‘Involving the end-users in GIS application processes will encourage use of g-tech...

‘Involving the end-users in GIS application processes will encourage use of g-tech in agriculture’


Dr. Shibendu Shankar Ray
Director, Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre, India

Elaborating upon the vast potential of geospatial technology in agriculture, Dr. Shibendu Shankar Ray discusses the major applications and benefits of g-tech, including meeting growing demand for food production, and reaching the end users  

Dr. Shibendu Shankar Ray


Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre


What do you feel is the need for geospatial technology in agriculture in an agrarian nation like India?

Agriculture is one of the major economic sectors of our country. Along with its allied sectors, it contributes to 14.5 % of the GDP and is the largest livelihood provider in India, more so in the vast rural areas. However, some of the issues which affect our agriculture are low productivity, large dependence on rainfall (only 45.0% irrigated), low cropping intensity (137.3%), low operational holding size (1.16 ha), etc.  Geospatial technology, which encompasses Remote Sensing, GIS, GNSS and other techniques of earth mapping, is helpful in generating spatial information about the agricultural resources.  This can be used for assessing the current situation, monitoring the changes and predicting the future.  The outputs derived from remote sensing data, integrated with various other thematic information using GIS tools, can be used for increasing area under agriculture (e.g. culturable wasteland mapping) , enhancing cropping intensity (e.g. mapping of rice-fallow areas), increasing productivity (e.g. precision farming), preservation of eco-diversity, creating supportive infrastructure, and so on.  

Can you brief us about the establishment and mandate of MNCFC?

Crop forecasting using remote sensing data started in late 80s in Space Applications Centre (ISRO), Ahmedabad under the Department of Agriculture & Cooperation (DAC) sponsored project CAPE (Crop Acreage and Production Estimation).  This later on developed into a national level programme, called FASAL (Forecasting Agriculture using Space, Agro-meteorology and Land based observations), which is in operation since August, 2006.  In order to give further impetus to this activity, FASAL scheme was revised in March, 2011 and it was decided to transfer the operational part of the crop forecasting and drought assessment (being carried out at National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad) to a new Centre to be created under DAC, so that ISRO can focus on R&D activities.  This resulted in the establishment of Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre (MNCFC) in April, 2012. 

Apart from, the crop forecasting and drought assessment (under National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring System), MNCFC has the mandate of use of Geospatial technology in various other agricultural applications (soil health, cropping system analysis, horticulture, rainfed area assessment).  It also aims to integrate the forecast generated from various sources. 

How are you using geospatial technology? What are the major applications of satellite data in agriculture?

MNCFC uses all tools of geospatial technology i.e. remote sensing, GIS & GPS, and currently smartphone-based GPS application.  We use remote sensing (optical and microwave) data from various satellites (Indian and foreign) for crop and drought assessment. GPS is used for field data collection, while GIS is used for integrating thematic information from multiple sources and also for generating maps.  

Agriculture has been the thrust area in the remote sensing applications programme of our country. The satellite-based remote sensing data has manifold applications in agriculture, including crop production forecasting, sustainable agricultural development, irrigation management, precision farming, site suitability for infrastructure development, watershed development, drought assessment, soil resources mapping, and so on.  Satellite data has also great role in many allied fields of agriculture, including potential fishing zone forecast.

One of the gap areas in the use of geospatial technology in agriculture is found to be that the applications are still to reach the end user, i.e. the farmer. How can this gap be addressed?

Many applications of geospatial technology have implications for farmers. For example, many state governments use products generated from remote sensing as one of the inputs for drought declaration. So, it finally benefits the farmer for getting government subsidies in the drought affected area.  There are many applications of geospatial technology, which are end-user oriented such as watershed development, site suitability, precision farming, etc.  In fact, the gap can be addressed by taking up problems concerned with agricultural field applications, integration of all geospatial tools such as GIS, GPS & remote sensing for generating developmental plans and involving end-users for implementation of the plans.

Can you give us some instances of tangible benefits that the use of satellite technology in agriculture has brought in?

Already, I have mentioned some of them.  Another example can be the work carried out by Space Applications Centre towards horticultural development in North Eastern States under National Horticulture Mission. In this, using satellite data, Jhum (shifting cultivation) areas were identified.  Then based on site-suitability for different fruits cultivation, village level horticulture developmental plans were generated, which could directly benefit the farmers. Another example was use of remote sensing and GIS for post-harvest infrastructure (cold storage) development planning for potato crop in Bardhmaan district of West Bengal.  Of course, the works carried out under watershed development programme of ISRO has helped many farmers.  In fishery applications, use of satellite data for potential fishing zone forecasthas provided significant economic benefit to fishermen.

What are the challenges you face in the use of g-tech?

MNCFC is an operational organisation.  It needs to generate outputs in real-time.  For that, we need tools and technologies which are more user-oriented. So we need more versatile application software, derived data products, satellite data (instead of level 1 or level 2 products), simpler tools etc. Our partners are agricultural field officers from different states.  So our major challenge is to take the complex (at least perceived) geospatial technology to these end-users.

Drought is one of the biggest threats for the agricultural sector. How does MNCFC address the drought situation / minimise its impact on the agricultural sector?

MNCFC does periodic drought assessment using satellite data at district/sub-district level. The assessment is carried out at district level for 13 agriculturally dominant states, out of which for four states, it is done at sub-district level. These assessments are provided to all concerned at monthly/fortnightly interval from June to October. This helps the government to refine its crisis management plan and also identifying drought affected districts.

How according to you can precision farming meet the growing demand for increase in food production?

By adjusting the input to the exact site specific requirement, precision farming serves the dual purpose of enhancing input use efficiency and reducing environmental degradation. So a precision farmer produces more food per unit of inputs such as fertilizer, water, etc.  If practised properly a precision farmer will have higher economic benefit compared to conventional management practices.  In one of our studies at Central Potato Research Station, Jalandhar, we found that site specific application of fertilizer resulted in higher benefit-to-cost ratio compared to the normal recommended practices.

Even though the use of g-tech including satellite imagery is growing rapidly in India, there is a lot of scope. In your view, how can geospatial technology further contribute to the agricultural sector?

Most of the large applications of geospatial technology are still limited to assessment and monitoring of agricultural resources.  There is a need to go beyond this such as modelling various processes in agriculture, long-term forecasting (e.g. impact of climate change), understanding interactions of agriculture and land use change and going upto field level applications. Development of new sensors (hyperspectral; microwave: active and passive; thermal) will help in a long-way in understanding and assessing the crop better.

Would you like to propose a policy to encourage applications of geospatial technology in agriculture in India?

Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), in its programme and vision document `National GIS’, submitted to Planning Commission in 2011, has already proposed a National GIS policy encompassing GIS infrastructure, applications (including agriculture), capacity building, etc. Prior to that, there was the already approved Remote Sensing Data Policy, 2011 and National Map Policy, 2005.  Hence, there may not be any further need for a new policy.  However, what is needed is involving the end-users in GIS application processes, capacity building, developing simpler GIS tools for better use of Geospatial technology, etc.  MNCFC is working in all these directions by making partnership with the Agriculture Departments of various States.