Local farmers in Medak, part of Telangana, call them Satyam pantalu- the crops of truth ...



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How to make PDS Work for the Poor

This paper was presented by P V Satheesh in an Action Aid seminar on Food Security (Hyderabad October 26-27, 1998).
The paper explains the context in which the Altermative PDS through Community Grain Fund programme being implemented by the DDS and the experiences over the last three years.


The question that this paper is supposed to address is How can we make PDS work for the Poor ? That a question like this needs to be raised about one of the foremost poverty-alleviation programmes in this country is an irony in itself. What it suggests is that some fundamental questions have not been asked and addressed in this programme.

I guess the reason why such questions have not been asked is the fact that PDS is a holy cow. It is so pristine that most people would like not to question its basics. Of course there are always some questions raised periodically : issue prices, purchasing power, procurement prices etc. But none of them I think can really satisfy the basic question : How can we make it work for poor?

Then where does the problem lie ? What question needs to be asked and answered ? To my mind, the question that should rise to the top of the PDS agenda is the question of Control and participation . Where does the control lie and who decides what ?

It is in this respect that poor have no say in the present PDS system and their participation in the system, except as consumers is nil. Look at three major components of the present PDS system:

  • Grain distributed : from whom and by whom
  • Where is it stored
  • Who makes decisions

Willy nilly the two major grains distributed are wheat and rice. There is no place for coarse grains grown and consumed in more than 65% of India. This means that culturally and agriculturally, about 60% of India has no say. Most interestingly it is in this region where the semi-arid tract runs, where agriculture is rainfed and where millets are grown and eaten for centuries that the poorest populations of India live. Most of them are adivasis for whom hunger is a daily reality of life.

Therefore when the policy makers in this country decide that rice and wheat shall be the grains for PDS, what they have ensured is that nearly 65% of India stays out of decision making.


Let us look at it from a nutritional point of view. If the PDS rice and wheat were at the top of nutritional chart in terms of the proteins, minerals and vitamins they supply to the poor of the dryland regions, their imposition would have had at least a moral sanction. But this is not the case as the following table bears out. In fact rice is at the bottom of all components of grain nutrition.

Nutrition Content of Different Food Crops
(All values per 100 gm of edible portion)

(100 gms)
(100 gms)
Pearl Millet (Bajra)
Finger Millet (Ragi)
Sorghum (Jowar)

Ref : Vandana Shiva; BETTING ON BIODIVRSITY: Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi, 1998

Then how do people eat rice in rice growing areas and survive ? People use their staple with some accompanying foods and these practices are local-specific. Rice eaters have specific vegetables,pulses and curds to accompany their staple, rice. These accompanier foods compensate for the nutritional dificiency of rice. But soghum eating people are particularly deprived of vegetables and milk products. Their jowar rotis are most of the time eaten with a water dal and/or ground chillies. Therefore rice in dryland Deccan and Rajasthan is nutritionally genocidal. Indigenous people elsewhere in the world have faced this situation at many points of time in history. It is unwittingly happening here. Denial of indigenous food is a political act and we must become conscious of it.

Culture and Food

Culture and food are inseparable. Using rice in non-rice eating areas is akin to decimation of a culture. Jowar in Deccan and Rajasthan is used for all festivals : as a fertility grain, as an votive grain, as a thanksgiving grain. Ignore jowar and bring in rice, you have killed an entire culture.

Most of the policy makers who decided what grains should be served in PDS shops have personal options of selecting the food they want to eat. But can the PDS consumers demand what they want from the shops ? Coarse grain people- coarse grain, rice people-rice and wheat people wheat ? Supposing by a miracle dryland farming starts producing ten times more and the irrigated areas lose their productivity. In that kind of an hypothetical scenario, if all PDS carries jowar and bajra will people in coastal Andhra, West Bengal and Kerala eat only jowar and bajra ? If even a suggestion like this sounds absurd, how is it that rice is forced on sorghum-growing, sorghum-eating areas ? Is it because they are poorer and less powerful ? And their voices of protest are silent and will not be heard ?

Nobody asked people what they want. Today, we have put in a system of rice based PDS and say complacently, but oh, people are taking it. People in rainfed areas are steeped in poverty. In their villages, PDS operates only for three-four days a month. People have no luxury of option to decide what to buy. They pawn, borrow, share the offtake when the grain is available. Surely. If you make food scarce and cake available at very cheap prices, you will be reliving Marie Antoinette's famous phrase.

Who gains, who loses ?

The cost of PDS during the last three years was as follows:

1994 - 95 Rs 5100 crores
1995 - 96 Rs 5250 crores revised to 5500 crores
1996 - 97 Rs 5774 crores

Not all of this is consumer subsidy, going directly to the poor. It includes cost of buffer stocking, open market sales made at lower than economic cost and losses on supplies made to exporters.

The real beneficiaries of large increase in procurement prices have been surplus farmers. The huge outlays in the name of food subsidy help sustain food prices at high levels. Thus the PDS mainly serves the interests of farmers with surplus produce.

Contrast this with actual consumers of PDS. In 1997 that PDS offtake was down by 72% and the subsidy was up by 15%. Clearly stating that PDS grains were out of reach of the poor. People simply did not have the money to buy foodgrains from PDS shops.

A solution often offered to this situation is that PDS should be dovetailed to an employment generation programme which makes it possible for people to buy food. This pushes the government into another vortex of problems.

Ecological Costs

Rice and wheat supplied are from irrigated areas. More of them mean monocropping and high salinity, increased use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Western UP studies tell us that for the same yield the use of chemicals has gone up more than four times. Similar will be the use of pesticides. Rice weavils and other insect pests are getting increasingly pesticide-resistant and the dosage of chemicals is constantly increasing. A pristine place like Chhattisgarh which hosted more than 350 varieties of rice is now moving to hybrids in a governmental effort to convert it into a New Rice Bowl. This signals the effects of a rice based PDS. More of it in PDS means more hybrids targeted towards high production. Less control over seeds for farmers. More use of chemicals. We are creating an ecological time bomb for ourselves.

On the other hand, leaving the drylands degraded has its own ecological costs. More and more desertification and consequent migration. Increasingly bulging cities. Huge problems of hygiene, sanitation, pollution. More and more of urban areas become wretched.

Is the present PDS sustainable ?

Rice production is reportedly showing a decline. Aquaculture and such other more profitable cropping will take away farmers from rice cultivation. The ecological costs like mangrove destruction and resultant severe cyclones over continuing years will make the dependence on rice more and more risky.

The World Bank and IMF demand that irrigation should be paid for, will make rice growing more expensive. The violent agitation by AP farmers opposing increased levy on irrigation in 1995-96 shows the extent of this problem.

Community Grain Fund of DDS

It is in this overall context that we should look at the DDS model of PDS which is called the Alternative PDS through Community Grain Fund. This is a model which intends to set up a totally community managed PDS system based on coarse grains, locally produced, locally stored and locally distributed. It is also a model wherein the poorest of the poor among the dalit women have initiated and taken control of the PDS system. If they are allowed to succeed, they would probably set up the first ever decentralised PDS system in this country which does not need constant subsidy year after year.

This important democratic experiment was entirely funded and supported by the Ministry of Rural Areas and Employment of the Government of India.This pilot experiment started in 30 villages in 1995 with the following main objectives:

  • To bring under plough cultivable fallow lands to produce the required amount of jowar for consumption locally and in the process make the poor self?sufficient in regard to foodgrains.
  • To generate gainful employment by bringing more fallow land under cultivation of jowar in the project area.
  • To promote use of organic manure like farmyard manure to restore ecological balance to sustain the agriculture development.
  • To reduce the overhead costs of PDS (in terms of transport and centralised management,) and to provide more nutritious traditional and staple grain (Sorghum /jowar) instead of rice which is alien in rainfed areas to the poorer sections in food starved villages.
  • To enhance the self esteem among the project partner women so as to manage the food security system on their own; and
  • To involve womens sanghams in planning and implementation of the project in order to empower them through development process.

The project has covered about 2650 acres of poor farm households belonging to dalit and minority communities located in 32 villages drawn from five Mandals in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh . In each of these villages about 80 to 100 land holders were identified and financially supported to bring about 1.5 acres of fallow land per member under cultivation of jowar. The PDS linked to this fallow development for food production, benefitted about 4000 poor families through supply of Jowar for six months at a price of Rs.2 per kg. The following were the investments and returns from the programme :

Investment made on unproductive lands

Investment (Rs. / Acre)
Year I
Ploughing, Purchase and application of farmyard manure, sowing and weeding
Year II
Ploughing, manuring, sowing and weeding
Year III
Ploughing, sowing and weeding
Investment over three years

This investment would be returned by the participants over five to six years in the form of grain in prefixed quantities at pre-fixed rates as below:

Return to the Community Grain Fund

Pre fixed quantities at pre fixed rates
Total return in terms of money
Year I
150 kgs @ Rs.3/kg.
Year II
200 kgs @ Rs.3/kg
Year III
200 kgs @ Rs.3/kg
Year IV
150 kgs @ Rs.3/kg
Year V
150 kgs @ Rs.3/kg.
850 kgs @ Rs.3/kg

The quantum of foodgrains collected from each farm family assuming 100 beneficiary families per village works out to 150 quintals. The jowar thus collected is treated as Community Grain Fund from which PDS needs of the beneficiaries is met. It is just equivalent to the PDS requirements for six months (@ 25 kgs/per family/month). The issue price of the grains (supplied through the Community Grain Fund) to the PDS members was decided to be Rs.2/? per kg. Since the procurement price for jowar (loan component) was Rs.3/- per kg., this scheme provided a subsidy of Rs 150/? to each member per annum.

The entire operation, from fallow reclamation, to crop raising, to storage to beneficiary identification, till PDS distribution is managed at the village level by committees of women, most of whom are dalits. It is remarkable that these women who were passive PDS grain receivers and had to go beg petty bureaucrats at all levels to get their ration card are today deciding who among their village communities are the poorest and should have entitlement of their jowar ration.

Through this alternative PDS these women brought over 1000 hectares of fallows under the plough. They produced an extra 800,000 kilograms of sorghum in their villages in the very first year. This 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 at the rate of 200 cattle per village.


Employment Generation

As per a report by the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad, the programme generated 2.39 lakh person days of employment during first year and 2.44 lakh person days in second year.

In each village, around 7,967 person days of employment has been generated per annum. The market wage is Rs.15/- per day for women and Rs.20/- for males in 1995-96 . The estimated wage income generated in 30 villages together is around Rs.35.85 lakhs in the first year and Rs.36.60 lakhs in second year. This wage income accrued not only to the land beneficiaries (1729) but also other labour households who are not covered by the scheme.

It is important to note that the total wages earned by the people in 32 village was much higher than the project investment itself. While the project expenditure for 2650 acres in two years stood at Rs.59,62,500, the wage income generated by it stood at Rs.72,45,000.

When you look at the project gains as perceived by the rural poor, the list looks fascinating. When the NIRD research team asked for such a listing, the respondents of a village called Eedulapally listed the following points as their benefits:

  1. Increase in fertility of the soil
  2. Increase in food intake
  3. Self-reliance
  4. More work in the village
  5. No more seasonal migration
  6. Fodder for animals and dry stock for roofing
  7. Soil conservation
  8. Health and nutrition

This indicates that the DDS model of community controlled PDS has ensured quantity and quality of food, has reinstalled productive biodiversity in farms, provided farmers opportunity for deciding varietal preferences and thereby created richer farm environment. It has revitalised local practises like addition of farmyard manure, cart transportation; incrasing draught animal power all of which have sound implications for sustainable, locally managed, organic agriculture.

storage baskets

Through this programme local artisans like basket makers find a new ecological role in production of non-chemical storage baskets. This has helped women in local storage of grains using local methods using eco friendly pest repellent storage material.

It has emphasised on democratic decision-making and control of community, particularly women in primary decision making. Dalit women have decided through collective processes in a structured way who gets the produced foodgrains. They have employed transparent equity criteria for entitlement through direct democracy, solidarity and consensus. The very process is gender-just. Poor women from lower social ranks have found a new decisive voice and control over their food security.

The food production has been meant for local needs and not for external market. Benefits of this will enable radical reorientation to food production, control for local consumers to decide what should be grown on their lands; production to enhance diversity of local needs; capacity for local minor grains to reemerge and find a niche in the local markets. It will help a range of coarse grains like proso millet, kodo millet, little millet etc marginalised by mainstream market come back to life.

A process whereby marginalised cultures, marginalised lands, marginalised people and marginalised grains can find centre stage.

This experiment shows us the direction towards which we can lead PDS serve the cause of the poor.