Under the weather

The farm sector is starting to feel the pinch of climate change a quick and early adoption of ICT is imperative

Newspaper: Business Standard
Date: 15th May 2012
Edition: New Delhi

Climate change is a reality. No longer can it be considered a mere possibility. This is evident from the increase in the occurrence of odd and extreme weather events. Naturally, the agriculture sector has started to feel the pinch. Wheat harvesting, for instance, often starts early because of a sudden and unusual rise in temperature in March-April — or, as has been the case this year, is delayed owing to an exceptionally wet and cool March-April. In both cases, wheat production suffers and readjustments have to be made to the crop calendar.

It is now clear that though climate change may be a global phenomenon, its consequences are felt locally. Thus, we need to take situation-specific actions to mitigate the impact of climate change and adapt the farming system to the changed weather conditions. Fortunately, the fast-developing field of information and communication technology (ICT) is coming in handy for the agriculture sector.

ICT can be used – in fact, it is already in use – with great advantage to disseminate information and advice on several aspects of agriculture, many of which have a bearing on the farm sector’s ability to withstand global warming and climate change. These include weather foretelling; area-specific advice on modern agronomic practices, input use and soil and water conservation; post-harvest treatment of produce; market intelligence; and actual marketing of farm products through electronic and online platforms.

One area in which ICT tools can be highly useful is agricultural extension. This vital service, being government-run, is currently in a shambles across all states and is actually proving to be the weakest link in the transfer of modern agricultural technology and its deployment in farmers’ fields. The reach of these state governments’ extension agencies is rather limited — extension workers generally do not manage to contact even half of the total farmers. The rest are completely left out. ICT can, obviously, increase the reach of these extension services and speed up the message delivery system.

Interestingly, a compendium on the application of ICT in various segments of the agro-rural sector has been compiled by two senior scientists – K M Singh and M S Meena – of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). This volume, published by the New Delhi-based Narendra Publishing House, has contributions from people who are involved in the process of harnessing ICT to shield agriculture from the wrath of climate change.

It focuses on the role of ICT tools in climate-change mitigation and adaptation in five broad areas — socioeconomic upliftment and empowerment of women; scientific agriculture; soil and water management; animal husbandry and fisheries; and pest and disease management. Significantly, it lists over 60 ICT initiatives taken by the governments at the Centre and in states, private companies and non-governmental organisations that have already been adopted in different part of the country. The most well-known among them, of course, is ITC’s e-Choupal, which was started in 2000 and is now running in several states.

But many other initiatives are not so well known outside their operational areas. These include, among others, the e-extension (e-soil health card programme) being implemented by the agriculture department of Gujarat. It aims at providing online guidance to cultivators on the status of soil health, the required doses of fertilisers and alternative cropping patterns. Many other projects, targeted primarily at disseminating information on prevailing prices and agricultural marketing, are being implemented by different marketing organisations, including commodity exchanges and electronic spot markets. The country’s state-funded agricultural research network, spearheaded by ICAR is not far behind in this field.

Many research institutes, farm universities and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (farm science centres) are providing SMS-based, day-to-day farming tips to local farmers. All this, no doubt, seems impressive on the surface. But given the size of India and its diversified farm sector, the exploitation of ICT tools for agricultural development is still highly insufficient. The real ICT-enabled information boom in the farm sector is yet to come. However, with the rapid penetration of tele-services in the rural belts, increasing ICT literacy among rural people and the increasing use of ICT facilities for protecting agriculture from the adverse consequences of climate change, such a boom may not be distant.

surinder.sud@gmail.com

Under the weather