Thinking Food Grid Corporation of India!

by | Nov 25, 2014

This is a year when the country has rekindled memories of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a champion of farmers and the unifying force that helped shape the post-Independence India. This is also a year when the Prime Minister has unveiled a super-ambitious Digital India program.
Today, India is also in need of unification of a different kind. There is an India where for the past many years farmers have not got their dues and have been driven to suicides in alarming numbers. The other one is where wealth has been created in a new economy where IT services have played a major role. The two need to be brought together in a complementary manner.
It’s a stark irony that a country that prides on being a global IT services hub for sectors as diverse as banking to biotechnology, has practically failed to apply itself to help revitalize India’s agriculture. Even if any applications have been developed, their telling effect has not been known to masses.
Yes, there have been a series of green revolutions in the past, which have primarily focused on multiplying the crop yields, with various agricultural universities having played vital roles. There also has been constructive formation and scaling up of institutions like Food Corporation of India (FCI) to tackle the procurement, storage and distribution issues related to food grains. But while these institutions continue to serve their purposes, they have increasingly been fraught with multiple problems, largely due to piece-meal approaches. And it has not helped that the pieces have been too large to handle.
Hundreds of tons of food grains are spoiled every year, just due to inadequacies in the storage and distribution systems and processes. That these bodies have been unable to unlock a whole new spectrum of non-food grain agrarian opportunities, especially for fringe farmers, is also worth considering.

Yet, there have been success stories

And at least some of those are worth probing as possible models that could be adapted to meet the challenges of the agriculture sector, where benefits of labour don’t reach all the stakeholders in a uniform manner.
The most adjacent sector to agriculture—dairy farming—has seen two highly successful institutions in the form of Amul and Mother Dairy. Interestingly, these success stories pertain to a sector where the raw material—milk—is one of the most perishable items, even more than certain agricultural produces like fruits and vegetables.
Agreed, that the focus on one single raw material—milk—reduces the complexities in a sense but then at the same time that also increases the pressure in terms of the number of by-products that need to be created so as to keep the marketing and sales engines revving. Needless to say, a wide range of by-products helps ensure that an increase in supply can be supported without affecting the minimum procurement prices.
Mother Dairy has established multiple dairy plants across different states and districts, which helps it create a localized ecosystem of procurement, storage, processing and distribution. It is replicating the model in the fruits-and-vegetables segment as well.
Could a similar model be replicated for a much wider range of food grains and various other agricultural produce as well? Are multiple agencies required to be put in place so that the disparate needs of different raw materials could be handled in specialized ways? Would it also make sense to have an umbrella agency to interface with farmers so that they don’t get bogged down by the sheer multitude of agencies?

Unified view for agro transformation

It is not uncommon to see a disproportionately large number of farmers growing a specific crop, say, tomato, especially in the aftermath of a tomato shortage. This invariably leads to a sudden oversupply in the market and results in a nosedive in the prices to the extent that the farmer is not even able to recover the investment that went into the produce. The larger the acreage and the longer the harvesting period of a crop, the bigger the loss is.
Now imagine that a state agency is capturing the data on seeds procured by farmers, the acreage of different crops at different intervals of time, and so on, even by different locations, districts, etc.  Also, consider that it is continuously analysing that data against the demand potential of the population for different farm produces, presumably in an automated manner, and is able to raise a trigger the moment a threshold is breached.
The agency may then proceed to issue an alert to the farmers as well as the seed distribution agencies as well as shops against any further purchase of seeds for the crop under consideration. Further, it may also issue advice on the alternative crops that instead may be cultivated for the season.
Such measures may not only help safeguard farmers’ investments but also dynamically map their acreages to the market opportunities in an optimal manner.

Which agency to choose?

Much debate has already taken place over the pros and cons of a proposed trifurcation of FCI but satisfactory answers are yet to emerge. Also, there has been no discussion on broadening the coverage of FCI beyond food grains to other agricultural produce. Perhaps there is a pre-set notion about the possible jurisdiction of FCI, which possibly stems from the existing operational efficiencies. Where is the point of expanding the coverage when the existing operations are unmanageable, is what the thinking may seem to be.
Also, if there is a problem with FCI, or any other agriculture-related body for that matter, a mere trifurcation may only divide the problem into three parts, not necessarily solve that. A solution would come from striking at the root of the problems, which stem from a lack of coordinated information flow on agro data.

Think big data in agriculture

India’s agriculture sector perhaps offers potentially the largest use case for application of big data, which is generally characterized by four key dimensions—volume, variety, velocity and veracity. In the context of agriculture, it is the volume and variety of data that needs to be fed at a high velocity into an agro-analytics system and the results need to outputted at a matching velocity too. Importantly, the veracity of data needs to be ensured at all points in time.
If thoughtfully implemented, a multi-tiered big data solution could not only help address the three issues of procurement, storage and distribution but also move beyond and encompass a fourth element, that of processing, into a systemic fold.
To begin with, while procurement and distribution may be kept as a state function (to ensure that the interests of fringe farmers and BPL citizens are not hampered by market forces), while the storage and processing functions may be opened for private players also. In fact, these players are quite likely to bring in state-of-the-art technologies and global best practices from which the sector as a whole may benefit.
For better and sustained results, an agriculture regulatory body, on the lines of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in banking, may also be set up. (In fact, the financial inclusion goals of RBI may be better achieved through a close coordination with the agro regulator.)

Towards a smart food grid

Thinking of the web of agro procurement and distribution networks, the mesh begins to resemble the electricity smart grids, isn’t it? Well, actually that’s what it should be like!
The smart food grid could connect the suppliers, channels and consumers of the agriculture ecosystem in a dynamic manner while bringing in improved operational efficiencies and better plugging gaps such as leakages and pilferages. The automated trigger mechanisms would also help make the grid self-correcting and self-healing to a large extent.
By employing the right sets of algorithms, the grid’s capabilities may also be extended to cover related programs like irrigation or improving the fertility of the soil on one hand to distributing extra-nutritive foods and supplements to special consumer groups like mid-day meal school children or the mother-and-child care recipients.
Actually, when we talk of provisioning for programs like mid-day meals for schools then we are touching upon the processing aspect in the food grid, as discussed above. These processing capabilities may range from being as basic to cooking of food in a kitchen-like set-up to as advanced as developing by-products by using sophisticated plants and machineries.
Talking of cooking, the kitchen set-ups may be used for not just mid-day meal programs but also for food-for-all programs, wherein meals may be provided also to economically weak sections of the society at subsidized rates. These user segments may also include farm labourers in rural areas and mason and construction workers in urban areas, among others. Often, these workers buy food stock on almost a daily basis at market rates and then have to struggle with cooking before rushing for work in the morning and after coming back in the evening.
Some of us may remember a program from the late seventies, implemented by Morarji Desai government in the late seventies, under which cooked meals were served at government shops called “sarkari sasti roti ki dookan” (government fair-price bread shop). Those shops had been hugely popular but couldn’t last long as the government itself fell down after it disintegrated and fell short of majority.
There is an even greater relevance of such programs today, given the much larger volume of daily-wage workers today. Also, this is easily an area where the private sector could participate in the form of CSR activities.
As far as the food grid itself is concerned, the central as well as state governments may invite investors to participate, say, in the storage and processing segments in a mutually profitable manner. The government may also decide to either transform an existing state achieve agency like FCI to orchestrate the food grid or create a new body altogether, depending on the pros and cons of the two alternatives.
It’s been some time since we entered the era of big data. Talking of agriculture, we have hardly bothered to create a big-data framework, leave alone reaching a stage where we could mine it beneficially.
Creation of a national food grid would truly amount to a unification of India’s agriculture sector with the IT sector and would make Digital India a ground-up reality.
The article was first published in GovernanceNOW