Disruptive Technologies: The Case of Indigenous Territories of Andhra Pradesh, India


Territories belonging to the indigenous Adivasi people of Andhra Pradesh State, India, have become the site of big tech, big data-driven and controlled capitalist market experimentation. This involves using big tech and big data to build global prototypes for sustainable sourcing, through which agribusiness corporations can fulfil their ‘sustainability goals’. It turns out to be a case of exploitation in the name of sustainability.

Teaser Image Caption
Toiling under the sun to grow rice from Andhra Pradesh, India

Completely unbeknownst to the indigenous Adivasi people of Andhra Pradesh State, India, their territories have become the site of big tech, big data-driven and controlled capitalist market experimentation.

Vulnerable Adivasi communities exploited

The Adivasis, their territories, and their indigenous worldview of buen vivir, which informs their relationship with their land, forests, food, farming and way of life, have special protections under the Indian Constitution. Yet time and again the state, which is mandated to uphold and defend these statutes, has been in the forefront of efforts to undermine the sovereign rights of the Adivasi people. Since 2014, the state has been using its power in an opaque manner to place one of the most vulnerable communities in India at the frontline of capitalist market exploitation.

The state, in collaboration with international financial institutions such as the World Bank, is employing big data and big tech to link Adivasi farmers directly to consumers via agribusiness corporations. The protagonists claim Adivasis will be protected from small traders, identified as ‘exploiters of Adivasis’, in the value chain. Simultaneously they have manufactured and normalised, with ‘big tech evidence’, the narrative that integrating the ‘poorest of the poor’ into agribusiness corporate-controlled global supply chains, via Adivasi populated ‘farmer producer organisations’ (FPO), will increase their incomes and power. This narrative unscrupulously masks the fact that agribusiness corporations are the root cause of exploitation – both of people and the planet – by which they power ‘growth’, have accumulated mind-boggling wealth, and create unprecedentedly unequal societies across the globe.

The experiment also involves using big tech and big data to build global prototypes for sustainable sourcing, through which agribusiness corporations can fulfil their ‘sustainability goals’. The state, mega-corporations, philanthrocapitalists, the World Bank and its allies, from NGOs to capitalist market consultants and researchers, are investing heavily in these utterly false and exploitative capitalist market-based solutions to sustainability, which include offsetting carbon via carbon markets and/or sourcing commodities which are verified ‘sustainable’ originating from biodiverse ecosystems, produced agroecologically, and meeting other SDG indicators. This produce is marketed with ‘sustainability labels’, and the value-chain is closed by linking to consumers, who are persuaded to believe they are positively contributing to mother earth and future generations by making ‘sustainable’ purchases. In India, these early years of experimentation have paved the way for the central government to  sign MOUs with a vast number of multinational corporations to fast-track big tech and big data agribusiness corporate control of agriculture and food supply chains, from ‘farm to fork’, thereby ostensibly ensuring the nation’s food security via technology and a digitilised food system. What follows demonstrates the exploitation that is underway in the name of sustainability.

Click, click, click: data rights dissolved

S. Chinnabayi (name changed for confidentiality), an Adivasi residing in the indigenous territory of East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, India, features as a data set on an Andhra Pradesh map, embedded in the World Bank financed Andhra Pradesh Rural Inclusive Growth Project’s (APRIGP) FPO GIS tracker. With a click, click and a click, his personal data, including his telephone number and the last four digits of his Aadhar, or unique identification number, are visible for the world to see. He is just a link in a commodity value chain, in this case cashews, aggregated by an FPO, which according to the APRIGP project, will be linked to agribusiness corporations.

S. Chinnabayi was unaware that his personal information is up for public viewing. He has neither been informed nor given his consent for his personal information to be embedded into a GIS map. His group, which he thinks is named FPG3, was established in 2019 by a government representative. He was not informed that FPG stands for farmer producer group, nor that FPGs aggregate into a farmer producer organisation (FPO). He agreed to join the FPG, as he was led to believe this would earn him a better price. To date, no cashews have either been procured or sold by the FPG. Instead, the FPG has become a conduit for selling subsidised machinery, electric pump sets, and bank credit to the group members, which again was an integral objective of the World Bank project.

He continues to sell his cashews to a trader, and was surprised to learn that, without his informed consent, as a member of the FPG he has become a cog in the wheel of a rural value chain process underway in Andhra Pradesh, which feeds into larger global supply chains. This is the mandated project objective of APRIGP – to include the most vulnerable producers into agriculture value chains and link them to agribusiness.

The contiguous indigenous Schedule V territories of Vishakapatnam district, Adivasi territories governed by special Constitutional protections, are home to over eleven Adivasi tribes. The Adivasis here are unaware that a portion of their territory in Paderu Mandal (an administrative unit in Andhra Pradesh State) is designated a ‘compact’, whose landscape has been placed on a map by SourceUp. This is ‘a new collaborative platform for supply chain sustainability changemakers’, through which agribusinesses can source, in this case, ‘sustainably produced’ coffee, pepper, and turmeric. It will ultimately become a Verified Sourcing Area Compact, once it starts reporting on sustainability indicators at a landscape and not a farm level, predetermined by SourceUp. A compact is ‘a multi-stakeholder coalition consisting of local government, local civil society organizations, producer groups/cooperatives, and traders’ who work together for sustainability, and has the power to transform agricultural production systems far beyond what each of these individual stakeholders can do alone. The platform links agri-commodity companies with these multi-stakeholder initiatives. Corporate buyers meet their sustainability goals through SourceUp. The sustainability data and progress related to indicators is reported on the SourceUp platform by local actors and verified by a remote reviewing panel. The data is stored and controlled by SourceUp.

Supply chain platform with multiple stakeholders

Unsurprisingly, SourceUp, powered by IDH – the Sustainable Trade Initiative, is a collaborative partnership of global corporate agribusiness players, digital data corporations, multilateral development financial institutions, and researchers of market-based solutions to climate change, biodiversity and sustainable production. Its global steering committee and partners include familiar names: Unilever, Pepsico, Mars, the World Bank, World Resource Institute, Conservation International, and more. While each compact has its own funders, SourceUp is financed via IDH by the Dutch, Swiss, Danish and Norwegian governments.

Participating businesses are global agribusiness players in the food and agriculture commodity supply chains: Cargill, Carrefour, COFCO, JBS, Pepsico and Unilever. In the case of the Paderu Compact,  it is Tata Global Beverages, Jayanti Spices and Jain Farm Fresh Ltd., showcased as specialists in food safety, traceability and sustainable sourcing. Rythu Saadhikara Samstha (RySS) is the anchoring ‘public sector‘ institution, with the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) and Kovel Foundation listed as civil society partners. These are gross misrepresentations. The ITDA is an integral arm of the state government, responsible for effective delivery of public goods and services to the Adivasi peoples, and the RySS is a corporate entity wholly owned by the government of Andhra Pradesh. Its formation was conceptualised in the World Bank’s APRIGP project. It is showcased globally as a ‘farmers’ organisation’, implementing the much-hyped zero budget natural farming agroecological model, now renamed by the state as Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture.

This agroecological model is constructed on a foundation of massive unequal land ownership, is being steadily financed through public-private multistakeholder financial collaborations and blended finances, and argues that subsidies for fertiliser can be redirected to service loans from impact investors. It is a far cry from a food sovereignty centred people’s articulation of agroecology. In 2019, IDH and RySS were selected for funding under P4G’s Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 Initiative, which finances the Paderu Compact.

Asymmetry of representation

S. Chinnabayi was completely taken aback and angered to learn that Producers Market – promoted as a new marketplace disrupting the existing agriculture value chain and connecting producer members with buyers – featured cashews sourced from his district as the ‘ZBNF Star Crop’, through the efforts of RySS and Kovel! His anger is twofold: first, his cashew crop has not been marketed by the FPG where he is a member, and yet is showcased as having been procured; second, and of greater concern to him, is that he is today a member of an FPG set up by the state, embedded within a larger agriculture value chain network that is shaped and controlled by the state and big corporations. He and his community are being hoodwinked, without their knowledge, into supporting agribusiness corporations that he knows have always been the exploiters of his labour and his territory.

The Producers Market is a project of Producers Trust, of which RySS is a trade collaborator and Kovel Foundation an organisational partner and contact supplier of products. Dig deeper, and it’s a blockchain agritech startup. It has joined with IBM Food Trust to advance food traceability. The CEO of its parent company, Producer Token, describes Producer Markets as “a technology driven marketplace that connects agriculture producers with their supply chain. It is a platform ecosystem intended to facilitate direct buyer-seller relationships domestically and globally. We are pioneering the integration of distributed ledger technologies, smart contracts and cryptocurrency in the multitrillion-dollar agriculture value chain globally.” Producer Market argues that integrating emerging technologies into proprietary user interfaces on digital devices – smartphones, tablets, webapps – empowers producers and buyers with digital transactions, contracts and traceability.

Indigenous rights compromised

In all the above applications of ‘disruptive technologies’, existing laws that protect the local governance rights, way of life, and worldview of the Adivasis in their own territories, including decisions on local markets, have been completely undermined. First, the globally agreed-upon principle of Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), pertaining to any project that is implemented with indigenous people, has been totally violated. Second, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, none of the villages in the indigenous territories wherein the above experiments are being carried out have passed resolutions in their gram-sabhas, the local governing bodies, giving their consent to these ‘virtual markets’. Even if they have, these digital markets have completely bypassed, disrupted and rendered meaningless the indigenous governance of local markets as enshrined in the law.

These examples illustrate the core role of the state and international development financiers in facilitating the corporate agri-business capture of agriculture and global food supply chains from farm to fork via ‘disruptive technologies’ – be they blockchains, AI, digital mapping, or data harvesting – transforming everything in their path, including people, into commodities.   

Ever since India embraced structural reforms and relinquished its role as a welfare state 30 years ago, the World Bank has invested in ‘prototype models’ to dismantle public services and facilitate capitalist markets in all aspects of life, from health and food to education. Andhra Pradesh has been a key site of these experiments, and what we see here is merely more of the same, in a technologically ‘advanced’ avatar. Once ‘tested’, evaluated and certified effective, these models are showcased as evidence to upscale nationally. Equally unscrupulous are the incestuous relationships between these actors as they build their hegemonic empire of corporate capitalist globalisation; they sit on each other’s boards and steering committees, and act as investors, partners, certifiers and financers of one another.

Question of control and decisions

These disruptive technologies – controlled by coalitions of mega-corporations, which in turn control states – are used by state and capital to undermine the state’s accountability to its citizens, replace local community governance, and override state regulatory mechanisms. The illusion of less government and greater decentralisation masks the reality of enhanced corporate control and governance, via surveillance capitalism authorised by the state. It is the larger vision and framework of end-to-end capture and control of food and farming by mega-corporations, which big data and technology today are aggressively securing, facilitated by states, that must be challenged and halted. The only alternative way forward is anti-capitalist and in the case of India anti-brahminical counter-organising by people’s movements to assert food sovereignty, based on social justice, which encompasses people’s control and decisions over technology, data and markets.

This article first appeared here: hk.boell.org