Fake AI 

Edited by Frederike Kaltheuner

Meatspace Press (2021)

Book release: 14/12/2021

This book is an intervention - 

Chapter 13

Consolidating power in the name of progress: techno-solutionism and farmer protests in India

By Tulsi Parida and Aparna Ashok

“When the people who are being disenfranchised by AI systems demand protection, whose concerns will be heeded?”

Techno-solutionism and jugaad

In many low and middle-income economies, the adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence is often done quickly and aggressively, with little oversight, in an effort to “catch up” with more advanced economies. The prevailing narrative is that countries still wading through the debris of a colonial past need rapid technological advancements for economic development. Recent digital policy consultations in countries such as India reflect an inclination to accelerate AI adoption even in the absence of essential regulatory protections.

The Indian 2018 National Strategy on Artificial Intelligence highlighted the “transformative impact” of AI and its potential to better the economy, society, and environment.1 As is the case with countries the world over, AI is seen as a key component of development. However, India lacks regulatory measures to protect data privacy, which is essential to individual and consumer rights. Privacy as a fundamental human right was established in India only in 2017, and a personal data protection bill is yet to be passed. Both government and industry utilise a techno-solutionist narrative2 to limited regulation and sometimes promote deregulation of sectors, which can result in substantial infractions of human rights and human development.

In India, techno-solutionism is often paired with the concept of jugaad, the notion that low-cost innovations can solve local problems.3 Examples include everything from rejigging a truck so it can power a rural village’s electricity, to Mangalyaan, India’s successful Mars orbiter mission achieved with a meagre budget and home-grown technologies. On the surface, jugaad seems an ingenious and agile approach to development. However, the jugaad mentality is eerily similar to Silicon Valley’s own “move fast and break things”. While jugaad might have few consequences at a small scale, when applied to technologies such as AI that operate at a vast scale, without adequate oversight, this mentality can have devastating consequences.

AI and power imbalances

“AI hype” for economic development is not unique to emerging economies. The unique mix of jugaad and unregulated techno-solutionism in India, however, could result in rapid technological progress with a big down-side. When coupled with jugaad, unregulated techno-solutionism is dangerous in its belief that band-aid solutions and hastily created technologies are needed in the name of economic development. Without adequate protections, the country’s ambitious AI adoption plans could result in catastrophic power imbalances4 that come with a tremendous social cost. One of the known potential risks of AI systems is the data-related power imbalances that pit individuals against large conglomerates that have substantial resources at their disposal.

In an ideal world, the benefits and risks of AI would be distributed equitably amongst firms and society. However, growing evidence shows a small number of firms have a substantial share of the AI market, and without consequential changes, those very firms will also have a disproportionate share of the benefits of AI while society bears the brunt of the risks.5 Exploitative business models with an inequitable distribution of the risks and benefits of AI give rise to a consolidation of power amongst those institutions that hoard data and use AI unchecked.

However, when designed responsibly, in a context-appropriate manner, with adequate internal governance and external regulation, AI technologies can play a role in solving problems at scale. For example, AI applied in diagnostics can compensate for the lack of skilled professionals needed to make healthcare accessible in rural parts of India. Especially for countries in the nascent stages of AI development, it is important to scrutinise proposed solutions with a socio-technical lens and critically evaluate the potential of power imbalances and foreseeable positive and negative consequences.

Looking ahead: agri-tech and farmer protests

The combination of deregulation, the jugaad mindset, and techno-solutionist narratives together create the ideal conditions for disproportionate power imbalances. A case in point is the “technological disruption” that is currently underway in India’s agricultural sector.

One of India’s largest conglomerates has recently ventured into agri-tech, claiming that AI can improve efficiencies in the disorganised agricultural sector.6 In early 2020, the company announced an agri-tech platform claiming to help farmers make data-driven decisions in farming practices, and connect them directly to suppliers. With this proposed platform, this corporation, which also owns India’s largest supermarket chain and India’s largest telecom services, could conceivably gain complete control of supply and demand chains—with farmers relying on the app to sell their produce via the company’s telecom service directly to the company’s retail stores.

Regulation to prevent such a consolidation of power is necessary to protect farmers’ rights. Instead, in late 2020, the Indian government actively deregulated the sector by passing three heavily contested agricultural bills to liberalise farming and “attract private sectors and foreign direct investment”.7 The new laws allow for (1) farmers to trade freely, (2) farmers to enter into contract farming, and (3) deregulation of selected essential commodities, such as cereals, edible oil, oilseeds, pulses, onion etc. The bills were passed hastily during the Covid-19 pandemic and without consultation with farmers.

The new laws have been criticised as “corporate-friendly and anti-farmer”, and this controversy has given rise to one of the largest labour movements in the world—a 250 million-strong strike in support of farmer unions. The demands are clear. The three bills must be repealed. A minimum price and state procurement of crops must be made a legal right.Farmers have also made the connection between the new laws and corporate power. They have called for a boycott of the company’s products, with many farmers porting their mobile service to other providers.9

This example of techno-solutionism in the agriculture sector is emblematic of the inequitable distribution of the risks and benefits of technology systems imposed on society. When the people who are being disenfranchised by AI systems demand protection, whose concerns will be heeded? India strives to be a role model for countries in the region, and these choices could set a precedent. Gaining the trust of citizens through the equitable distribution of risks and benefits would be helpful for AI adoption. At the time of writing, the outcome of the farmer protests is uncertain—as are the effects that the laws and this movement will have on those most disadvantaged, namely landless Dalit farmers. Still, one thing is clear: farmers in the world’s largest democracy are ready to fight the imposition of emergent systems of oppression.

Tulsi Parida is a socio-technologist currently working on AI and data policy in fintech. Her previous work has been in edtech, with a focus on responsible and inclusive learning solutions.

Aparna Ashok is an anthropologist, service designer, and AI ethics researcher. She specialises in ethical design of automated decision-making systems.


1. https://niti.gov.in/national-strategy-artificial-intelligence

2. Tucker, I. (2018, March 22) Evgeny Morozov: “We are abandoning all the checks and balances.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/mar/09/evgeny-morozov-technology-solutionism-interview

3. Saha, P. K. (2018, June 16) ‘Jugaad’ culture: The good, the bad and the ugly. Mint. https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/lZhswLKRpWlQjnnAiGNNKM/Jugaad-culture-The-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly.html

4. O’Keefe, C., Cihon, P., Flynn, C., Garfinkel, B., Leung, J. & Dafoe, A. (2020) The Windfall Clause: Distributing the Benefits of AI. Centre for the Governance of AI Research Report. Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford. https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/windfallclause/

5. Cheney-Lippold, J. (2017) We Are Data. New York, NY: New York University Press.

6. Kadidal, A. (2020, January 4) AI must invade agri to help India prosper: Experts. Deccan Herald. https://www.deccanherald.com/city/ai-must-invade-agri-to-help-india-prosper-experts-791491.html

7. Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution. (2020, September 22) Parliament passes the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 [Press release]. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage

8. Damodaran, H. (2020, December 31) Explained: The concerns of farmers, and what Centre can negotiate to end protests. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/farmers-big-concern-and-what-govt-could-negotiate-7073291/

9. Arora, K. (2020, December 27) Rising Number of Protesting Farmers Switch From Jio to Rival Mobile Networks. The Wire. https://thewire.in/agriculture/farmer-protest-jio-networks-airtel-vodafone-idea

Next: Chapter 14
When fintech meets 60 million unbanked citizens

by Favour Borokini and Ridwan Oloyede

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