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Navigating PM-KISAN: A Deep Dive into Digital Challenges Faced by Farmers

While embracing technological advancements, it is imperative not to compromise offline systems that have traditionally served as a lifeline for those with limited digital access.
A farmer works in a potato field. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

The PM-KISAN Samman Nidhi Scheme, initiated in 2019, serves as a crucial financial support system for Indian farmers, offering an annual Rs 6,000 subsidy distributed in three instalments directly to their bank accounts.

Allocating more than 50% of the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare’s budget to the PMKISAN scheme in 2022-23 and 2023-24 underscores the high priority the Union government places on the initiative.

On September 22, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India, introduced an AI Chatbot into the PMKISAN Scheme. This chatbot, among other functions, aims to provide farmers with prompt, clear and accurate responses to their queries.

We discuss the obstacles encountered by those using the scheme within its digital framework. We trace changes in two specific aspects of the digital framework: access to information, and changing compliances. The changes in both aspects since 2019 impact not just ‘entitlement holders’ experience of the scheme, but also potentially hamper the seamless flow of benefits. Using case studies gathered in Andhra Pradesh (AP), Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana, we illustrate the struggles of farmers and local officials in navigating PMKISAN’s digital landscape. This journey underscores the necessity for streamlined and accessible information systems to ensure any welfare programme’s success.

Access to information

We begin with the story of Pongo Donno, an Adivasi farmer from Odisha, whose journey to uncover his PMKISAN status illustrates how changes in the system have transformed his efforts to access this information over time. Donno’s primary concern is to stay informed about his payment status, the associated bank accounts, entitled and received instalments, as well as reasons for non-payment if any instalment is missed. This information is valuable for farmers, and is also the basic expectation from any portal providing information on a scheme.

Since 2019, the essential requirement for farmers – understanding their PMKISAN status – has undergone four changes. Just as farmers and officials understood one change, another system emerged. In Donno’s case, the initial process relied on Aadhaar for ‘KNOW YOUR STATUS’ (Formerly ‘Beneficiary Status’) verification. Local officials would verify his PMKISAN status using his Aadhaar and provide the necessary information. They would also navigate through other details on PMKISAN’s Management Information System (MIS) to provide any missing information.

Also read: The Modi Government Has Underperformed in Developing the Rural Economy

However, this method later shifted towards verification through registration numbers or phone numbers, and later evolved to using registration numbers exclusively. For Donno, these methods proved futile as he lacked access to his registration number or didn’t have a functioning phone number linked to his PMKISAN account, which is the situation for many farmers.

Eventually, the system evolved to allow access to the registration number by using Aadhaar details. However, acquiring registration numbers remained a cumbersome task for Donno. He has to navigate the “know your registration number” option on MIS. Upon entering the OTP sent to his Aadhaar-linked mobile, Donno could access his PMKISAN registration number. This system proved less effective for farmers like him residing in areas with no network coverage, rendering the Aadhaar-phone link insignificant. Additionally, the phone number linked with the PMKISAN account option offered little help to Donno due to the frequent non-functionality of his mobile. The option of a simple paper trail would have resolved the challenges faced by farmers like Donno. This holds true for many entitlement-holders that reside in remote, network-poor areas, especially tribal farmers.

According to PMKISAN operational guidelines, ‘beneficiary lists’ should be posted at Panchayats for transparency. States/UTs should send SMS notifications to beneficiaries upon benefit sanction. But such measures are rarely followed. Even when the beneficiary lists are showcased, they lack payment details or reasons for non-payment, resulting in their ineffectiveness.

Challenges with changing compliances

The changes in the compliance structure of PMKISAN fund transfers also significantly impacted farmers like ‘Korra Jimbo’ from Andhra Pradesh. Originally registering in 2019 without submitting his Aadhaar, Jimbo faced halted payments post the third instalment due to the newly-mandatory Aadhaar authentication. Cross-verifying Aadhaar names with the PMKISAN list caused nationwide payment disruptions, leaving over 97,000 farmers in AP unpaid, as reported by a 2021 LibTech India study.

Compliance evolution didn’t halt there. In December 2021, E-Kyc emerged on ground, requiring farmers to submit biometrics for Aadhaar authentication either at the geographically scarce Customer Service Centre points or through the PMKISAN website via linked phone numbers, challenging those with unlinked Aadhaar-phone connections.

We came across several instances of farmers meeting the mandatory criteria of a bank account registered for Aadhaar-based payments, completed EKyc, and proper land seeding status, who faced challenges in receiving PMKISAN payments. Investigations showed their instalments were halted citing vague reasons like “Untraceable Beneficiary” and ‘Old district to new district transfer’, and lacked clarity on the specific reasons and resolutions.

The shift from Account Based payment to Aadhaar Based Payment System (ABPS) in March 2022 further complicated matters. Mangiben’s case from Gujarat illustrates how the transition from a simple account transfer system to the ABPS in PMKISAN caused problems. Despite previously receiving funds in a known bank account, Mangiben missed her last two payments without explanation. ABPS requires farmers’ bank accounts to be linked with Aadhaar and the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) mapper. However, for farmers who are not eligible for ABPS, the MIS incorrectly displays ‘Aadhaar not linked to Bank account,’ leading to confusion.

Login procedures for officials facilitating PMKISAN implementation have also evolved, from a straightforward user ID and password process to including OTPs. The Agricultural Department limited logins to NIC-registered officials, who were directed to download Kavach, an app generating OTPs for each login which was later rolled back. This convoluted procedure discouraged regular logins to address problems by local officials, further worsening challenges for vulnerable farmers. Though no clarity exists about the rationale behind the system changes, insights from official interviews suggest these modifications aim to prevent wrongful inclusions.

In conclusion, as we acknowledge the complex challenges posed by PMKISAN’s evolving compliance landscape, the introduction of technological solutions that reduce the hardships to people are welcome.

However, it is crucial to recognise that vulnerable sections, as highlighted in this article, often face digital disadvantages due to various reasons. Therefore, while embracing technological advancements, it is imperative not to compromise offline systems that have traditionally served as a lifeline for those with limited digital access.

The integration of AI Chatbots should complement, not replace, existing offline mechanisms. For farmers like Donno and Jimbo, grappling with network issues and changing digital requirements, maintaining robust offline support is essential. By adopting a balanced approach that harnesses the power of technology while safeguarding the accessibility of offline systems, we can ensure not only that the benefits of social welfare programmes reach every corner of society but also make it easier for people to access their entitlements, leaving no one behind.

Chakradhar Buddha and B.D.S. Kishore are affiliated with LibTech India.

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