Why Microsoft’s role in digitising India’s land records is worrying farmer groups

The Modi government has roped in the American tech giant to build its new farmer database called Agristack.

BySashwata Saha
Why Microsoft’s role in digitising India’s land records is worrying farmer groups
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Moiful Karim, 67, spends 10-12 hours every day toiling in the fields near his Mochrakend village in Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman. It being one of the last weeks between rabi harvest and kharif planting, he was harvesting groundnuts, pulling out the shrubs by hand, when I caught up with him.

“A year ago, I would have been harvesting with bullocks,” he said, separating seeds from the shrubs. “But because of the pandemic, not only has my profit margin shrunk, my sons have lost their jobs. Now, I am the sole earner in my family.”

Moiful estimated that his 1.5-acre plot would yield 25 quintals of the legume. The minimum selling price of groundnut on the National Agriculture Market website is Rs 6,000 a quintal. Moiful would be glad to sell his stock for around Rs 4,500 a quintal.

“I will make around Rs 1.10 lakh at an optimistic estimate,” he said. “Around Rs 80,000 will go towards farm and house rents, fertiliser, pesticides, debts, paddy seeds for the upcoming rabi season. That leaves me with around Rs 30,000 to feed a six-person family.”

Moiful is a sharecropper. Sharecroppers do not own the land they work, they only rent it. The rent may be a pre-arranged monetary agreement, or involve the sharing of seeds, fertiliser, and harvest. Such agreements are mostly verbal, so there is no paper trail. The system is popular all across India. Yet the status of sharecroppers as farmers in Assam, Gujarat, Kerala, Punjab, and Maharashtra is murky, just as it is under the central government, even though states such as Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Bengal have either liberalised land laws to benefit sharecroppers or sanctioned subsidy programmes for them.

Recently, in a move that it claims will benefit small landowners, the Narendra Modi government began the exercise for creating a national database, with the working name Agristack. Its first parameter seems to be detailed land records.

On April 13, the agriculture, cooperation and farmers’ welfare department signed an MoU with Microsoft India to use farmers’ data to authenticate their identity for the receipt of entitlements under agricultural schemes. The MoU wasn’t made available publicly until the privacy rights activist group Internet Freedom Foundation filed an RTI request.

Along with the MoU comes a standard operating procedure, which states that the Indian government “is in the process of developing farmers’ data bank and creation of a framework for a digital ecosystem for agriculture” and “accordingly has selected a set of 10 villages each from 10 states”. Essentially, Microsoft India or its representatives will go around the villages collecting personal information, land and financial records, and details of schemes that the farmer has benefited from. The data collectors are instructed to match the information gathered with available local records. If any information is outdated or amiss, then the collectors are to update it. There are also blanks in their datasheets for remarks that are to be noted if the farmer falls in one of the five categories prescribed by the government – the farmer is not from the same village where their land is; the farmer is receiving benefits for which they are not eligible; the farmer belongs to an exclusion category; there’s a transliteration error and the plot’s address doesn’t match local records.

“It is the first step towards clearing up India’s land records mess,” explained an undersecretary in the agriculture ministry who only agreed to speak anonymously. “We have received thousands of complaints about implementation of three of the centre’s farm subsidy programmes – Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, Soil Health Card, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna. To address this and other issues pointed out by years of research by Niti Aayog and other think tanks, the ministry is building a farmer-focused database.”

He elaborated that granular agricultural records would also help the government calculate the requirements of various cultivators on “an almost individual level” and tailor subsidy programmes to their perceived needs. Collecting their bank details would mean the money can be transferred directly to the beneficiary’s account. “And if a farmer wishes to sell off his land,” the undersecretary added, “then it would be far easier because their land records would be sorted out on their new unique farmer ID.”

Asked why Microsoft was chosen as the data miner, the bureaucrat said, “We simply do not have the means to collect and analyse what is in all probability petabytes of big data. Microsoft does.”

He would not explain who specifically the government defined as a farmer and hung up the phone when questioned about the legality of allowing a private company to collect and mine extensive personal information and publishing it online when the country does not have a personal data protection law. The Personal Data Protection Bill, introduced in December 2019, is currently under review by a joint parliamentary committee.

These questions bother farmer activist groups that are already agitated over last year’s farm bills as well as the lack of farmer representation in the government’s agriculture policies.

“Any definition of farmer must include tenant farmers, fisherfolk, those who collect forest produce, mainly Adivasis,” said Nachiket Udupa of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. “Even in landowning farming families, records are typically in the name of the male head of the household and excludes women, who work as much, if not more, on farms and are farmers as much as their men. The problem with using land records is that it excludes these large categories of people who engage in farming – women, tenant farmers, fisherfolk, and those dealing with uncultivated foods. Not to speak of landless agricultural labourers.”

Since such farmers don’t have land in their names, they are excluded from subsidies and schemes, formal credit lines, insurance, and even MSP. Moreover, most states have digitised their land records and their experiences indicate that mistakes in data entry, intentional or otherwise, create more problems for landholding farmers who have to run between government offices and pay to correct the mistakes.

Why then is the Modi government rolling out Agristack?

Ranjini Basu, agricultural policy counsel at the international think tank Focus on the Global South, said the Modi government wasn’t disclosing its actual motive. “The government has been moving to reduce subsidies for a while now. For example, you may have read reports that it has increased the subsidy on DAP fertiliser. This means that the government is paying more to companies rather than it going to the farmers. The companies can now increase prices even further and, consequently, the subsidy bill will also increase if prices are to be maintained. This is the economics of it.”

In this context, she feared the government would use this “precise” new data, collected by linking Aadhaar with soil health trackers and land records, to show beneficiary farmers exactly how much subsidy they would be entitled to and, thus, decrease rates. “Land records in India are a mess and since the government’s classification of farmers is murky, Microsoft’s records would inherit the bad data,” she said. “The process would just worsen our information quality and worse, farmers would not be in control of their own data.”

The government, under the aegis of Niti Aayog, has already launched pilot programmes linking Aadhaar to fertiliser usage. There’s a fear that like it abruptly stopped direct transfer of LPG subsidy last year after having linked it to Aadhaar, the government would do the same with fertiliser subsidies. All this without even going into the exclusions that have been documented even in Niti Aayog's assessment of these fertiliser subsidy direct transfer pilots.

Further, there are usually backlogs in fertiliser subsidy payments to companies in the current system. By shifting to direct transfers, the onus of such backlogs will fall on the farmers.

Then there are concerns about Microsoft’s involvement. As Vandana Shiva, a veteran land rights activist, said during an online discussion on Agristack, “Bill Gates is the world’s largest landlord and he is deciding what is going to happen to land all over the world. Look at Microsoft’s 060606 scheme launched at the peak of the pandemic. Essentially, the program’s users were assigned values based on the severity of their Covid symptoms. Make no mistake, the same will happen to Indian farmers. They will be assigned values at the tech giant’s discretion and these values will decide whether they are eligible for loans and subsidies.”

Bill Gates is America’s top farmland owner, according to the Land Report. He owns 2,42,000 acres across Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, three of the country’s largest states with the most cultivated land. The Gates Foundation recently launched a new initiative called Ag One, which is claimed to accelerate the development of innovations needed to improve crop productivity and help smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women, adapt to climate change.

Ag One is looking to work in two of the world’s largest unorganised agricultural sectors – Sub-Saharan Africa, home to about one billion people, and South Asia, with a population of 1.8 billion. “Yields of farms in these regions are already far below what farmers elsewhere in the world achieve and climate change will make their crops even less productive,” reads a research paper put out by the foundation. To enhance productivity, Ag One will operate with both public and private sectors to commercialise “resilient, yield-enhancing seeds and traits”. And, of course, Microsoft is now involved in digitising India’s land records as well.

This is troubling, not least because Microsoft’s involvement in similar projects in the United States and Canada, the first countries to digitise their agricultural infrastructure, has spelled trouble for farmers. One of the biggest problems concerns tractors. Many farmers in the US and Canada cannot legally repair their tractors or other farm equipment purchased from companies like John Deere without using the manufacturer's own expensive repair services.

The tractors run on Microsoft software. And Microsoft does not allow their owners access to its diagnostic and debug softwares under the amended Digital Right to Repair Act. The farmers have now resorted to hacking their tractor software as a repair measure and formed groups to protest for the right to repair their machinery.

Meanwhile, in Africa, the Gates Foundation is trying to recreate the Indian green revolution of the 1960s and pushing the cultivation of the Rockefeller golden rice along with bt brinjal even though research has shown the American rice doesn’t grow well outside North American conditions while the genetically modified brinjal have proved poisonous and is banned in India. There are also big concerns about Microsoft’s African affiliate, the global food tech behemoth Cargill, which is accused of taking over farms of small landholders via debt traps.

“Technology is a tool,” Shiva said. “It is up to us if we use it, how we use it and whether we hold those using the tool accountable. Digitalisation is the present but the future will be bleak if the one percent set the agenda for the remaining 99 percent.”

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