flickr/ World Bank Photo Collection
flickr/ World Bank Photo Collection

In search of food sovereignty

Shifting the debate on the Public Distribution System.

The National Food Security Bill (NFSB) has become the source of many debates, having come under the scrutiny of activists, economists and civil society actors. While those opposing the bill have highlighted problems from various angles, one side of the debate – at times underemphasised – has to do with the problems posed by the highly centralised nature of the current Public Distribution System (PDS). The bill has tried addressing this concern, but sadly falls short of laying out a concrete vision for a participatory PDS essential to food security.

The latest version of the NFSB, approved by the Union Cabinet on 19 March 2013, is likely to be passed by parliament during the ongoing budget session. The bill, which is the result of a promise made by the Congress party in its 2009 general election manifesto, has come a long way from its earlier versions. For example, it has taken initiative in prioritising vulnerable population groups like children (under the age of six) and pregnant women, encouraging the allocation of specific diets. It has also widened the ambit of what constitutes food grains by including millets (as coarse grains): a progressive step in addressing nutritional security. Furthermore, acknowledging the need for a decentralised PDS, it mentions taking a few tentative steps: giving preference to panchayats, self-help groups and cooperatives, and establishing storage facilities at the state, district and block levels.

The NFSB, however, remains silent about ensuring the safety of farmers' livelihoods, extending reasonable minimum support price (MSP) for produce, and increasing production of food grains – all of which are essential to food security. The bill continues the discriminatory approach in distribution, preferring a Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) over a universal one, restricting access to only 67 percent of the total population (75 percent in rural areas and 50 percent in urban areas). In contrast to the 'priority' and 'general' categories seen in the earlier versions, the bill only mentions the 'priority' category, but retains the 'Antyodaya' grouping that covers about 25 million extremely poor households. While the latter will continue to receive 35 kg of food grain per household (per month), the former will only receive 5 kg per head.

There are fundamental questions that remain: How will this 67 percent be identified? What yardsticks will be used in identifying the 33 percent that would be excluded? The bill seems to continue the legacy of the current Above Poverty Line and Below Poverty Line (APL and BPL) classification. In doing so, it overlooks voluminous evidence against targeted distribution, which is rife with problems of omission and commission, and a breeding ground for corruption. And as many food rights activists have pointed out, the provision goes against the order issued by the Supreme Court, which guarantees 35 kg per month to every BPL household in India.

There is a host of other problems that the NFSB fails to address. One of these failures relates to a provision in the bill about reforming the PDS, which was created before Independence with the intention of rationing the supply of cereals during World War II. After Independence, the PDS was used as an instrument for price stabilisation in a few urban centres, but gradually evolved into an important tool for poverty alleviation as it was extended to most of the country. Prior to 1997, when the TPDS was introduced, the coverage was universal.

The PDS has served the important purpose of procuring rice and wheat, thus encouraging farmers to grow these crops. But one of the main failures of the system stems from its unwillingness to look at other crops. The exclusion of alternative food grains along with pulses and oilseeds, essential for food and nutrition security especially in rural India, has had serious implications on the agricultural scenario, with millet cultivation declining steeply and that of pulses witnessing virtual stagnation. According to the 2004-05 National Sample Survey (NSS) report on nutritional intake, most Indians derive about 67 percent of their calorific needs and 68 percent of protein requirements from cereals. Given that the same report indicates that pulses meet only about 9 percent of protein needs, and that NSS data shows rice and wheat varieties supplied by the PDS as inferior to millets – both in terms of calorific value and proteins – the exclusionary focus makes little sense. Depending on the variety, millets are excellent storehouses of nutrients like proteins, minerals, calcium, iron and a host of micro-nutrients. The NFSB does touch upon this issue by including millets under food grains, but fails to incorporate pulses and oilseeds into the PDS, thus depriving the poor of these important sources of nutrition.

Another issue of great concern is that the PDS is operationally centralised in the procurement, storage and distribution of food grains. Wheat produced in Punjab, for example, is procured by the Food Corporation of India (FCI), stored in their godown in some nodal place and perhaps distributed in Jharkhand. The food grains have to travel long distances; along the way, they are stored at various FCI storage facilities. Large quantities of food grains are lost due to rotting or theft along the long supply chain with low-quality storage facilities and inefficient monitoring. It is estimated that in 2009-2010 more than 250 million kg of food grains was lost during storage and transit.

The establishment of a decentralised PDS could alleviate some of these problems. Such reforms could additionally create feedback mechanisms whereby supply and demand at the local levels can be reflected within the system. Furthermore, the reforms would reduce the distance between the farm and the plate, and allow people to keep track of the food grains and financial transactions – bringing greater transparency into the entire process. Finally, decentralising the PDS would help in carving spaces for local food systems, based on crops like millets, traditional varieties of rice and wheat, and native landraces of pulses and oilseeds.

Crops of Truth

Decentralisation of the PDS is not possible without hand in hand reforms in agriculture. On a positive note, the NFSB mentions agricultural reforms and securing interests of small and marginal farmers, but it is hard to imagine what this will translate into. In the interest of food security, it is imperative that every village is able to grow the cereals, pulses and other food crops that its population needs, in an ecologically sustainable and economically viable manner.

In this regard, the government could start by extending monetary incentives to promote traditional, biodiverse agricultural systems. This would not involve massive subsidies, as many of these systems are not cost-intensive. Endemic landraces of food grains are adept, compared to exotic varieties, at dealing with pests and local agro-climatic conditions, removing the need of using chemical inputs. Many of these systems have the in-built capacity to restore soil fertility. But the post- Green Revolution focus on input-intensive, technology-driven solutions for food security, and rampant commercialisation – driven by hostile agricultural policies in the aftermath of India's 1995 WTO Agreement – have pushed out traditional crops and agricultural systems from all discourses on Indian agriculture.

The declining cultivation of millets is a case in point. Data from the Directorate of Economics and Statistics indicates that the production of millets and the area of land under their cultivation decreased by more than 50 percent between 1960-61 and 2009-10. The same source also indicates that the cultivation of crops such as sugarcane, cotton, tea, condiments and spices have increased in area by 20-50 percent in the last two decades. The decline in traditional crops has been assisted by the low MSP offered to them. The MSP for jowar (sorghum), for instance, is INR 1500 (USD 27.7) per quintal, against the market rate of about INR 3000 (USD 55.5). Furthermore, these crops lack the assured and timely procurement that some other crops enjoy; between 2011-12, 33 percent of the total amount of rice and wheat produced was procured by the FCI.

There is a range of agricultural systems, which have evolved in various agro-climatic regions, and have the ability to grow under harsh conditions without chemical inputs. The Pannendu Pantalu or 'Twelve Crops' system practiced in Medak, Andhra Pradesh is one such example. The system utilises an array of millets, which can include pearl millet, foxtail millet, finger millet, barnyard millet and kodo millet; a number of pulses like red gram, black gram, green gram; oilseeds like linseed, sesame and safflower; and finally, a range of vegetables like okra, eggplant and squash. The crops mentioned here are the principal varieties; there are several varieties within each main crop that can be grown. Additionally, these fields support a variety of 'uncultivated greens' – crops that do not need much effort to grow, and are invaluable sources of nutrition for the small and marginal farmers practicing this form of agriculture.

Medak is characterised by semi-arid agro-climatic conditions, with harsh and shallow soil, undulating terrain and erratic rainfall. In the last decade or so, the groundwater level in the district has fallen significantly. But Twelve Crops does not require any chemical pesticides and fertilisers – it has natural nitrogen fixers in the form of pulses – and can grow with a minimal quantity of water. It is estimated that 400,000 litres of water is needed to grow a quintal of paddy; a quintal of sugarcane requires 25,000 litres. But Pannendu Pantalu can thrive without any external irrigation and with rainfall as low as 350-500 mm in an agricultural season. There are many examples of such agricultural systems from across the country: Baarah Anaaj (Twelve Crops) system in Uttarakhand, Saat Dhan (Seven grains) system in Rajasthan and Navadhanya (Nine Grains) system prevalent in north-coastal Andhra Pradesh.

The diversity of crops in these systems ensures that the rural households access a variety of food to fulfil all their nutritional requirements. The diversity also serves as a risk-mitigating measure. Unlike 'modern' agriculture, with its emphasis on mono cropping, these systems ensure that even if one or two crops fail, others will survive. Rainfall or no rainfall, the farmers have something to eat.

In addition to feeding the rural households, these agricultural systems also help them generate income. But perhaps most significantly, they ensure dignity for the farmers, allowing them to live as sovereign human beings, in complete control of their food, seeds and agriculture. It is no wonder that farmers of Medak call their agricultural system Satyam Pantalu or the 'crops of truth'. Reviving systems like these would be important steps towards decentralising the PDS and towards helping the rural communities in their march towards food sovereignty.

Food Democracy

Agricultural reforms for PDS decentralisation would need to involve encouraging more small-scale farmers to grow a variety of food. In this regard, it is important to address the extremely low earnings of the people engaged in agriculture. An NSS report (2009-10) states that the average monthly per capita expenditure of the bottom 40 percent of the rural population – which comprises of many small, marginal and landless farmers – is less than INR 800 (USD 14.8). The corresponding figure for the poorest ten percent is INR 453 (USD 8.4). Similarly, the latest NSS data on farm incomes (2003-2004) indicates that the average monthly income of a farming household is INR 2115 (USD 39.2). Further illustrating the hardship faced by farmers, a recent survey conducted by the University of Agricultural Sciences (Bangalore) indicates that 12 out of the 19 crops, principally grown in the state of Karnataka and receiving MSP, are loss-making and the profits for two other crops are negligible.

The situation of agricultural labourers is similar. The minimum wages provided by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) are currently between INR122-191 (USD 2.3 – 3.5) per day, varying by state. While this is an increase in comparison to the wages in the past, it is not enough for rural households to sustain themselves, given the rate of inflation and the increasing privatisation of basic services like health and education. Although the growing fiscal deficit is often presented as a justification for suppressing the wages, these claims are specious considering that the Union Budget in 2012-13 wrote off INR 5281 billion (USD 97.8 billion) worth of direct corporate income tax, customs duty – on luxury goods like gold and diamonds – and excise duty. The numbers have been steadily increasing from 2005-2006, when the corresponding figure was INR 2291 billion (USD 42.4 billion). As groups like Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) have suggested, the low wages and lack of assured income might be ways of extracting labour from the agricultural sector and funnelling it into industry.

Alongside agricultural reforms, decentralisation of food procurement, storage and distribution are important components of the much-needed PDF reforms. The current bill does talk about giving preference to public institutions such as panchayats, self help groups, and cooperatives in licensing fair price shops. It also hints at encouraging the management of fair price shops by "women or their collectives". But it does not mention community involvement in the procurement process. The youth from the rural communities, in addition to women, could be given the role of leading these operations. The introduction of participatory processes, whereby rural communities could decide what products and what quantities to procure, would ensure the representation of community voices.

The NFSB mentions creating and maintaining scientific storage facilities at state, district and block levels for efficient operation. But alongside these infrastructural investments, traditional storage practices could be explored, at least at the panchayat level. In Medak, women have been storing grains in granaries made out of locally available materials like mud, cow dung and ash. In Nagaland, farmers keep grains in silos made out of bamboo, mud and other locally available materials. There are countless examples of such cost-effective, sustainable technologies, proven for storing food grains over long periods of time. The added benefit is that rural communities can make them without significantly depending on the government. Support for the creation of such facilities could be extended through NREGA, generating additional employment for rural households. Such measures could place the control over farming back into the hands of the farmers. But the bill stops short of suggesting such drastic reforms.

There are working models of decentralised PDS. The government of Chhattisgarh has already implemented such a system. The Chhattisgarh Public Distribution System (Control) order 2004 shifted the management of ration shops from private dealers to community-based organisations like panchayats, self help groups and cooperatives. All ration shops were moved either into PDS or panchayat buildings. These simple steps helped plug leakages in the distribution of grains and ensured greater transparency in the operation of PDS outlets. A survey, conducted in 12 randomly selected villages in Mahasamund and Sarguja districts in the state, indicates that 88 percent of the people were satisfied with the functioning of the new PDS.

There are other feasible recommendations to consider. JADS and the Right to Food Campaign, for example, have been advocating for "zonation". The idea is to divide the country into different zones, and encourage procurement, storage and distribution in the same zone where grains are produced. In case of shortage, procurement can be done from an adjacent zone and so on. Only during widespread calamity would central buffer stocks be accessed.

Finally, it is worth emphasising that decentralising the PDS does not mean that the state should abdicate its responsibility of feeding the people. As stated above, the government would have to procure food grains, extend a reasonable MSP, create storage facilities and support the ration shops run by rural communities. Moreover, it is the state's duty to ensure that decentralisation of PDS is not another gateway for corporations to take over rural food distribution systems. Decentralising PDS simply means that the state devolves power to the people, allowing them to take greater part in the decision-making process. The goal should be to ensure the food and nutritional security, while ultimately deepening democracy.

~ This article is one of the articles from web-exclusive package for 'Farms, Feasts, Famines'.

~ K Sandeep is program coordinator at the Deccan Development Society (DDS) and the Women Farmers of DDS Sanghams. 

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