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    HOME > 03 May 2008 > Ideas > Alternative PDS

    New system throws up some food for thought
    Naren Karunakaran

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    Physically and fiscally unsustainable" is how the Central government’s Department
    Alternative PDS

    Unfair: The mainstream PDS has huge leakages. By comparison, this alternative is more efficient and empowering

    of Food and Public Distribution describes the tottering Public Distribution System (PDS).

    The Indian PDS, perhaps the largest welfare measure anywhere in the world, amounts to a food subsidy bill of Rs 23,828 crore (2006-07). The subsidy stood at Rs 2,850 crore in 1991-92. Despite the size of the outlay, however, a large number of the 180 million families targeted by the system do not receive their share of foodgrains.

    NC Saxena, Commissioner of the Supreme Court on Food Security, considers the prevailing state of affairs a mockery of the entire governmental exercise in securing food and nutrition for millions of Indians living below the poverty line (BPL). The PDS requires over 75 million tonnes of foodgrain, at 35 kg per family per month. The entitlement, however, is only on paper. In reality, the PDS gets only 25 million.

    Of this, too, diversions and leakages take away a bulk. At the national level, the average leakage amounts to around 36.4% of the offtake of the BPL quota. Bihar had recorded a high of around 81.5% in diversions and leakages. Alarmed by the state’s inability to shore up food security, policymakers have been contemplating a number of measures. "It will be good idea to look at direct transfers or just giving cash to the poor," says Saxena.

    A new approach

    While the governmental machinery battles the issue, Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, has demonstrated a viable and sustainable alternative public distribution system (APDS), where foodgrain production, procurement, storage and distribution is carried out at the village level. Interestingly, the entire system is managed by women, mostly dalit, grouped as sanghams.

    The alternative PDS goes beyond ‘food security’ to a more refined concept of ‘food sovereignty.’ "It’s not enough to empower communities to access food. They should also grow and consume what they want to," says PV Satheesh, Director, DDS.

    The system, which embraces coarse cereals and a variety of millets, the traditional food of the region, has ensured food, nutrition, fodder and livelihood security to communities who participate in the programme. It has been proven across 50 villages, over 2,000 hectares, in the semi-arid, south-western parts of Andhra Pradesh.

    DDS believes that the rice- and wheat-driven PDS and the continued neglect of coarse grains has serious implications for both dry-land farming and food security in the country. "The government has spent all its resources in marginalising the most nutritive millets that people have grown on their rainfed lands and driven it out of people’s food systems," he says.

    The APDS rests on an elaborate system to bring fallows under cultivation. The DDS extends a loan to each member, based on the cost of low-input and organic cultivation, and the money required to convert fallows into productive land. This amount is to be repaid in the form of grain and cash over a period of five years, in pre-fixed quantities and pre-fixed rates. For instance, in the first year, a farmer will have to repay 150 kg of sorghum (jowar) and Rs 125 cash.

    The grain component thus collected goes into a community grain store. Women of the sangham, through participatory approaches of wealth ranking, rate households in the village on a scale of four. The destitute black card holders receive the maximum monthly entitlement of jowar at a subsidised rate. Accordingly, entitlements are apportioned—the landless poor (red card holders), marginal farmers (green card) and the small farmer (yellow). The money received from the sale of foodgrain is deposited in a bank as the Community Grain Fund (CGF), which is utilised year after year to reclaim more fallows.

    Far-reaching impact

    The result of the initiative has been remarkable. In 2002, when India faced one of the most severe droughts in recent times, none of the APDS villages were in stress. "In fact, some of the villages had more than they needed," says Satheesh.

    Again, in 2003, when Andhra Pradesh announced subsidised seeds for farmers, there was a mad rush to buy them. Police had to fire on farmers at a block near Hyderabad. In Zaheerabad, where much of the DDS work has been undertaken, scores of villages were sitting on gene banks, huge quantities of dozens of varieties of seeds. Women sanghams, over the years, have even retrieved over 80 seed varieties on the brink.

    The 50 APDS villages produce an extra 1.5 million kg of jowar every year, which translates into 3 million extra meals per year; over 1,000 extra meals for every participating family. The fodder produced by the newly cultivated fields sustains over 10,000 head of cattle and, in each village, 2,500 extra wages have been created per year.

    The APDS has now been expanded to the Telangana and Rayalseema regions, and also in two districts of coastal Andhra Pradesh.

    The system has established the viability of a robust community-driven PDS. All that is required is a one-time investment that can banish or reduce to a great extent the mounting food subsidies every year.

    "Even in harsh dryland conditions, every village community can be self-sufficient in food production and ensure its own food security. But it must have access to resources and credit. Once it is made available, there can be vibrant food-producing, food-secure communities in this country," says Satheesh.

    And now for the denouement: In the mainstream PDS, for every Rs 7 that is spent on the programme, only Re 1 reaches the ultimate consumer; while in the APDS, out of every Rs 1.60 spent on the programme, Re 1 reaches the ultimate consumer.

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