.

Farmers give a mixed response to the service.“We get regular SMSes on mandi rates, pesticides to use, or the right time to begin transplantation and these are useful, but I have not got any information in the last two months," said Ratan Singh, a farmer from Madhya Pradesh’s Narasinghpur district, one of several districts reeling under the effects of a delayed monsoon.

“There is no doubt that this is a good service, but consistency is required in quality of advisories. Sometimes the advisory is good quality, sometimes poor," said Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj, a not-for-profit organization.

Some experts believe the service needs fine tuning.

“Voice-based reaching out can be far more effective than SMS, and there is a need for more interactive engagement," said Osama Manzar, founder of Digital Empowerment Foundation, a not-for-profit organization. “They should also come out with an application for smartphones as Smartphones can help in reverse content generation and help get feedback from farmers."

Sayantan Bera contributed to this story.​

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