23/04/2020 10:45 AM IST | Updated 23/04/2020 1:55 PM IST

Ola Thought Its App Would Help Coronavirus-Hit Farmers — It Didn't

Ola’s failed attempt to help Punjab with socially distanced crop procurement reveals the limits of the “over-promise, under-deliver” dictum of many tech companies.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
(Photo by Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

CHANDIGARH — On April 15, taxi aggregator Ola announced a tie-up with the Punjab government to provide a high-tech solution to a pressing COVID-19 related problem: How to maintain social distancing whilst procuring Punjab’s bumper wheat crop?

“By helping the government connect with farmers using our technology platform, we are able to put our capabilities to the best use when the nation requires innovation and collaboration to quickly come out of this national crisis,” Ola co-founder Pranay Jivrajka said in a press release. 

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“As a leading home-grown technology company and a platform that is used by millions of Indians every day, Ola is committed to serving the nation in every way possible.” The press release is still available on Ola’s website. 

The press release documented the now-familiar, bombastic claims that characterise India’s technology companies: Once installed on the mobile phones of farmers, the OLA software ‘Ola CONNECTS’ would notify each farmer when to come to the mandi, another feature would alert farmers to overcrowding at mandi gates, while a centralised dashboard would send periodic alerts.

The release claimed Ola was helping 1.7 million farmers in Punjab.

Ola Website
Ola has claimed on its official website that it is helping over 17 lakh farmers in Punjab to move in 3800 procurement centres.

A week into Punjab’s procurement season, the Ola initiative has been quietly shelved and the Punjab government has fallen back on the established system of market procurement committees and procurement agents, called artiyas, to issue paper-based tokens marked with holograms to the state’s approximately 17,00,000 farmers.

“A majority of the farmers could not download the Ola app,” admitted Ravi Bhagat, Secretary of Punjab Agricultural Marketing Board. “We are now using an in house solutions platform ePMB to issue physical passes to the artiyas.”

India’s punitive lockdown to slow the transmission of the novel coronavirus could have been a moment when technology companies helped solve the lockdown’s complex challenges using their presumed experience in fixing logistical challenges. 

Crop procurement — which involves hundreds of thousands of farmers, labourers, tractor-trailers and commissioning agents interacting at close quarters in crowded market yards — has presented a particularly knotty problem for state governments struggling to balance social distancing with the pressing need to procure crop as fast as possible. 

“It used to be a complex operation every year involving various departments at every level but this year corona pandemic has made it more complex,” said Anindita Mitra, Director of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Punjab. 

HuffPost India
The farmers are expecting a manifold increase in terms of farm expenses due to high labour cost and a procurement capping of 50 quintals wheat on every farmer on a single day.

Yet, Ola’s failed attempt to help Punjab with procurement reveals the limits of the “over-promise, under-deliver” dictum of many tech companies.

Pranay Jivrajka and his team is yet to  respond to repeated queries sent by HuffPost India. 

Meanwhile, interviews with several farmers revealed the Punjab government’s attempts at streamlining the procurement system by empowering the state’s network of commissioning agents was creating new problems and exacerbating old social fault lines.

NARINDER NANU via Getty Images
 AFP PHOTO / NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)

Token System

When Punjab’s tie-up with Ola fell through, the state’s agricultural marketing board reviewed last year’s procurement data and assigned every commissioning agent a set of tokens or passes based on the quantity of grain they had procured in the previous year.

“So an artiya who received 6000 quintals of wheat last year was given more passes than the one who only received 2000 quintals,” Bhagat the marketing board secretary, told HuffPost India. 

The agents, or arthiyas, were instructed to distribute these tokens to the farmers from whom they were procuring the grain. Each token has the details of the procurement centre and the date and time of procurement and serves as a mobility pass to transport 50 quintals (or 5000 kg) at a time when all movement on the roads is otherwise prohibited as per lockdown rules. As of April 21, the state government had issued over 3,37,025 such tokens.  

“It is more feasible to issue passes to artiyas than to send it separately to every single farmer. In case a farmer misses a date with the artiya, he can reissue the pass anytime,” said Bhagat.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
 Laborer repairing gunny bags use for carrying Wheat at new grain market lockdown on April 15, 2020 in Patiala, India. (Photo by Bharat bhushan Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

But this decision to give arthiyas the power to issue these tokens has not gone down well with the state’s farmers. Arthiyas already occupy a powerful position in Punjab’s agricultural economy by serving as informal money lenders to farmers short on cash.

Now, with time short and grain already spoiling in the fields thanks to a recent spell of rain, farmers expect the arthiyas will first acquire grains from big farmers and also from those who owe them money. Everyone else, farmers said, would suffer.

“Those who have not taken loans from the artiyas in their areas have to roam around to other procurement centres away from their homes to find a slot from other artiya to sell their produce, ″ said Harjit Singh, a farmer from SAS Nagar, Mohali. 

“The government has given the token distribution rights to the commissioning agents and not directly to the farmers. This has added a lot of social and political interests in the procurement process,” said farmer Rupinder Singh from village Jhanjheri Machli.

Farmers also note that limiting procurement to 50 quintals at a time would slow the process and substantially raise the transport costs for farmers. 

Inderjeet Singh, sarpanch of Bhodipura village in Bathinda district said he was worried for the 150 marginal farmers in his village who do not own tractors.

“I do not understand as to why the government has restricted the movement of wheat to only 50 quintals per token when a single trailer can ferry 100 quintals on a single trip?” said Inderjeet Singh.

 “This way, the farmers will be paying double the transportation cost of their crop. Also, they will first be hiring the entire machinery to drop the crop to their temporary storage centre which can be their house or any other rented accommodation and then hiring every time to ferry every 50 quintals of wheat.”

If marginal farmers are worried by the transport costs imposed by the 50 quintal limit, large farmers say they are struggling to find enough space to store their grain.

Rupinder Singh estimated his 30 acres of farmland had yielded about 500 quintals this year. “I need to procure 10 tokens and will have to visit the procurement centres repeatedly,” he said. For now, Rupinder Singh said he was looking to rent space to store his harvest, which presently was piled up on his fields.

“Due to shutting down of markets, there is a huge shortage of covering sheets. In case of rainfall, my entire harvest will get destroyed,” he said.

He instead has suggested that the government should have opted for a much quicker and simple method of wheat procurement. 

“The government should have designated some weighing bridges around every procurement centre and have procured the entire trailer load after deducting a ‘kaat’ (deduction as waste)  of around 2 kg for every quintal,” said Singh. 

Bhagat, the marketing board secretary said the 50 quintal restriction was necessary as farmers were required to clean the procurement yards after their produce was weighed and packaged. 

“As the farmers were not allowed to bring manpower inside mandis, cleaning huge areas single-handedly would have been difficult for them. The artiyas could have charged them exorbitantly,” Bhagat told HuffPost India. 

But the farmers claimed that such charges levied by the artiyas would have been far less than the transportation and logistic charges for repeated visits to procurement centres.