India is a hungry country. The Food and Agriculture Organisation Report on Hunger 2006 pegs the number of malnourished in India at 212 million and estimates that between 20 and 34 per cent of our population is malnourished. Despite the implementation of the Public Distribution System for several decades and Targeted PDS for the last one-and-a-half decades, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the children in rural areas suffer from malnourishment; with 21 per cent suffering from severe malnutrition. The irony is that these dismal facts and statistics coexist with record production of foodgrains. So, why is it that there is such deprivation amidst such plenty?
More than 65 per cent of the Indian landmass is semi-arid. The agriculture that evolved under these regions is adapted to low rainfall and poor soils. The agricultural systems here are characterised by the practice of mixed farming. Whether it is the Saat Dhaan of Rajasthan or theBaraah Anaaj system of Uttarakhand or the Pannendu Pantalu system of Andhra Pradesh, one sees a multitude of crops being cultivated; and such systems ensure the survival of rural communities, even under the harshest of conditions.
The Green Revolution brought about fundamental changes in the paradigm of Indian agriculture. It offered purely technical solutions to the food crisis that was prevailing. Improved, high-yielding and hybrid seeds were introduced; farmers were pushed to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers; mono-cropping was introduced; all with an intention to augment food production; and augment it did. One cannot dispute the fact that the Green Revolution resulted in an increase in the production of certain foodgrains; and it did lead to the prosperity of farmers in certain pockets of the country. But in the long run, the policies pursued under the Green Revolution greatly undermined Indian agriculture.
Rural communities lost control over the seeds they were sowing in their lands, and became dependent on traders and extension services for most of the agricultural inputs; the progressively high doses of pesticides and fertilizers led to poisoned soils; the cost of cultivation shot up; agricultural bio-diversity was decimated, with several endemic land-races completely disappearing; and nutritional deficiencies got further accentuated, especially in rural India. All these factors together precipitated an agrarian crisis that saw more than 200,000 farmers, mostly in arid and semi-arid regions, committing suicide.
A closer look at existing PDS
PDS was created with an intention to provide the people of India — the poor especially needed to lead a dignified life. Analyses have indicated that rice, wheat and sugar account for 75 per cent of all items purchased from PDS outlets in rural areas. The vast majority of the rural population depends on cereals for most of the calorific and nutritional requirements — 68 per cent of the calorific needs and 67 per cent of the protein needs of the rural population are met through cereals alone. And yet, there has been an overall decline in both calorific intake as well as protein intake especially among the poor. This clearly points to the poor quality of cereals that are being consumed by the rural populace (NSSO data indicate that PDS rice and wheat are inferior to millets and endemic foodgrains in terms of nutritional content). This also indicates that the decimation of mixed farming systems that comprised a variety of crops undermined the nutritional intake of the rural households. Since nutritional needs could not be met from within their villages and lands, rural households were compelled to meet them from markets; with the result, more than 55 per cent of the monthly per capita expenditure incurred by rural households is towards food. This is where the current PDS has fallen short.
In the PDS as it exists today, large quantities of grains are procured from one part of the country, stored in warehouses, and moved to other parts. Despite spending millions on these processes, we have not succeeded in reaching every nook of India; nor have we been able to curb corruption that has become endemic to this system.
Finally, the availability of cheap rice and wheat at PDS outlets has dissuaded many a rural household from trying cuisine that evolved out of the environmental and socio-economic conditions in a given area. These local cuisines were cost-effective, used local ingredients thus minimising the need to depend on external sources, and were designed to meet the nutritional needs of people in the most effective way.
In the light of these arguments, we advocate the need for decentralising the PDS. The decentralised Public Distribution System is PDS reimagined; one that is democratic and involves rural communities at every stage of planning and implementation.
The concept of decentralised PDS rests on the principles of localised procurement, storage and distribution. The emphasis is on the participation of people — especially the marginalised and women — and on a holistic approach that integrates biodiversity, natural resource management, rural livelihoods and empowerment. The inclusion of local knowledge and expertise at every stage would make such a PDS truly participatory. Such a PDS would focus on the food crops that are locally produced. In some locations this might be millets, while in others it might be endemic varieties of rice and wheat. Being made a part of PDS would enhance the demand for these foodgrains and augment their production, thus reviving traditional agricultural practices. The storage of these grains would also be undertaken by the local communities, at village or panchayat level, thus reducing storage and transport costs, and generating employment for a few rural households.
Revival of traditional systems
The revival of traditional agricultural systems would mean that a diverse range of cereals, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables would be available close on hand to the rural communities. The combination of such crops would ensure that the nutritional needs of the communities are locally met at a reasonable price. This is likely to enable rural households to spend less on food and use the money thus saved for other purposes. The fact that such systems are hardy and do not need pesticides and fertilizers would also help farmers to bring down the cost of agriculture. Further, the in-built risk-mitigation properties of such agricultural systems enhance the capacities of rural households to cope with the phenomenon of climate change.
Together, these benefits would enhance incomes and savings of rural households, and strengthen the rural economy; and hold the potential to decrease distress migration. Further, decentralised PDS and reviving the traditional systems would restore women's place in the drivers' seat, as far as the production and distribution of the foodgrains are concerned; give them an opportunity to develop entrepreneurial and organisational skills and break stereotypical gender roles in relation to division of labour in agriculture.
Thus, a decentralised PDS not only ensures that the rural communities have access to adequate food and nutrition, but also empowers them to seek that nutrition in their midst. It places the control over food and farming back into the hands of the rural populace and re-establishes the prominent role of women in agriculture; not to mention the prominent ecological and economic costs that would be accrued by the communities.
Food Security Bill & PDS
The National Food Security Bill that has been tabled in Parliament seeks to enhance the food security of the poor, but provides for measures that are grossly inadequate. Many RtF activists, including the Deccan Development Society (DDS), have been demanding the inclusion of millets and the implementation of a decentralised PDS. However, the Bill accepts only the former. Considering the small quantities of millets that are presently produced (18 million tonnes), handling them centrally would be unviable in the long run. Further, a centralised PDS would sideline local knowledge and food cultures and thereby undermine the well-being of the rural masses. Therefore, for long-term food sovereignty of India and for the nutritional security of its rural communities, it is absolutely vital that a decentralised PDS be made part of NFSB and vigorously implemented.