India’s agriculture policy makers have the herculean task of not only delivering time-sensitive responses to farmers’ needs but also accounting for personnel, topographical, weather, and logistical variations within each state. But the growing calls for modernising agriculture, however, has been merely focused on spurring mechanisation and increasing research to improve farmer productivity.
A third critical, but underestimated aspect, is governance in the area of agriculture. That’s what Odisha is focussing on — using data to revamp the sector. Odisha’s Department of Agriculture has come up with a new system to efficiently employ data. With the revamp, officials are now in a position to provide specific solutions rather than issue macro-directional guidelines.
Use of real-time data
Agriculture contributes to nearly 17 per cent of the country’s GDP and employs more than 50 per cent of India’s workforce. But it is one of the most complex government departments in India. In every state, officials in the agriculture department are required to have insight into a range of things including weather, soil quality, irrigation, fertilisers, pest attacks, seeds, in addition to maintaining a record of information on various aspects of implementing state and central agricultural schemes.
This information comes to the department from the field, other government departments, satellites, forms filled by officials in the district and blocks and at times, even in the form of anecdotal information. All this information comes in varying formats, with different levels of accuracy and frequency.
This means that at any point in time, the Department of Agriculture has to coordinate with the Department of Water Resources, Power, Finance and the Indian Meteorological Department, among innumerable other stakeholders, to take stock of the overall agricultural situation.
Andhra Pradesh, through its Real Time Governance (RTG) centre, has taken decisive steps in this direction. It collects real-time data from multiple sources to create a consolidated database of relevant information for use across departments. By collaborating with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the RTG centre sends weather advisories to the district, mandal, village officials as well as farmers. Crop-wise agriculture advisories are also issued from a district to its villages based on data gathered and analysed centrally.
Odisha’s agri reforms
Taking this principle a step further, the Department of Agriculture in Odisha developed an integrated online Decision Support System (DSS) in early 2018.
It is a comprehensive tool for evidence-based decision-making that serves as a communications and analytics engine, a Geographic Information System (GIS) and a Management Information System (MIS) as well as a data warehouse. The DSS also provides the agriculture department all historical information needed to plan, execute and monitor implementation of government schemes.
Odisha’s agriculture department has identified 12 priority areas for which it collects data that feeds into the DSS. The areas are: seeds, insurance, fertilisers, markets, irrigation, weather, credit, pesticides, extension workers, reservoirs and crop diversification.
For each of these factors, the journey from data to decision follows a pre-defined six-step process.
Data to decision
First, an outcome metric is identified. For example, in the case of seeds, it could be ensuring the timely availability of the right mix, quantity and quality of seeds at the right price for farmers.
The second step would be identifying sources of data, officers responsible for entering the data into the DSS portal and establishing the frequency at which data will be updated.
Next, communication regarding this responsibility is sent from the department to the state’s relevant district, block and village officials, with specific deadlines to be met. Based on this communication, compliance is monitored and necessary reminders and instructions are further shared among the authorities concerned.
Finally, as data starts coming into the DSS portal from different parts of the state on a regular basis, it becomes amenable for analysis and collating insights. This information is used by the agricultural department’s bureaucratic leadership to assess progress during review meetings and take timely corrective action.
For instance, the Odisha government is now able to seek answers to questions as specific as ‘Which blocks have received deficient rain?’ ‘Which variety from the seed reserve stock should be sent and where is the nearest stock kept?’. This has ensured that generic, macro guiding principles are no longer used to solve a particular issue. Officials are now empowered enough to offer specific solutions to specific problems.
Pest to policy
The utility of making data-backed decisions using the DSS is also evident in how Odisha has effectively tackled the challenge of crop loss due to pest attacks. Traditionally, the government used to deploy resources across all 314 blocks to prevent pest attacks. However, this was an inefficient and disproportionate utilisation of resources because not all blocks were susceptible to such attacks.
To mitigate the problem of pest attack, the Odisha government assessed data for 10 years, and based on that analysis, identified 57 endemic blocks. The government then expended its maximum resources on these 57 blocks to prevent pest attacks.
Armed with relevant data, Odisha’s agricultural department carried out information campaigns, training of extension workers and ensured the availability of pesticides. One of the remarkable results was that the state saw a 90 per cent reduction in pest attacks during the 2018 kharif season.
To further institutionalise data-backed policymaking, Odisha’s state government is releasing its Agriculture Policy 2020 Monday that underscores the use of DSS to inform the functioning of the entire agricultural ecosystem in the state.
As states in India focus on carrying out agricultural reforms to boost productivity and farmer incomes, it is important that they equally prioritise transforming governance in agriculture using data and technology.
Ankur Bansal is the co-founder of Samagra | Transforming Governance, a mission-driven governance consulting firm. Samagra is working with the Government of Odisha to transform agriculture governance. Views are personal.
This is the third in a four-part ThePrint-Samagra series that delves into complex governance challenges facing India and how they are being solved.