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Food Security for Dryland Communities
By p v satheesh, director, deccan development society

Local Control is the key

Food security in the context of the aggressive globalisation should be seen from three angles:

  • Whether the food can be accessed by the communities locally
  • Whether the food accessed serves their nutritional security
  • Whether local communities can control this food system

These are the three cardinal principles that govern the food security approaches of the Deccan Development Society, a voluntary rural development organisation, operating in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh for over a decade and a half. The society has been working with dalit women and very poor women from other social groups in 75 villages spread over five mandals of the District. In each of these villages the women members of the Society have formed themselves into sanghams, voluntary associations of people. All the activities of the Society are taken up by these sanghams.

To reach the goal of food security the Society has taken four steps which are as follows:

  • Enhance the productivity of the marginal lands owned by the dalit women thereby increasing the food availability to their families.
  • Encourage sangham women to lease in lands from bigger farmers, cultivate them collectively and share the produce. This programme combined the principles of empowerment and enhanced food security.
  • Pilot in 30 villages an Alternative Public Distribution System (Community Grain Fund) on the principle of local production, local storage and local distribution systems. This programme established a locally managed, community controlled public distribution system.
  • Initiate a Community Gene Fund through which the women not only started an in situ conservation of local landraces but also developed a village level germplasm bank of the traditional crop varieties. Through this programme, women were able to establish a decisive control over their own seed systems.

All these initiatives had one underlying common principle: local control over their food security.

Current Context

In the context of globalisation where the rural communities and their food security are increasingly threatened, the importance of such local initiatives need to be understood.

But before taking on this task, I would like to dwell a bit on the larger scenario of food security in this country against which the DDS initiatives need to be understood.

Decline and fall of coarse cereals

In rural India especially in the vast stretches of dryland belts spreading across the Deccan plateau, north Karnataka, Marathwada, the deserts of Rajasthan, many tribal areas in Central India, coarse cereals like sorghum (jowar), Pearl Millet (bajra) and Finger Millet (ragi or mandua), Foxtail millet (kown or korra) have been the mainstay of people's agriculture, diet and cultural systems. Farming of these crops extends to 65 per cent of the geographical area of the country where agriculture is rainfed and concentration of rural poor is heavy. These rainfed crops demand least external inputs, no irrigation and have assured the food security for the rural communities especially for the marginalised and the vulnerable.

The much publicised progress in food production in this country over the last couple of decades has been fuelled just by two crops, rice and wheat (the so called `fine' cereals). Out of every 100 tonne rise in food production, 91 tonnes were contributed by rice and wheat; the remaining nine tonnes was provided by coarse cereals (5.5 tonnes) and pulses (3.5 tonnes).

Some estimates tell us that to sustain the food supply levels to meet the needs of increasing population size, rainfed areas must achieve production levels of at least two tonnes per ha as against the present productivity levels of one tonne per ha. This will surely create a panic and the suggested measures start becoming worse than the disease itself. For eg. the proposed interventions relate to technology, inputs and infrastructural support which in plain English translate as supply of more chemical fertilisers, pesticides and mechanisation of agriculture . In short a new green revolution in the rainfed areas. Obviously very few lessons have been learnt from the past.

While the agricultural policy makers debate on the desirable productivity levels, the area under coarse grains give us another picture altogether. In the last three decades, Sorghum has lost 35% of cropping area (from 18.56 million hectares in 1964-65 to 11.75 million hectares in 1994-95) while Little Millet has lost nearly 60% of the crop area during the same time. Finger Millet (Ragi) has lost 30% and Pearl Millet (bajra) 16%. The following table tells a clear story:


It is significant that in the cases of Sorghum, Little Millet and Finger Millet a drop in the cultivated area to the tune of 50% has come about just in the last decade, the period corresponding to the processes of structural adjustment and globalisation.

If the government and the policy makers were really worried about increased production on rainfed farms, the first step they would have probably taken would have been to protect lands under these crops. Instead, they have allowed these crop areas shrink through their agricultural financing policies which are positively hostile to the rainfed crops. Neither crop loans nor crop insurance are available to these crops. As a result the real food security crops which can answer the hunger in the most vulnerable geographical regions like the Deccan plateau, the deserts of Rajasthan have been forced to gasp for their survival.

The future does not look bright either. In their estimation of foodgrain requirement for the next ten years, the policymakers allot a very minor place for the coarse cereals. For the ninth and tenth plan periods, rice has been accorded 42% share and wheat nearly 35%. Coarse grains which are grown in almost half the geographical area of the country are allocated only 14% share. The following table provides a picture of this systematic murder of coarse grains.


This clearly indicates the lack of political will in the country to achieve food security through coarse cereals which demand very little inputs but cry for an enabling policy environment.

Strangely one of the major contributors to this problem is the Public Distribution System possibly the largest such affirmative action in the world which provides subsidised food at cheap prices to the poor. This PDS however concentrates only on two grains : rice and wheat. That a massive programme like this provides for a regular and continued intake of these grains from the market for distribution and a steady price for their produce makes agriculture remunerative and encouraging for rice and wheat farmers who are already supported by subsidised irrigation, subsidised fertilisers and adequate crop insurance.

On the other hand, the coarse grain, rainfed area farmers suffer from multiple handicaps. They have no assured irrigation, they do not get any subsidy for the farmyard manure which they apply for their lands, their crops do not get covered by the insurance firms and they have to depend on market forces which continue to be hostile to their produce. In contrast the flooding of the Public Distribution System by cheap rice and wheat takes away their traditional users also and leaves the coarse cereals unbuffered. The farmers also are scared to produce more on their farms fearing the possible drop in market prices as more produce enters it. As a consequence of all these factors, many rainfed farms have been abandoned and large areas in dryland agriculture are turning into fallows.

DDS initiatives

It is in this context that the work of a grassroots organisation like the Deccan Development Society must be seen. The 4000+ members of the society are primarily agriculture labourers and marginal farmers owning one or two acres of farmlands. Most of these lands are either inam lands gifted to them by their landlord-employers or lands assigned by the government as a part of its land reforms programme. Invariably most of these lands are degraded red soils, producing just about 30-50 kgs of grains per acre. The total quantity of grains earned by the members of DDS sanghams from their lands and through their labour sufficed their needs for six to seven months a year. The gap in their food security spanned four to five months a year. Bridging this gap was a challenge both for the women and for the DDS. As mentioned earlier, the Society took four important steps to achieve food security for its members.

STEP I : Towards Household Food Security (Eco-Employment)

~ This decade long programme from 1987-1997, has addressed individual household food security of dalits by encouraging them to work collectively on their marginalised lands towards its incremental upgradation. Through efforts like bunding, trenching, top-soil addition etc. carried out in this programme about 4000 members of the DDS women's sanghams have improved about 10000 acres of their own patches of degraded lands. This has also resulted in enhanced crop production on their lands by over 300 per cent. Lands which hardly grew 20-30 kg of sorghum per acre have now started growing about 150-200 kgs. This effort has increased the foodgrain availability to each family by four to six times.

STEP II : Food Security for the Community of the Dispossessed (Land Lease)

This effort addressed the Food Security needs of the dalit community as a community of the dispossessed.

Under this programme the sangham women worked as collective cultivators and took large chunks of land on lease from those land owners who had left parts of their lands uncultivated. On an average each sangham woman who was a member of her sangham's land lease group worked on the leased in land for four to five days a season. In return she earned enough foodcrop to last her family for one month in addition to a regular supply of fodder and greens. This was an additional food grain security for her family. An addition of about 80-100 kgs per family per crop season.

STEP III : Alternative Public Distribution System (Community Grain Fund)

From individual household and community of the dispossessed, this programme moved forward to look at the food security of the entire village community. An effort to realise the concept of regional self-reliance on food. The programme is described in detail in the later part of this paper.

STEP IV : Critical Control over Germplasm (Community Gene Fund)

The final step in the Food Security programme has been the Community Gene Fund programme which has been described above. Through this act the women have reestablished their control the most critical link in the food chain : the seeds. It has transformed their status in the community from the people who go begging the upper caste homes for seeds to the people to whom the rest of the village community goes to ask for seeds which they have lost.

All these programmes and their organic integration of food security, gender and indigenous knowledge have encouraged us to move in this direction in all DDS villages and sanghams and wrap up this programme as the building of a self-managed, self-sustaining community food security system. I will try and describe the programme Alternative Public Distribution System through Community Grain Fund in greater depth.

Key role of PDS

Indias Public Distribution System (PDS) played a key role after independence in averting famines. It purchased grain in surplus regions to build up stocks for transfer to food deficit areas in both urban and rural contexts. The Indian government has thus been able to distribute food at affordable prices to low income people through fair price shops. As such the PDS is a crucial policy instrument for food security and political stability in India.

However, the Public Distribution System has evolved as part of the market driven and irrigation centred agricultural policies of the government and development agencies. These policies have favoured the better endowed, resource rich areas and have neglected the needs and resources of people living in the more risk prone, rainfed, semi-arid areas that are home to 40% of the poorest people in India and where 66% of the country=s cattle live. The PDS has encouraged a new pattern of food consumption in the semi-arid tropical regions of India. The poor have increasingly shifted from eating locally grown rainfed cereals such as sorghum and millets to eating rice and other irrigated crops that are imported from the better endowed areas. This has led to sharp declines the area under coarse dryland cereals and their associated legume intercrops (pigeonpea, chickpea, and other beans). As a result fallow lands have also increased along with chronic seasonal food insecurity among the poor. [SEE BOX]

In a sense, the cheap rice-based public distribution was almost subversively destroying the agriculture of the poor in dryland areas. The women of Deccan Development Society rightly identified the question when they discussed the issue. Some of them clearly articulated the crux of the problem:

  • Cheap rice is attractive. But in the bargain we left our lands fallow
  • We hanker after rice and neglect our own lands"

In these extended discussions, they also started looking for a solution to the problem which was threatening their agriculture and through that their very existence.

Now we must manure and fertilise our lands. Grow traditional crops.


The existing system creates growth centres in limited areas leading to uneven regional development. It takes the money from the poor areas and transfers it to the richer areas of AP encouraging wasteful and conspicuous consumption. Moreover, this uneven development has led to different forms of land degradation. In the well endowed and richer areas productivity has been cut on irrigated lands because of increasing salinisation and waterlogging. At the other end of the spectrum, a process of desertification has been slowly at work in dryland farming areas that are typified by erratic rainfall, nutrient poor soils, ecological heterogeneity and recurring drought. The importation of subsidised rice through the PDS has made it uneconomical for small farmers to cultivate their lands and grow the coarse cereals (sorghum, millets) and pulses (pigeonpea, chickpea, lentils, mung and other beans) that are the backbone of their agriculture and the traditional food of their communities. There has consequently been a steep rise in the underutilisation and degradation of productive land as more plots have been put to fallow. Such fallows are mostly on lands owned by small and marginal farmers. The direct result of this increase in fallow lands has been a marked decline in the production and availability of traditional cereals and fodder. This has affected the nutritional intake of rural people

(especially women and children) and has increased the shortage of draught power. These fallows are also the breeding ground for weeds such as the highly toxic Parthemium spp. that then spread and undermine the productive potential of neighbouring farmland.

Sources: Ratna Reddy, V, 1992. Underutilisation of land in Andhra Pradesh: extent and determinants. Indian Journal of Agriculture and Economy.

Gopal, K.S. and M.Sashi Kumar, 1997. Food security in the semi arid regions: towards a new paradigm. Mimeograph published by the Centre for Environment Concerns, 3-4-142, Barkatpura, Hyderabad, A.P., India.

One answer was to reclaim their fallows and breathe new life into their half dead lands. They collectively decided to deep plough the fallow lands, manure them and grow food crops for their families. But this needed investments to the tune of 2600 rupees an acre. No financial institution offers such loans to small farmers growing dryland food crops. But the women decided to fight for a reversal of this policy. The Ministry of Rural Development of the Government of India was approached by the women's sanghams through the Deccan Development Society. The Ministry saw the merit of the women's case and approved funding for their proposed Community Grain Fund (CGF) in 1994. A cycle of regeneration could thus begin.

As a result of this resolve, during the past five years, groups of largely illiterate and poor women have been in control of a completely community managed PDS system based on coarse grains that are locally produced, locally stored and locally distributed in thirty villages around Zaheerabad.

Meetings were initially held in each of these villages with project partners, the DDS and the village poor who came forward to implement the project on their lands. The modalities of the project were worked out. The required money was advanced over a three year period to the farmers to cover costs of ploughing, manuring, sowing and weeding. This money was later repaid in the form of grain grown on the newly developed lands. Rs. 2,600 per acre was advanced and repayment was set at 860 kg of sorghum per acre over a five year period. The repayment schedule for the coming five years was agreed at 150 kg, 200 kg, 200 kg, 150 kg and 160 kg per acre. After every modality was explained, negotiated and agreed to, formal agreements were drawn up for the purpose and acontract was signed between the individual farmers and the DDS.

Committees of women were formed to look after all the activities of the project in each village. Around 100 acres of fallow land were identified in each of the 30 villages.The women's concerns with inter and intra-village equity were reflected in the fact that all degraded and fallow lands belonged to the poor and that no one village had a disproportionate share of fallow land included in the scheme. A total of 2,675 acres were found suitable for the programme by the womens committees. The women, in turn, selected about 20 acres each and supervised the work on these personally to ensure that ploughing, manuring, sowing and weeding were all done on time.

The women committee members collected the input support funds from the Organisation and distribute the funds to the individual landowners in their respective groups. After the crop harvest, the Committee members took responsibility for collecting the repayment scheduled for the year from the participants and for storing the grain. At the end of the storage period, during the food-scarcity season, the grains are sold by the Committee members to the poorer households in the village, as per a decided quota. The sale proceeds are deposited in a Community Grain Fund Account by the Committee members. Each of the 30 villages has its own account, which is controlled and managed by the women committee members who are accountable to the villagers and the DDS.

Each committee member is responsible for the produce collected from 20 acres i.e. she collects between 3000 kg and 4000 kg of grain depending on the year of repayment. The grain collected is stored by the village committees, using indigenous storage technologies. Storage is decentralised at the village level, with the grain stored in four to five separate baskets each located in a different house.

The grain received from participating farmers as repayment is then distributed to the villages poorer households at a low price. The loan repayment is thus fed back into the local village economy and used to subsidise the sale of grain to the very poorest, so that they can get sufficient food to eat and become more productive members of the community.

The women of the village sangham identified about 100 poor households in each village for grain distribution a subsidised price. The identification of the poorest households in each of the 30 villages has been a fascinating democratic process in itself. For the first time in the history of this region dalit women, poor and from the lowest social rank in the village, decided who among the villagers were the poorest and qualified for community grain support.

In each of these 30 villages a village map indicating all the households was made on the ground by the villagers using participatory methods. The map was visible for all to see and correct on the village square. Criteria for rural poverty were evolved by the villagers themselves and each family was judged on a five point scale of poverty. Each poverty level was identified by a different colour (e.g. black=destitute, red= very poor, green= poor, etc.) and each house marked by a specific colour after careful deliberations and group discussions.

The households thus selected were issued a sorghum card by the sangham. Instead of the subsidised rice of the government PDS which costs Rs.3.50 per kg and is supplied year round (10 to 20 kg bag per household depending on household size) this card entitles a family, depending on their degree of poverty, to an amount of sorgum per month at the subsidised price of Rs.2.0 per kg for six months a year during the rainy season (the period of the year when the poor cannot find work and when food is scarce). The poorer the family, the larger their entitlement. For example, very destitute families are allocated 10 kg per family member and the poor families 2 kg per head with a maximum of 10 kg per household. he proceeds from the sale of the grain are deposited in a bank as the Community Grain Fund (CGF). Transparent procedures ensure that all the money earned by sales of sorghum grain goes back to the community grain fund account held by individual village groups. The money is used year after year to reclaim more fallows in the villages thus contributing to increase productivity through diverse farming systems and use of locally available resources. More and more food is produced and sold locally, and more job opportunities are created for people excluded from the mainstream economy.

Impacts of the alternative PDS

The social, ecological and economic benefits of this decentrally managed PDS were visible within a matter of two years. In aggregate terms, the CGF and alternative PDS has allowed marginalised women to bring over 2500 acres of fallow under the plough. They have produced an extra 800 000 kg of sorghum in their villages. This has meant that they were able to produce nearly three million extra meals in 30 villages. Or 1000 extra meals per family. The fodder provided by the newly cultivated fields sustained over 6000 heads of cattle in 30 villages. Finally, and most importantly, in each village 7967 persondays of employment were created per year for the first two years. In all 239,000 extra wages were earned in 30 villages during each of the first two years. The estimated wage income generated in each of the first two years was around Rs.36 lakhs. [SEE BOX].

Today, each acre of these rejuvenated lands yield 200 to 300 kgs of sorghum grain, 50 kgs of pigeonpea, 50 kgs of assorted pulses and amaranthus, fibre crops, and fodder sufficient for two heads of cattle per acre.

The village women who decentrally managed the PDS have brought back into cultivation extremely marginal lands that could barely yield more than 10 to20 kgs of grain per acre.



The extensive, regenerative farming that supports the alternative PDS is low on yields but deploys a productive, functional diversity that can deal with risk and uncertainty while meeting village requirements for food security. Subsidies can be progressively reduced and withdrawn in the long run as soils are regenerated and internally diverse agroecosystems sponsor their own fertility and pest control.

Food availability has been enhanced through a self-reliant, equitable and low cost food security system in which peoples criteria and their own definitions of poverty are central in decision making. The complementary links between the different forms of agrobiodiversity and rural livelihoods have created new job opportunities, some local economic surplus and a growing sense of dignity among villagers. The programme has also generated tremendous self-confidence among the women with the realisation that the poor can be producers of food for the PDS and not always helpless recipients of it.

The women sanghams experiment in Medak district entails a one time expenditure on the part of government. The rest of the costs are taken care of at the village level,-by its own newly evolved decentralised mechanisms. The alternative PDS and CGF are also designed in such away as to create extra jobs in each village. The CGF-PDS thus ensures that people are actually able to buy the grain they have produced in their local ecological and economic settings.

This decentralised storage is in stark contrast with the government PDS where all grain is stored in central warehouses of the Food Coorporation of India. Each warehouse probably stores millions of kilos of grain, thereby prompting the appointment of a huge array of officials, reams of paper work and miles of red tape, as well as considerable losses in storage. Moreover, the existing system can only operate through a centralised mechanism like the State government in which professionals define problems and solutions. A recurring investment is also needed every year to run the official PDS and ends up subsidising agricultural inputs for resource rich farmers, long distance and energy consuming transportation, warehousing and maintaining extensive distribution networks.

Moreover, the centrally managed government PDS is based on ecologically and genetically uniform farming on good quality lands. It uses large quantities of expensive inputs like chemical fertilisers, water, pesticides and improved rice varieties grown as monocrops. The scope of the existing system is restricted to areas with water potential. Tapping, storage and supply of water in these areas is expensive so large quantities of credit are needed for this as well as for the purchase of mechanisation and other industrial inputs. As the capital requirements are high, this type of intensive farming is largely in the hands of richer, male farmers in the well endowed areas of India.

The loss of highly productive land through salinisation and waterlogging in the irrigated areas is also a feature of the green revolution approach to farming. In the social and political realm there is a corresponding loss of farmers capacity for autonomous decision-making as farm households become dependent on national and transnational suppliers of off farm inputs (seeds, chemicals, genetic engineered products, credit etc.). Farmers' rights are thus reduced to the right to consume within parameters decided by more powerful and distant entities. Lastly, by responding to the needs of the dominant market and narrow economic considerations, this type of farming actively suppresses agricultural biodiversity not only in the well endowed rice growing areas but also stiffles the diversity-rich agriculture and the potential of rural people in other areas.

The decentralised and participatory management of the PDS opens up exciting new possibilities for achieving environment and development goals.

Achievements of the Alternative PDS experiment (in relation to objectives)

1. 2676 acres of cultivable fallows have been brought under cultivation. Due to unfortunate climatic conditions during the first three years of the project the objective of production of jowar has not been completely met. But other crops have been produced on these lands which yielded nothing at all or had abysmally low productions. The beginning of self sufficiency has been seen in the 32 villages where the programme is working.

2. The project in the first two years generated a total employment of 4.83 lakh persondays earning the communities in 32 villages a total wage income of Rs.72.45 lakh rupees. It maybe interesting to note that the wage income generated is almost equal to the total outlay for the programme in the first two years.

3. It vigorously promoted the use of organic manure. In the first two years of the project, the project partners used nearly 50000 tonnes of farmyard manure on their 2676 acres of land.

4. The project brought back sorghum vigorously into people's diet. In the first two years of the project, over and above the repaid grain, there were approximately 5 million extra meals produced in 32 villages, all the meals consisting of newly grown jowar, pigeonpea and other greens and pulses on the village fallows. THE PROJECT ENSURED THAT OUT OF EVERY SEVEN RUPEES SPENT IN THE PROJECT SIX RUPEES REACHED PEOPLE DIRECTLY AS AGAINST PROJECTED FIGURES FOR MAINSTREAM P D S WHERE TO MAKE ONE RUPEE REACH PEOPLE, GOVERNMENT SPENDS SEVEN RUPEES. THIS IS A PHENOMENAL REDUCTION OF OVERHEADS.

5. The community spirit and "high esteem" were dramatically high. For the first time dalit women from the poorest strata of the society who used to line up for ration cards, were conducting wealth ranking PRAs in their own villages deciding who in the community should get the jowar ration card. From the position of askers they became givers. This was a remarkable role reversal for them.

6. The entire project planning, implementation and monitoring was done by women's groups in all the 32 villages. DDS organised these women's groups, trained them and supported their initiatives.

7. The total benefits and costs per annum accounted for Rs.63.07 lakhs and Rs.32.25 lakhs respectively. The incremental capital:output ratio worked out at 1:0.96. ( The rate of return on the investment made in the project is about 96 per cent, which is eight times of bank rate).

What is significant is the fact that the absence of purchasing power which prevents the lifting of grains in the mainstream PDS is singularly absent in this project. The project has generated purchasing through increased wage incomes in each of its villages thereby ensuring that people
have enough cash on hand to buy jowar from their village grain funds.