Why you should care
Because most Indians still depend on agriculture for a living.
When businessman Naveen Kumar learned a farmer had committed suicide after being cheated with adulterated cotton seeds worth 300 rupees ($5) in his hometown in southern India, the tragedy continued to weigh on his mind for days. Aware that an average of 34 farmers commit suicide in India daily, Kumar became determined to bring more money to cultivators: by relying on the power of technology to fill an information gap that makes farmers vulnerable.
In June this year, he launched a mobile application to provide up-to-date, personalized and accurate information about crops, along with weather data and market prices, to farmers. Kumar’s is one of several tech-oriented initiatives that are springing up across India with the common goal of curbing the disturbing rate of farmer suicides.
The revolution has to start somewhere.
Naveen Kumar, creator of an app providing farmers with up-to-date crop and weather data
More than 55 percent of India’s population is principally dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, and the past two decades, since 1995, have recorded nearly 300,000 farmer suicides. Indian government data shows 12,602 Indian farmers killed themselves in 2015 alone, mostly owing to economic distress. Indebtedness was responsible for 38.7 percent of suicides, while crop failures or the inability to sell produce led to another 19.5 percent of suicides. More than 45 percent of farmers who killed themselves in 2015 had small land holdings.
“Although technology can help ease India’s agrarian crisis, it has not yet found its way to the average Indian farmer,” says Kumar, who now has 52,000 farmers registered on his application, NaPanta. “But the revolution has to start somewhere.”
Satellite imagery can help caution farmers about incoming storms, says S.S. Mantha, former chairman of India’s apex technical-education regulator, the All India Council for Technical Education. And on the ground, he adds, technology can help cut out layers of middlemen who clean, process, package and market the produce. Typically, the farmer ends up earning just 25 percent of the amount at which her produce is sold to the consumer, says Mantha.
Farmer Friend, a web portal that now has 37,000 registered farmers, attempts to do that, connecting cultivators directly to buyers. Its founders, Paviter Sandhu and his cousin Harjap Singh, started the website in August of last year — after they learned that a farmer from their village in north India died during a protest against unfair pricing of agricultural produce. The farmer had gone on a fast on railway tracks, where the protest was ongoing, and had refused to budge. He died after three days. “The victim could have easily been my own father,” says Sandhu, whose father is also a farmer who had participated in the protest.
Federal and state governments, Mantha suggests, can go one step farther, by investing in technology startups that help set up processing units on farms. “If processing units are set up on farms, cultivators’ income will increase by at least 60 percent to 65 percent,” he says.
Some of the startups targeting small cultivators are looking to provide low-cost technological support systems to farmers, hoping that this will help them increase their productivity, and therefore their earnings. Engineer Pawan Sharma has, since October 2015, been selling and donating affordable gadgets like solar dryers and biogas plants to farmers across 21 villages in north India. Under the initiative — called Kaushal Gram, or Capable Village — Sharma and his colleagues have also trained more than 200 children to help their farmer parents use this technology.
The challenges are plenty, ranging from poverty and illiteracy to poor internet penetration.
Kishore Tiwari, a 60-year-old farmer from Maharashtra in western India, who consults mobile apps and websites, says most others in his village aren’t yet sold on technological solutions. Many are uneducated and unable to use gadgets, he says. Others can’t afford even smartphones, and so can’t access apps meant for them.
Sandhu of Farmer Friend needed the help of an unlikely ally — God — to convince farmers to use his portal. When he visited villages, he held public gatherings in temples. “The venue helped,” he quips. “If temple priests were allowing me to hold sessions there, I had to be credible.”
India has only 30 percent internet penetration, centered around its cities. Many villages don’t have reliable electricity. These limitations handicap the potential of technology to resolve the challenges farmers face in India, says Shrikant Barhate, a former consultant with the World Bank. There are also deeper economic challenges — such as high production costs and limited access to agricultural credit — that the current wave of technology startups isn’t addressing, he adds.
Still, those behind these farmer-oriented innovations, like Sandhu, have had some success in working around many of the challenges they’ve faced. After initially struggling to convince farmers to use technology, Sharma and his team started recording videos of those farmers who were relatively quick learners. They aired these videos on projectors in villages. “Word spread, and now, over 2,800 households have benefited from our initiative,” says Sharma. Kumar has ambitious plans to train 20,000 farmers in southern India so they can go back to their villages and serve as brand ambassadors for technology there. Several small farmers can pool their resources and invest in on-farm technology, suggests Mantha.
And converts to technology are growing. As farmer suicides pile up, turning housewives into widows and leaving children paranoid about whether their family will be next, Gopal Mahajan, a 48-year-old farmer from western India, has made a choice. “I use every mobile application, web portal and social media group I learn about,” he says. “Anything that’ll silence those frequent thoughts of killing myself.”