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The eChoupal experiment has the potential to transform the farm sector
The Times of India - 12 Jan 2004

Electronic Cropping

About 70 per cent of Indians still depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Empowering farmers therefore would be the right thing to do since it would in turn mean empowering India. A business model called eChoupal started by a leading industrial house appears to be succeeding in this venture by offering agriculturists a high technology intranet option by means of which they can personally participate in a digitally networked rural market. In one particular case, for instance, soya farmers in Madhya Pradesh are being helped by specially appointed Sanchalaks — respected farmers of the community who take a public oath of office on accepting the position — to log on to the Chicago Board of Trade to check on prices for soyabean commodity futures. If it's seen rising there, chances are the trend would be reflected in local Indian pricing too and thereby concede them that extra degree of leverage in marketing their product. In the process they would not only cut transaction costs and do away with middlemen in the value chain but also learn on-line the best farm practices, prevailing trends for the crop in the Indian and world context, intricacies of risk management and the local weather forecast.

The company which began with just six eChoupals in June 2000 now has 3,000 such Internet kiosks covering 18,000 villages reaching some 1.8 million farmers and has future plans to arrive in 100,000 villages, or one-sixth of rural India, within a decade. With each eChoupal — which is basically nothing but a desktop with Internet access — costing under three lakhs to set up and about Rs 10,000 annually to maintain, perhaps it's about time the government, too, realised what a cost-effective method this is for even the smallest individual farmer to get the benefit of IT and expertise on the cultivation and delivery of their crop. This is because the eChoupal concept addresses at least two basic problems crippling Indian agriculture: high levels of illiteracy and the challenge of applying the findings of research to cultivation. Even if it didn't directly enter the arena, the government could offer sops to other private entities and NGOs who might want to do the same. There are currently two large companies that are already operating on the periphery of interconnectivity by laying down fibre optic cables in various urban and rural areas. They could easily integrate a related activity by opting to reach out to the farming community along similar lines — especially if some aspects could be subsidised and accruing benefits passed on to them.