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Updated: March 30, 2012 10:16 IST

Local solutions to conquer hunger

K. Sandeep
Comment (32)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

A decentralised Public Distribution System is democratic and involves rural communities at every stage of planning and implementation.

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?

Green Revolution

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 the Baraah 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.

(K. Sandeep is Program Coordinator, Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad. The article has used inputs from women farmers of DDS.)

More In: Lead | Opinion

Sir,
Modernization of agri sector is the need of the hour to conquer
hunger.
Contract farming
Ground water utilization by Lift Irrigation on a mass scale.
Identifying major river basins and the potential of water in
these areas.
Construction of Check Dams on all possible locations and lift
water for irrigation.
No water should go to the sea as waste.
Govt to think on these lines.... and pass on the message to CM

from:  A.Natarajan
Posted on: Apr 12, 2012 at 20:05 IST

food security is a Major concern for the rural population of India .
even though there are PDS system often it finds too difficult to
function as body because the employees either well fed or do not know
the feeling of poverty .to know the feeling of poverty one should undergo without meals at least for a day .most of the food grains
supplied often tested contaminated poisons because of the so called
preservatives. we have system of food habit in India . every geographical location has different food style and habit , bring it
back then we can think of discussion and new methods, green revolution
killed the food system and the food circle

from:  Justin
Posted on: Apr 12, 2012 at 16:15 IST

Not proposing sweeping solutions, but hopefully adding information for reflection. An article in American news this week links common pesticides to loss of bee for pollination. China has areas were pollination of crops is done by hand due to bee loss. India should be mindful of this matter as we cannot afford ANY lowering of bee populations. Second, any farmer can easily grow enough food stuffs for subsistence; however there is a severe desire for cash to buy clothes, electronics and appliances, even cars. Subsistence farming does not allow for cash accumulation at rates desired by farmers. They seek extra work to get cash whenever they can leave the fields. If they devote but 10% of their fields to subsistence crops it may alleviate hunger in bad seasons, or when prices are low. But they seek every last rupee possible to participate in cash economy. To get cash they rely on corp/co-op/gov't buyers who have small range of crops acceptable for nearby processing facilities.

from:  Ed Hayden
Posted on: Mar 31, 2012 at 01:42 IST

Hi,Keshav has done a great job in this particular cartoon.I have not even read the piece,and just by glancing at the title and his cartoon,the theme is well understood. Nice work.

from:  Aks Gupta
Posted on: Mar 30, 2012 at 15:31 IST

A top-heavy, centralized structure was also the argument made for the introduction of Panchayati raj in the country. Giving power over to the local people, it was assumed would also "solve" problems that plague the entire setup. This has been found to be true in only the most limited of circumstances. Giving more control to the local population might help in reducing some of the ills associated with this system, but it is unlikely it will go away completely.

from:  ram
Posted on: Mar 30, 2012 at 13:40 IST

the very idea of de centralisation has big flaws itself aa many times transfer of food grain occurs from one part to other only because of low or no productivity of food grains in that particular .. Another point is except few exception majorly Rice, Wheat are major item across the idea so it has to transport many times..

from:  Syed Najeeb Ashraf
Posted on: Mar 30, 2012 at 12:59 IST

Very nice article. It is another solution for current PDS problem but i dont agree with totally decentrilised as i would leave decision making in hands of states, which are very ineffective and will gain us nothing.My view is that it can be improved by having proper mapping of PDS and real time information sharing of stocks and requirements which would obviously bring down transportaion costs.

from:  Ankit
Posted on: Mar 30, 2012 at 12:37 IST

Its a very well written article, I strongly agree with the concept of decentralization of PDS system, and the benefits are mentioned in the
article.

from:  Pallav Kant
Posted on: Mar 30, 2012 at 11:24 IST

I wonder how forcing the poor to consume subsidized millets thru PDS
is democratic. What if the the poor really like to consume rice or
wheat instead? Should they not be given that option? Also, if millets
and other traditional crops are more profitable (by input
efficiencies), wouldn't farmers already be switching?

The solution instead lies in impressing on the consumers (and rural
producers) about nutritional superiority in some of these traditional
foods. Such a conscious shift in food habits can stimulate a genuine
demand in these crops and can become commercially viable for the
producers. We can already see such a shift to whole grain foods
(oats, whole wheat and wild-rice) in India and worldwide. There is
also a renewed market for organic foods which is again a demand driven
phenomena as opposed to something pushed by govts.

from:  S. Sridhar
Posted on: Mar 30, 2012 at 04:50 IST

I agree with Vamsi Krishna above. It would be better to have someone
who has 20 years of experience addressing food security issues and
producing food, than to take a chance with someone who is getting paid
to push untried, unreliable products that won't grow and that you can't
eat.
If anyone is trying to provide a food security program, I have just one
question, "Where's the food?"

from:  Iyel Bey
Posted on: Mar 30, 2012 at 03:21 IST

Well the idea shared well but not feasible for a nation like India where 1.21 billion people stay and among them 70% people is malnutritioned. To feed most of them we have to bank on artificial technologies and complete decentralised PDS only allow vicinity based development but remaining part of India which stays in arid or semi arid zone,incapable of growing foodgrain as much as other part will go to sleep in empty stomach .

from:  Ani
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 23:13 IST

If the benefits were so great and so obvious, then they beg the question: why have these benefits not been recognized so easily before, why haven't they been the basis for a successful political campaign, etc? While I do not automatically dispute the article's claims, till we get independent scientific evidence for each of the many claims made, a little skepticism is in order. The managerial demands imposed on a local community, and other factors affecting feasibility, may be a double-edged sword. They may develop local talent, or suffer in its absence. The strongest claim I would make for the author is that given how bad the status quo is, we need to experiment with alternatives to try and find some way that is better.

from:  Murgie
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 23:12 IST

First, we need to be clear on the fact that the Green Revolution is
hardly the culprit that this article presents it to be. It has
increased production almost 8 fold since it's introduction. Without
it, we would be discussing famines and not nutritional deficiencies.
Having said that, food security is indeed a serious problem and the
bill in it's present form will hardly solve the anything. First, there
needs to be a readjustment of the way the minimum support prices are
calculated: they are currently uniform for the country as a whole. The
prices should incentivize adoption of technology and productivity
enhancements for the farmers. A decentralized procurement, storage and
distribution system will help a great deal in reducing leakage since
the stakeholders will be directly involved. However, it needs to be
supplemented by a technological stimulus, specifically irrigation to
protect from rainfall shocks, and not, as the author suggests, by
reverting to traditional systems.

from:  Anisha Roy
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 20:48 IST

@ravi kiran : In that case making a group of regions which cultivate different crops to come under one PDS system might work . As pointed by the author grains like millets are not cultivated everywhere unlike rice and wheat. so even a decentralised PDS might need some centralisation at a state level. one obvious advantage of decentralised PDS that i would like to add here is that the local procurement of grains would ensure that fresh and better quality grains are supplied to the people

But im yet to understand the role of women in such a system . can someone elucidate ?

from:  palani
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 17:42 IST

Pardon me for my ignorance but isn't the farmer free to choose what to grow? Is mono-cropping mandatory or is an opt-in for the farmer? If left to the discretion of the farmer the endemic varieties of crops could well co-exist with whatever the mono-cropping agenda for the region recommends.

Besides there will be regions where cultivation won't be possible, it will necessitate the existence of a Central PDS (in cases where the state cannot cultivate enough food grains to feed it's inhabitants).

Instead of doing away with the centralized model maybe we should consider a hybrid model wherein the regional crops are given due acreage along with the major food crops as prescribed by the central agencies?

from:  Ritesh
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 17:31 IST

Nice article , gives description of the problems faced by problems and how government can come out with an effective plan of decentralisation to overcome the problem.

from:  Uday Kumar
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 17:19 IST

I would say the proposals are fantastic and panacea for much of the
malice that confronts our nation. The author not only talks of making
PDS decentralized but also about making it more inclusive and driven by
local inputs. But these are virtually utopian and non-implementable in
our nation for following reasons.
1.Excessive use of chemicals since green revolution has rendered large
chunk of farm fields barren. Locals won't be able to produce in
proportion to their demands.
2.The quality of local seeds for the same reason is undoubtedly low.
3.Corruption is rampant. It will be easy for power wielders in rural
areas to be-fool the relatively naive rural people and serve their
purpose. If such system exists.
but the worse concern for me is not the corruption as that can be fixed
by using technologies and spreading awareness. The real concern is the
ir-revertible damage done to the farms in terms of their production by
excessive use of chemical fertilizers earlier.

from:  Ajeet Tiwari
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 17:15 IST

Public distribution system is a backbone for socio-economic development of any country which provides food for people living below BPL at subsidies rate. PDS system make hope for Poor people. There should be online Database for Public distribution system provides information of all the items under it and this database must be easily accessible to People below BPL. Government can also used as an effective mechanism for distribution of subsidies Diesel to small farmers. This requires purity of mind and willpower to make it efficient.

from:  Anuj Verma
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 16:37 IST

food corporation of india should be made reachable by rural panjayat leaders without any interruption to get the decentralized PDS food items.

from:  j mercy
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 16:37 IST

As mentioned, instead of having an upside down distribution system where food procurement and distribution starts from center,having decentralised system with focus on improving efficiency of local distribution may help in not only increasing nutrition level, but in curbing corruption as well by involving more of local forces whose welfare depends on those food supplies. The process must start at intra-state level follwing zonal and then central distribution system.

from:  Sneha
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 15:09 IST

Unless the author believes that this strategy is without loopholes/consequences, it is imperative that answers are ready for worst case scenario. No plan is ever made to degrade the existing process. However, in due course of time, the drawbacks in the logic emerge and question the very purpose. Hence, it's a sincere suggestion that any new age plan must be accompanied with alternatives to tackle worst case scenario if it is to be considered for implementation. Otherwise, 20 years down the line, someone else would be raise the same questions and we will be back where we started

from:  vamsi krishna
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 14:57 IST

I agree that its difficult for all the farmers to practice traditional farming,still even if half of them are ready then it can create a bigger difference as far as nutrition is concerned.

from:  ashish gurav
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 14:39 IST

hunger index in india is increasing is seriously a part of the agrarian
crisis as the share of agriculture is decreasing in GDP...and the rate
of population is increasing consistently ...organic farming seems to be
a better alternative...and more important than it the govt. policy &
planning..

from:  vipin gujjar
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 12:34 IST

After RTI,RTE now its time for RTF. India accounts for nearly 42% of the world's malnourished childern which is a serious cause of concern and made us to devise alternative ways.Smart Card instead of Cash money transfer or e-Ration card are possibly the effective tool to improve the distribution side but it require synergy with another link i.e. Production to Procurement and its allocation.Despite of good intentions of Food Security Bill, it lacks at implementation side.There are some constraints like identification of people under BPL belt, distribution and management channels that need to be addressed.In order to improve the state of key elements of Decentralised PDS, MNREGA can play a vital role and solve the problem of asset creation.States like Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andra Pradesh are good example of it, as local procurment of grain in Chattisgarh is 57% while in West Bengal it rest at 7%, that clearly indicate the significance of Decentralised PDS.

from:  Amit Naik
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 12:18 IST

It seems "The Green Revolution" was only a tactical solution to the
problem.PDS would be a strategical solution if done effectively.

from:  Shweta Singh
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 12:02 IST

The author grossly undermines the benefits of green revolution

from:  Ritvij Pathak
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 11:59 IST

Local food systems can meet to a certain extent local food needs, reduce transport costs and empower local farmers. However, given the variability of soil fertility and the limited availability of land, water, and even rural labour resources (so difficult to get labour for farming even at high wages; nobody wants to work, they want to get the free or highly subsidized rice or wheat and use the NREGA wages for drinking and spoiling their health), it is difficult to meet all the food needs from local food systems. We need to identify areas of high productivity and sustainable production systems to produce maximum food to meet the growing food demands. It can then be combined with local food systems to improve human nutrition. What is needed more is the education of rural youth on the need for physical work and dignity of labour, good nutrition through mixed food intake, and avoidance of drinking and smoking that are injurious to health.

from:  V. Balasubramanian
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 11:50 IST

A nation of Billion people having more than two duzen cultures and languages are governed by one planning commission of a dozen people who are educated/trained in US/UK. We can only expect the plans laid for the people by planning comission are totally corrupt.

from:  Ram
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 10:34 IST

Nice article . Shows how the schemes are,made with corruption in mind... And what it could
have been....

from:  Ajay
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 06:22 IST

If the soil in a particular area is viable only for certain variety of crops, how can decentralised PDS help as there wouldn't be a bio-diversity in the crops of the region?

from:  Ravi Kiran
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 05:06 IST

Very good article. Article only misses auditing & accounting mechanism for decentralised PDS. Corruption is at all levels. So, we need tracking, checks to keep system going. Technology can give the solution on this front - like Aadhar.

from:  Mahesh J
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 02:15 IST

Isnt the failure of the traditional agricultural system in many places the reason for the green revolution in the first place?

from:  Ram P
Posted on: Mar 29, 2012 at 01:44 IST
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