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When ICT grows up, will it become development policy?

The late, and deficient, monsoon of 2012 is already creating conditions in which social protection and vulnerability are going to move to the foreground. There are two associated aspects; the first being the question of timeliness of response. When the monsoon began late in 2012 (by the end of the first week of June there was still no rain in Kerala) central and state mechanisms designed to mitigate the impacts of drought and drop failures ought to have begun shifting into alert mode. This did not happen. Even by end-June, when the widespread nature of the late monsoon, and its stubborn deficient nature became clear all across India (barring eastern India and the north-east region), ministries and departments concerned with agriculture were speaking of the monsoon resuming normalcy, as if the impacts of a month-long delay could be wished away in a few short days of heavy rain.

The second aspect has to do with the nature of household-level vulnerability to poverty and hunger, most often associated with threats to livelihoods. As we sadly know from the food price spikes of 2008, vulnerability can increase over time when households face repeated shocks (steep price rise, family emergency, natural calamity, conflict and violence) that erode or destroy their assets. Poor households being forced to sell their productive assets or take their children out of school so that they can buy food, these are desperate strategies that contribute to the long-term persistence of poverty. Hence the function of social protection - to install 'safety nets' that cushion the harsher consequences of a household being vulnerable. The MGNREGA programme is the example closest at hand. More frequently now in the policy discussion space, cash or food transfers are being spoken of.

For our cultivators, our food-growing households, whether in the so-called breadbasket states of Punjab and Haryana (breadbasket indeed, but water-scarce and suffering from soil toxicity) or from the drought- or flood-prone districts currently in focus (such as Jehanabad in Bihar, Cachar in Assam, Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, Ahmednagar in Maharashtra and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu - these are among the 100 vulnerable districts identified by the National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA)), is safety nets as currently described the only sort of 'net' that can work in conditions such as those we now see?

Let's go back to what we think we mean when we say or hear 'social protection'. There is a fundamental distinction that must not be forgotten in social protection programming, between support to labour-constrained 'vulnerable groups' (for example young orphans or poor older persons), who might need long-term social assistance and have limited potential to 'graduate' out of poverty; and support to the 'working poor', who can benefit from the synergies between social assistance and growth-oriented developmental programmes, ultimately 'graduating' out of social safety nets. It is to reinforce this distinction that several programmes exist to first help the vulnerable, then to safely move them out (graduate them) of the net. One such is the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP)-Ford Foundation Graduation Programme, a global effort to understand how safety nets, livelihoods, and microfinance can be designed to create pathways for the poorest to exit extreme poverty, adapting a methodology developed by the well-known BRAC of Bangladesh.

Next, we are being told increasingly often that technology provides the opportunity to "innovate at a much faster pace and to create products that are closely linked to the needs of the consumer". This comes from a recent address by Dr K C Chakrabarty, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, entitled 'ICT-based financial inclusion-carving a new path through innovation'. Chakrabarty spoke of "an enabling ecosystem which will encourage and foster innovation by leveraging the best available technological platforms" (and of course Agropedia is such a platform, the best available, by a distance!). What helps create this enabling ecosystem? Six factors have been listed by the deputy governor and they are: 1. Access to suitable and cost effective technology which can support multi-channel delivery systems, particularly for low income groups; 2. Standardised systems, structures, products and processes, at least for the small and marginalised customers; 3. Efficient business models that are viable but not exploitative; 4. Efficient delivery models which possess integrity, speed and are low cost; 5. A comprehensive MIS capable of meeting all management information requirement, which is reliable and fast; 6. Information literacy at all levels, particularly for senior management and for all sections of the society including customers, technology vendors, banks, regulators, policy makers, etc.

Now, replace 'customers' with farmers, 'business models' with agro-ecological farming systems, 'delivery models' with local food markets, 'management' with participation, and 'senior management' with village councils (more than 50% of which are women, but naturally), and you will see the close parallels between the ICT-based financial inclusion so dear to the RBI and the ICT-based agricultural revival so dear to us at Agropedia. That is why we would like to see our ICT work as being at the heart of social assistance programmes that target women with social and knowledge transfers - these are very likely to achieve greater impact on household food security than when men are targeted, because of women's dominant roles as food producers and carers within families.

To return to 2012 and a troublesome monsoon - what role can ICT, as employed by Agropedia, aid food producing households in the 100 vulnerable districts and more besides? Harvest failures or livestock losses can be compensated with agricultural insurance - the rapid growth in micro-insurance both in India and worldwide has ridden on mobile phones. Unemployment or underemployment can be addressed, temporarily at least, by public works programmes that incorporate labour management and alerts delivered through mobile phones. Problems of market access to food can be addressed on the demand side (food price stabilisation, price subsidies) or on the supply side (grain reserve management), both sides fed by data that can be easily and cheaply sent via mobile phones. While social protection is associated mainly with transfers, this wider universe shows that it offers a much larger range of options.

That is why we see the 'knowledge' kernel of Agropedia, and its vehicle the mobile phone, as being an agent of social assistance, a social inclusion effort that enhances the capability of the cultivating household to participate fully in economic and social life.


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Please note that this is the opinion of the author and is Not Certified by ICAR or any of its authorised agents.