Drone policy: Playgrounds in the sky – Economic Times

By TV Mohandas Pai

Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated on Saturday at the BJP’s national convention in New Delhi that his government is “working day and night to double farmers’ income by 2022”, when the country completes 75 years of its independence.

India has, indeed, taken many steps to reach this goal since the PM articulated this goal at a kisan rally in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, in February 2016. However, simply doubling farmers’ income in a good year will not end farmers’ distress. What farmers need is to be able to protect that income even in the ‘bad years’. One crucial component of protecting agricultural income is microinsurance.

From the 2016 kharif (autumn crop) season, the government replaced previous crop insurance schemes and introduced the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY). But despite the best efforts, the gross arable land under this insurance cover has fallen, as compared to two years ago. Ask anyone why the scheme underperforms, and one seemingly simple problem lies at the centre – the time-consuming and unreliable crop cutting experiments (CCE).

To pay out yield-based insurance, a simple question must be answered – what was the yield for a particular farmer? Currently, a tremendously large exercise is carried out every season to answer that question. Crops from statistically selected farms are cut, threshed, winnowed, weighed, dried and then weighed again. Once an estimated 10 lakh such CCEs are carried out every season, the result is aggregated to predict yield in every region, and then, the insurers can begin the process of settling claims. Typically, payouts are delayed by up to a season, sometimes more. In the interim, the farmer has to take on an expensive loan to refinance the inputs needed for the next cycle. The insurance amount, if and when it arrives, is used to repay the principal. But the farmer will still have to bear a cutting loss on interest and lost income.

Is there no better way out? All we have to do is to look to the skies. Advancements in drones, cameras and remote sensing by satellites means that there are new ways to solve an old problem. Drones, especially, hold much promise for the developing world. In Rwanda, where only 30% of the country has on-grid electricity, building blood banks that require refrigeration was a challenge. Today, two drone hubs serve the entire country’s need for blood transplants. Hospitals and clinics can request for blood on WhatsApp, and a drone airdrops it in less than an hour. Now, India has stepped in with a similar approach.

The government has just gone live with its Drone Policy 1.0, and Digital Sky, a new software platform, to regulate the use of drones. It has eliminated the paperwork required to get permission to fly a drone. One can simply open up an app and fly one wherever they want to. As a result, farmers will soon be able to get on-demand crop inspection, crop diagnostics, and even crop-spraying services from new-age businesses.

In the long-term, India’s problem will not be whether a drone can carry something from point A to point B. Instead, its problem will be how we can ensure the safety of people, structures and manned aircraft when there are millions of drones flying every day. The platform approach allows the government to get out of the way and let India’s young entrepreneurs build future businesses without worrying about regulators having to catch up.

The ministry of civil aviation is actually creating ‘business playgrounds’, where Indian entrepreneurs can compete with the best in the world.

The drone policy and Digital Sky platform represent a new generation of policymaking. The appropriate metaphor to describe is that of a relay race. The government picks a societal problem. It invites policy and public technology experts to create a platform like Digital Sky.

The platform creates an enabling environment for innovation by market players. The market players then compete to address the problem. This way samaj, bazaar and sarkar – society, the market, and government – come together to make India a better place.

Whether it is delivering vaccines, critical medicine, or conducting CCEs from the sky, it is incumbent upon us to build the playgrounds that will enlist our young entrepreneurs to solving India’s many hard problems.

(The writer is Chairman, Aarin Capital)

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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