Friday, March 10, 2006

BARAMATI 5: Blunt-speak, about Indian agricultur(e), from the planner's perspective

Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia -- the deputy chairman of the Indian Planning Commission, sometimes called by his critics as the World Bank/IMF's man in New Delhi -- threw some hard challenges to the 6th annual Baramati Initiative on ICT & Development, currently underway in this central Indian location, in the heart of rural India. If you thought e-agriculture just meant getting in computers, sticking in a pipe (to the internet) and working out some magic, then you've overlooked a lot, said Dr Ahluwalia. He termed IT (information technology) one of those "defining technologies" that bring about a drastic change. "It's not just something you plug on top of the old. As far as IT goes, the perception is that it has led to a phenomenal increase in productivity in every sector it has been applied to. It's become fashionable to add 'e' to everything. You have e-agriculture, e-business, e-commerce. Even words which began with an 'e' now have two e's added on to them. Like e-economics, and maybe even e-electricity," he said. He pointed to the importance of the agriculture field in India. "Agriculture contributes only 23% of India's GDP, but it still provides a dominant source of income for 60% of our population. We can't think of going ahead without agriculture," Dr Ahluwalia said. "We (in India) have done extraordinarily well as suppliers of IT to the world. India has responded incredibly rapidly, as part of the global supply chain of IT. But our record of applying IT to our own society back home has actually been quite poor. That's the main difference between India and China. This is not a criticism of the IT industry, but a criticism of the rest of us," said Ahluwalia. He said IT had not been optimally applied to most fields in India -- whether agriculture, other sectors, and certainly in government. "Government should have been the first sector (to promote effective IT use because) G2C (its government-to-citizen dealings) and even G2B (government-to-business dealings) require access to information by millions to information controlled by one party. Access to IT should have been a big part, but it hasn't," said Dr Ahulwalia. "Since the mid-eighties, every government office is decorated by a computer. Most senior officers, including myself, started using a computer only when your children got old enough that it was not possible to communicate by them through any ways except by email," said Ahluwalia. "If you send an email to a government officer, hoping for a reply, they get the relevant file and sit in your out office to discuss the issue." "We haven't really done what needs to be done. The first thing government does is buys hardware. There are relevant issues here: Is IT just a case of adding technology to an existing system? It's not an incremental change. The amount of information flowing is only going to be useful if there's a lot of response to the information available. Or else, the equation turns into NT + 00 = EOO. New technology and old organisation equals expensive old organisation. The benefit of IT is only derived when the process re-engineering takes place. Or else it's completely useless." Dr Ahluwalia cited the experience of India during its early stages of computerising banks. Due to union opposition, the central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, came to an understanding with the unions that the "tellers" in the banks would get access to computers, but the computers would not be linked across tellers or to the back office. This was intended to protect the number of tellers in jobs, but killed the utility of computers, or their possiblity of enhancing efficiency in the banks, he said. Ahluwalia called for structural change, together with "bringing in this phenomenal technology". He said: "One of the biggest problem with Indian agriculture is the gap between what the product is sold for and what the farmer gets, is probably the largest in the world. The structure of marketing has to absolutely changed. There's no use if we have the same number of (unnecessary middlemen) between the market and the farmer, but that each one is running around with a laptop!" He criticised the "focus on lines, connections, kiosks". Said Ahluwalia: "If we are serious about IT, we should be spending on a systems analysis (to see what's wrong with the old ways of doing work)." In Pondicherry, on the Indian east coast, Alhuwalia cited the experiment with transmitting information of predicting good fishing fields, based on factors like sea water temperature. "It sounds good. But fish also move around quite a bit. It takes about eight hours to get out there (to where the fish are predicted as being). If you keep getting online information, it would be more useful. But Indian fishing boats being used are designed to go and come back within the 24 hour cycle. You need boats which can go out for 4-5 days. Fishermen who earlier were opposed to this very (big vessel) technology in the past, are now talking about how to form fishermen's associations, and go in for larger boats," he said. Ahluwalia suggested that there are many problems -- which have nothing to do with the IT part of the solution -- which are not being tackled. "We should not talk of agriculture as if we've tackled the sectoral problems, and just need to add on the e-part. Doubling growth rates doesn't happen through business as usual. Make a list of whatever you're doing, and the probablity is that you aren't doing it very well, or that's not the right thing to do," he stressed, explaining the vital need to boost productivity in agriculture, to improve the lifestyles for hundreds of millions in rural India. Said he: "Indian agriculture is not using fully what is known in seeds and more. It also needs to move beyond its earlier obsession with food-grains. No medium-term plan for Indian agriculture can be postulated without the assumption that we will be moving from foodgrians to horticulture, floriculture, livestock, fisheries and so on. The latter are much more perishable, and the importance of post-harvest technologies is far greater than for wheat and paddy." Ahluwalia said the recent US-Indo joint statement signed opened up the possibility of exporting Indian mangoes to the US. But he concluded on a challening note. "We're not managing water properly. We're not managing water where there's irrigation, and we're not managing it properly where there's no irrigation. We're not managing credit properly. The flow of information is very poor when it comes to what's good practice, good seeds, etc. Within the country, yields are one-third to one-half of what they can be using best practices -- using the same seeds, and same weather. We also have to deal with weaknesses in credit, extension, and the knowledge system." Said Ahluwalia: "When we say e-agriculture, we're misreprenting the challenge. There are a lot of other alphabets we need to add. I would prefer the term m-agriculture (modern agriculture). I hope those into e-agriculture don't feel we're shortchanging them. There are a few other alphabets too before you get to 'm'. Don't forget them." He suggested terms like l-agriculture (logistical agriculture) or m-agriculture (marketing agriculture).