By Kavitha Srinivasa
As part of Agri-GIS, C-SAG has generated real-time, plot-level and farmer-focused advisories for 1.3 lakh farmers in S Odisha using advanced and specialized data analytics tools. In 2020, C-SAG aims to continue the advisory generation for 1.3 lakh farmers. and hopes to increase farmer outreach from the existing 1,000+ to 10,000, thereby making a considerable positive impact to small and marginal farmers.
Farmers in South Odisha are being supported to make better decisions. They are being enabled to keep pace with the latest daily weather and agricultural market updates; satellite image-based real-time crop and water assessment and benefit from advanced Spatial Analytics to receive advisories through mobile devices. And so, not only the crop choice becomes scientific but their production, which was quite low, could be increased - these efforts have begun to bear fruit. This is contrary to the traditional scenario of South Odisha’s small and marginal farmers whose lives have been weighed down by endemic poverty and hunger and characterised by field-sizes that are even less than 0.1 acres.
The technology-based transformation has been implemented by the Centre for Spatial Analytics and Advanced GIS (C-SAG). This is a Bangalore-based independent entity under the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) and is supported by Tata Trusts. The collaboration between NIAS C-SAG and Tata Trusts led to the development of a GIS-based agriculture knowledge-engine, described as Agri-GIS.
Looking back, Dr Mukund Rao, Chief Executive, C-SAG has been working in the area of space — remote sensing and GIS (Geographic Information System) technology for the last 38 years. From the technology standpoint, GIS and satellite remote sensing have found operational applications in India for over 25-30 years now. “Largely, GIS have been implemented in the government sector, for state-level planning, governance and policy-making initiatives. What seemed missing was the use of images and GIS at citizen-level or at the grassroots of our society – they should become beneficiaries of GIS,” said Dr Rao, who was toying with the idea of focusing on Spatial Analytics for citizens beneficiaries for quite some time.
A meeting with officials from the Tata Trusts, in 2016, gave clarity to the idea. Tata Trusts was already addressing agricultural development and sustainable development in livelihood for farming communities, in conjunction with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At that time, it was working on community livelihood and income-related programmes in South Odisha. “I wanted to use GIS for grassroots individuals and Tata Trusts wanted to leverage technology to “empower” the last mile – the farmer,” recalled Dr Rao. Some hard-core designing led to the definition of Agri-GIS, application of GIS to the farming community in South Odisha. This location was chosen because Tata Trusts had already rolled out its livelihood programmes there. Even though the area had a large %age of small and marginal farmers, the region’s natural resources were fairly conducive for good sustainable agriculture. Thus, if Agri-GIS could be proven in S Odisha the impact would be very good - this proved to be a good starting point for C-SAG.
Tata Trusts has an office in Bhubaneshwar – that was also an additional positive reason for S Odisha. Moreover, for Tata Trusts, the plot-wise Agri-GIS would enable farmers to better plan, manage and implement their off- and on-farm activities, thereby improving their agricultural incomes and overall sustainability of agricultural development. “Agri-GIS program is technologically quite sound and can equip for larger reach – in another 2-3 years horizon to see the real impact on the ground,” added T Madhusudhan Rao, Lead-Nutrition, Tata Trusts.
C-SAG was officially established in September 2017 and from Kharif-2018, the Agri-GIS, a tech-based agricultural intervention with farmer focus, became the flagship initiative of C-SAG.
Sustainability, a Challenge
As of now, South Odisha has been the testbed for launching the Agri-GIS initiative. This technological programme in S Odisha is a challenge because of the characteristics of the location. Odisha may be an agrarian region, yet certain characteristics have made it different from other agricultural states like Punjab, Maharashtra and other states. The landholding of farmers in Odisha is very varied, ranging from very small farms to large farms. “Around 50% of the landholding farmers own less than an acre of land.
These farmers are socially and economically backwards. Many of them spend a lifetime struggling for sustained income – there is only that much these farmers can earn from cropping activity,” explained Dr Rao. This is, despite the fact that the place has a vantage point in terms of natural resources - the soil condition is very good, agro-climatic conditions are suitable, the availability of water is quite good, abundant forest vegetation cover in the region and the state government makes best efforts to help farmers
In order to make the Agri-GIS programme click, the next move was to chalk out sustainable efforts but income-enhancing ideas for farmers. “We had to figure out ways and means of addressing the social condition of farmers and see how it would be possible to increase the income level of farmer families – we were convinced that a holistic approach is what is required,” explained Dr S Ayappan, Former DG-ICAR and now guiding C-SAG for Agri-GIS.
Seeds are Sown for Yielding Impact
Small and marginal farmers in S Odisha cannot be assured growing income just from cropping activities. Allied agricultural activities and a good extension of agriculture must became an obvious solution so that incomes can increase in a Crop++ approach. Cattle, poultry, bee-keeping and labour activities can become channels for additional economic activity of farming families. Rural people also depend on forest produce to sustain their lives. The income levels of farmer households must become an integration from crop income with income from many of these allied activities – and this Crop++ can make a significant difference and help in breaking the cycle of poverty for many families. In fact, C-SAG has seen that incomes of farmers are as low as 10-20k per year and this could increase considerably by the holistic Crop++ scientific approach.
The Agri-GIS process developed by C-SAG involves a 360o evaluation of a farmer; high-end image analytics; advanced weather analytics; crop suitability analytics; social and economic indexing analytics; agricultural practice assessments; beneficiary analytics based on field survey; market analytics – all of these are ultimately integrated into “customized” advisory for a PLOT in real-time – so that advisory information is current and up-to-date. The analytics includes weekly Satellite images that help monitor crop health, daily weather forecasts that are dis-aggregated to village-level weather data; Crop specific practices and market data that enables the decision-making for farmers for selecting crops and also its management and even Episodic Alerts like Cyclones (Titli and PheThai were significant examples) that help damage control action by farmers. In a multi-parametric GIS, principles of advanced data analytics and deep learning are adopted to help generate integrated advisories.
Advisory information is then disseminated to farmers during the Kharif cropping season during May-Dec each year at 5 important crop stages – pre-sowing, tillering, flowering, mature/graining and pre-harvest stages. The Advisories are made available on a cloud Portal for access by Tata Trusts and Government of Odisha and are also disseminated directly to farmers through SMS and call alerts in Hindi, Telugu, Odiya and English. “Most farmers didn’t have access to such customised advisories. But now, thanks to our direct outreach, though still limited, they get the information and many of them come back to us with specific crop-related queries, seek weather information and also ask specifics of government programmes,” added Dr Rao.
In the past 2 years, C-SAG has seen diverse scenarios of agriculture in the area - in addition to traditional food crops, farmers of the region are moving to commercial plantations and cash crops – if the fields are large and vegetables/horticulture in mid- and small-size fields. Eucalyptus plantations are proliferating and so are medicinal plants in some areas. Cotton crop is increasing in the area. Cashew, Sesame and other horticulture crops are on the rise. In short, these diversifications to plantations, cash crops etc have opened up good avenues of income and livelihood – through the sustainability aspects have still to be evaluated. Another observation is that many farming households are growing their own crops and vegetables for self-consumption (and even bartering) – it sustains the food requirement but may not be adding to income generation.
C-SAG has also observed that a large number of farmers find difficulty to market the “small produce” and in getting MSP for their produce – thus, most find it convenient to sell their produce to “middle-men” who at least pay them instantly which helps sustain their lives. Contract farming is also abundant practice in S Odisha – tiller faces many challenges at the grassroot level. These observations are important to understand and analyse to target region-specific and beneficiary-specific programmes.
“Administration of Advisory is an important activity – in another 1 or 2 years it will be possible to really measure the benefit to farmers,” says GC Sreeram, Advisor (Technology), Tata Trusts. The Agri-GIS advisories and alerts are shared with the Odisha government and the Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT) as they also undertake responsibility for farmer outreach and agriculture governance. Presently, C-SAG is working for integrating Agri-GIS with the Odisha government’s AmaKrushi programme and the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) so that advisories are administered directly to more number of farmers through the governmental outreach programme. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the OUAT is on the anvil
This last mile farmer’s benefit programme has been so designed that it can be scaled up to other larger area with region-specific fine-tuning and has tremendous potential to benefit every individual farmer and also help the Government in its agricultural governance programmes. Agri-GIS has well served NIAS goal of creating innovative Knowledge Assets that have direct social relevance. In December, C-SAG’s Agri-GIS won NASSCOM’s Tech for Good Award 2019 in the Livelihood Sector.