An ICT-triggered rural knowledge revolution in India is helping to break down the barriers that stand between localised rural economies and globalised markets.
India is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and the prospect of over a billion people connected to the internet has staggering implications for its government and citizens. Of course, that point has not been reached yet. Many farmers in rural India, where 70% of the country’s population lives, still lack internet access. There are ICT-led e-governance initiatives underway, however, to develop effective and inexpensive ICT penetration. One of these initiatives, led by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and the Ministry of Agriculture, promotes the use of ICTs for sustainable agricultural development. Indeed, this e-agricultural strategy is targeting the country’s 125 million farm households, 80% of which are poor and marginalised. It is hoped that the strategy will lead to an ICT-triggered rural knowledge revolution and help to break down the barriers between localised rural economies and the globalised market.
The Digital Network for Farmers is an ICT-led initiative run by NIC and the Ministry of Agriculture. It began at a national conference in India on ICTs and agriculture in 1995. It was then and there that a blueprint was developed for e-governance in the agricultural sector and a recommendation was formulated to allocate 3% to 6% of the national budget for agriculture to the development of digital networks and information services. Today, this initiative has developed 15 digital networks linked to agriculture and related topics, including digital information services on seed, fertilizer, plant protection, fisheries and natural disaster management (see box for a comprehensive list).
The first e-governance project, AGMARKNET, was launched in 2000 to strengthen India’s agricultural marketing system. AGMARKNET has now emerged as a key national portal. It has local language interfaces to reach the broadest possible audience. Its databases publish daily market information, such as minimum, maximum and modal prices for about 300 commodities and their over 2,000 varieties. AGMARKNET has also strengthened decision making at various levels and paved the way for the globalisation of Indian agriculture. Apart from domestic visitors, this portal has also received a tremendous number of visitors from outside India.
Another agricultural e-governance initiative has been developed by the Plant Protection Informatics Network (PPIN) to register pesticides digitally. It is a government-to-business project called CROP (Computerised Registration of Pesticides), which makes it easier to file and process online applications for pesticide registration. This same network has introduced ICT tools for plant quarantine stations, making them more efficient and effective. For instance, traders can now file import applications online. PPIN’s initiative has already networked 35 plant quarantine stations and 125 phyto-sanitary certification offices.
One of NIC’s new exciting initiatives is the development of mobile-based information services. Mobile phones are already a success story when it comes to bridging the urban-rural digital divide, and their increased use has created tangible economic benefits in the agricultural sector. NIC is now planning to take the use of mobile phones an important step further by promoting m-government services. Information retrieval systems with automatic speech recognition techniques are now being deployed on AGMARKNET in Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Telugu and English.
The list of mobile information services is long and ambitious and includes: agricultural news (on new cultivation products and machinery), agricultural policy (on laws and regulations), funding opportunities (to buy equipment), weather forecasts and alerts (for extreme weather conditions and disease outbreaks), market forecasts (for prices, supply and demand), expert consulting (for cultivation techniques, new production standards), notifications (for renewal of certificates and licences, new cultivation products or techniques), tele-diagnosis (for plant and animal diseases), messages to public agencies (for reporting agricultural accident, queries, complaints) and many more.
The potential impact of such a comprehensive number of mobile information services for farmers and all others connected to the agricultural sector are enormous, especially if one considers the fact that every 10% increase in mobile penetration rates potentially results in 1.2% more economic growth. Mobile phones and mobile-enabled services can bridge important information gaps, and because information is spread more quickly and widely, they can also help to accelerate the adoption of other ICTs in the agricultural sector.
The ICT-triggered rural knowledge revolution is helping to break down the barriers that stand between localised rural economies and globalised markets. Moreover, in India, information services that remove language barriers are essential for good governance, peace and prosperity at the grassroots level. To facilitate this, India requires a National Rural Informatics Policy. Indeed, that is the need of the hour and a step towards enabling rural India to ‘smile, shine and roar’.
ICT-related networks and digital information services in India
AGRISNET –network to facilitate rural agricultural extension services and agribusiness activities
AGMARKNET –a network of 7,000 agricultural produce wholesale markets and 32,000 rural markets
ARISNET – agricultural research information system network
SEEDNET – seed informatics network
CoopNet – network links 90,000agricultural primary credit societies and agricultural cooperative marketing societies to usher in ICT-enabled services
HORTNET – horticultural informatics network
FERTNET – fertilizers informatics network
VISTARNET – agricultural extension information system network
PPIN – plant protection informatics network
APHNET – animal production and health informatics network connecting about 42,000 animal primary health centres
FISHNET – fisheries informatics network
LISNET – land information system network linking all institutions involved in land and water management for agricultural productivity and production systems
AFPINET – agricultural and food processing industries informatics network
ARINET – agricultural and rural industries information system network to strengthen small and micro enterprises
NDMNET – natural disaster management knowledge network in India
Weather NET – weather resource system of India
Madaswamy Moni ( email@example.com ) is the former director general of the National Informatics Centre, which is a principal Indian government institute for e-governance and informatics development, and former vice-president of the Asian Federation of Information Technology in Agriculture. He has been instrumental in conceiving many of the ICT initiatives mentioned in this article.