October 09, 2022

K-FON Opens New Possibilities for Kerala Agriculture

Vijoo Krishnan

SWIMMING against the tide is not an easy task. The general trend in the era of neoliberal economic policies has been towards disinvestment, deregulation, dismantling of the public sector and withdrawal from social sector expenditure. Kerala under the LDF government has been swimming against the tide and with phenomenal success. At all times of crisis whether it be the floods, cyclones, Nipah or the unprecedented Covid pandemic, Kerala has steered a course that has won great acclaim worldwide. Welfare pensions, land to the landless, housing for homeless, food-kits to 90 lakh people continuing since the lockdown began, excellent health and highest levels of literacy, education facilities meeting international standards, employment generation, emphasis on science and technology as well as IT sector keeping the people at the centre of its set of alternative policies is what makes this a model worth emulation.

Even as there is much hype about ‘Digital India’, what accompanies it is the ‘Digital-Divide’ reinforced by the economic and social inequalities prevalent in our country. The Covid Pandemic, lockdown and digital classes has exposed this divide like never before. In such circumstances to not merely talk of ‘Internet for Everyone’ and eliminate the digital gap but also actually make it happen is no mean achievement. Kerala, by starting its own internet service called Kerala Fiber Optic Network Ltd (K-FON) has become the first and only state to have such a venture. Internet access is becoming a basic right of citizens with the LDF government’s clear vision of providing free internet access to those hitherto deprived of or having to set aside scarce resources to access the world of information. About 20 lakh poor and economically backward households are expected to benefit from free internet. 

As I write on Kerala’s achievement it is worth noting that the Congress of the United States of America is still toying with The Broadband for Rural America Act with the objective of making ‘broadband available for all Americans and to bridge the digital divide for communities nationwide’. The US department of agriculture has only recently allowed a 10 per cent grant or loan from a rural development programme to partially fund rural broadband infrastructure. In Indiana there is a plan for an aerostat blimp (a balloon or airship mounted system) to provide broadband to solve farm broadband problem. The United Soybean Board based in USA in 2019 released a report that indicated that almost two-thirds of the surveyed farmers did not have adequate internet connectivity. It is in this context that one can actually understand the actual import of Kerala LDF government’s decision. When USA is just toying with the idea of rural broadband, Kerala has already ensured state-wide infrastructure and is providing the service for free.

A comparison is also due with the situation in India. A study of internet behaviour of corn farmers spread across 14 states by the Kleffman Group in 2016 and 2017 found that more Indian farmers have access to internet in 2017 when compared to 2016 but the number only rose from 13 per cent to 17 per cent. Clearly, the use of internet is still low and there is also no steep increase in their frequency of usage. 4,294 farmers participated in the study in 2016, 4,225 farmers in 2017. Internet penetration is still far behind in most states with many still in single digits. Kerala’s impeccable literacy levels, e-literacy and free access to high-speed internet in such a context could give a distinct advantage to farmers in the state. The union government is talking of India Digital Ecosystem for Agriculture (IDEA) and Agristack entirely at the behest of private companies of the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Patanjali. The LDF government’s approach is in sharp contrast to that approach.

Ever since Kerala has ventured into digitalisation in 2000s, the great leap forward in the form of the K-FON the reach of internet to the nook and corners of the state, rising e-literacy, increasing e-delivery of information as well as services to the masses have all created an atmosphere wherein e-governance services are touching every realm of their lives. A state like Kerala having the advantage of high literacy levels as well as e-literacy could benefit immensely from access to free internet. This is all the more valid for the agriculture-dependent households, agriculture and allied sectors like fishing. A state where more than 80 per cent of the cropped area consists of commercial crops like spices, coconut, rubber, coffee tea etc., whose prices are dependent on the world market, internet access could help farmers to follow the commodity markets, monitor climatic conditions, reach out to potential customers and access markets within India and across the world. Even as the LDF government has come up with innovative programmes like the Subhiksha Keralam and the Nava Keralam free internet could prove to be a pathway for farmers. The Subhiksha Keralam programme and Nava Keralam talks of promotion of processing, value-addition, branding and marketing of farm produce. Fast-paced developments will ensure that farmers will come to depend on internet or the information super-highway just as they used to depend on the word-of-mouth, the newspaper, the radio or television in earlier days for information; they will come to depend on the internet just as they depend on highways, railways, waterways or airways. Market is ripe with increasing digital literacy, internet penetration, bandwidth availability, popularity of delivery services

Agriculture in Kerala is characterised by small holders who focus on production with the support and subsidies given by the state and local self governing institutions. The focus was on the production stage and often at the expense of other value chain services. Farmers are at a competitive disadvantage in marketing due to absence of adequate facilities for storage, processing and value addition. Subhiksha Keralam and the vision of Nava Kerala seek to address these concerns in addition to enhancing productivity. It also envisages developing of a Kerala brand by leveraging on the advantages of the state, the famed spices, coffee, tea, coconut, medicinal and plantation crops, GI Tag, carbon-neutral, etc. Kerala would soon become the state with the highest penetration of internet. The rapid development of internet facilities and access for farmers with a series of internet plus technologies and internet enabled services could help them realise remunerative prices and assured markets. K-FON could create a huge advantage in the integration, transformation and upgrading of the rural economy especially in the wake of the LDF government’s push for collective action in the form of cooperatives, farmer producer organisations, Kudumbasree and the like for agro-processing and agriculture based industries.

Farmers now could have access to real time information on prices and markets, agricultural data, access to extension services, weather surveillance, and so on. Tracking of weather, combining data-sets for improved decision-making, allow sharing of knowledge and expertise of progressive farmers in best practices, technology incorporation for enhancing productivity, connecting to markets and also making people aware of the specialities of their crops, thereby increasing the saleability. Increasingly online sales are becoming popular but in many places the cost of internet access or extremely slow internet service is putting farmers at a disadvantage. Internet enabled supply chain with e-commerce to reach consumers; leveraging technology to improve efficiency in farming could make agriculture viable. The move could be a game-changer; technology could become the enabler for unleashing new possibilities and creating farmer entrepreneurs. IT enabled farmers’ collectives could be the talk of the town and an addition to the much acclaimed Kerala Alternative. The possibilities are many; the real challenge is to harness them.