From food security to food sovereignty – Autonomous community level production systems show the way

P V Satheesh

The much touted progress in food production in this country in the last couple of decades has been fuelled just by two crops, rice and wheat (the so called `fine’ cereals) and that too in irrigated areas.  While the agricultural policy makers debate on the desirable productivity levels, the continuing decline of the area under coarse grains paints another picture altogether. It is significant that in the cases of Sorghum, Little millet and Finger millet a drop to the tune of 50% has come about just in the last decade of the previous century, the period corresponding to the processes of structural adjustment, globalisation and allied forces acting on the Indian economy. This tells its own story of neglect and marginalisation.

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. But, the problem however with this PDS programme is that, it concentrates only on two grains: rice and wheat. That a massive programme like this provides for a regular and continued intake of rice and wheat from the market for distribution  and assures a steady  price 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 farmers who grow coarse grains on their rainfed farms 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, weans away the traditional users of coarse grains from those grains also and leaves the coarse cereals unbuffered. This makes the millet farmers nervous about producing more on their farms fearing a possible drop in market prices. As a consequence of all these factors, many rainfed farms have been abandoned and large areas in dryland agriculture are turning into fallows.

It may also be very important for us to note that the diversity of people’s food habits which was a corollary to their cropping systems has also been affected negatively by the kind of agriculture promoted since the last three decades. The policies pursued by the government and its agricultural financial institutions have destroyed the biodiversity on people’s farms. This finds a reflection in the available data on per capita availability of different food items for people. In 25 years since 1950, while the per capita availability of rice and wheat went up by over 50%, availability of pulse came down drastically by almost 40%. One of the contributing reasons for this could be that the diversity of cropping where pulses used to be a part of the mixed cropping system has now been reduced to monocrops of  so called “preferred cereals”, a nomenclature which itself has Orwellian tones. The government has spent all its resources in marginalising the most nutritive millets that people have grown on their rainfed lands and driving it out of people’s food systems.

To correct this trend, the emphasis now needs to be laid on a new approach which has to be people centered and people designed based on time tested people’s science. One such effort is by the Deccan Development Society which has been working with the Dalit women for nearly two decades in the semi arid tracts of the Deccan plateau.

The early efforts of the Society to create a more productive base for the dalit women to improve their lands through eco employment lead to a second initiative on enabling these women to lease in patches of lands from the richer landlords and work on it as a farming collective. Both these steps significantly contributed to the food security of the women.

But looking at the trends of globalisation and its consequent threat to the autonomy of the rural communities, the DDS started working towards food sovereignty in place of food security. This meant that it was not enough to empower communities to access food but to ensure their sovereignty to produce the food they want to produce. This was the goal of the following two initiatives of the Society – (a) Alternative Public Distribution System through Community Grain Bank and (b) Community Gene Fund

The Alternative PDS through Community Grain Bank was initiated in 1994 in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh where the Society works. The basic objective of this jowar based PDS programme was to ensure local production, local storage and local distribution. This was operationalised by advancing financial assistance to the marginal farmers in 32 villages to reclaim their fallow lands through timely cultivation, application of farmyard manure and carrying out other timely farming practices. The agreement was that the money advanced will be returned in the form of grains which are stored in their own village and sold at a cheap price to the poorest families in the villages. All the decisions were to be made by the community and nothing was to be imposed from outside. This programme was piloted in 32 villages involving about 1600 families covering 1000 ha of marginalised farmlands. This has given DDS, a range of experiences.

Through this alternative PDS, the women brought over 1000 hectares of fallows under the plough, producing an extra 800,000 kilograms of sorghum in their villages in the very first year, producing nearly three million extra meals in 32 villages. The programme also generated a massive additional employment in every village that it was implemented. The extent was about 75 person days of employment per acre which roughly worked out to about 8000 person days of employment per village. The fodder provided by the newly cultivated fields sustained over 6000 heads of cattle in 32 villages every year.

The Alternative PDS was much more than a food security initiative. It is a multidimensional activity providing household food security, nutritional security, fodder security, livelihood security, employment security and sustainability. Through this act, they were able to explode the myth that it is only Green Revolution model of agriculture in high potential areas that can bring food security into this country.

Such a massive and sustainable employment generation also has a direct impact on the purchasing power of the poor.

Two other aspects made this initiative far more unique.

  • In the mainstream PDS, for every seven rupees spent on the programme, only one rupee reaches the ultimate PDS consumer whereas in the Alternative PDS, out of every Rs 1=60 spent on the programme, one rupee reaches the ultimate consumer.
  • While a total of Rs.78 lakhs was invested on the programme, it paid back Rs. 218 lakhs in the very first two years recording a rate of return at 1:3, making it financially extremely viable.

And, finally the issue of management. The fact that this complex task was managed by groups of dalit women who are poor, illiterate and marginalised and were never allowed to manage anything in their lives is the most emphatic socio-political statement the women have made.

 In the second phase of the programme, even while surveying the villages where the programme was to be grounded, a strange fact came up when we tried to find out the number of ration cards issued in the village and the extent of cultivable fallows present in the village. Somehow, the amount of rice being received in the village corresponded to the potential production capacity of the fallows present. What we confronted was a simple truth that if these fallows had been put under production, they would match the amount of grains distributed under the PDS.  The lesson was loud and clear. Even in harsh dryland conditions, every village community can be self sufficient in food production and can look after 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. 

The current effort of the Deccan Development Society is to extend this possibility to the Medak District of Andhra Pradesh where the Society works and also influences the government in accepting this model as a sustainable one.

While the women sanghams continue their effort toward ascertaining food sovereignty in their villages, they have also convinced neighbouring villages regarding the same. Yet, the Government of India remains far removed from this basic logic, though there is some appreciation by individuals in the bureaucracy who have visited this model (See Box).

Out of a series of consultations during the period 1999-2001, a Food security Corridor emerged, initially constituting of three Christian Aid’s partners – Deccan Development Society (DDS), PREPARE, Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC). Starting as a platform to exchange individual organisations’ experiences this forum gradually started encouraging communities to address their issues of food security and rural development on a wider scale and aim for policy level changes by joining hands.

Meanwhile, the Central Government had sent a circular (dated 22nd September 2005) to all state governments towards initiating a new scheme for the establishment of new Village Grain Banks all across the country. This is as per the mandate of the Common Minimum Programme of the present government. It is a Centrally sponsored scheme; the expenditure on the major portion of the scheme will be borne by the Central Government, and it will be the joint responsibility of the central and state governments to implement it. The total cost of each grain bank would be Rs.60,000. Rupees ninety per quintal shall be allocated towards the transportation costs of moving grains to villages from the closest depots of the Food Corporation of India (FCI). So it is the grain in the FCI depots, which will be used for the setting up of the grain banks.

On 17th and 18th October, 2005 a National Consultation on Food Security Corridor was organised in Hyderabad. Interested organisations were invited and the alternative model of public distribution system as a viable model for sustaining small holder agriculture, community food security and rural livelihoods was presented. One session of the meeting was dedicated for the new government scheme proposed. Shri. Bhanwar Lal, Secretary to the Government of AP, Consumer Affairs, Food and Civil Supplies, received direct feedback from the participants of the workshop. He assured the participants that this scheme should only be seen as a temporary measure to address the issue of hunger, and not a long term strategy to address food security. He also stressed that there would not be any restriction to even millets and pulses being provided to the grain banks, as in Andhra Pradesh a policy level decision has been taken to include these grains in the mainstream PDS.

Although establishing village grain banks is a critically needed task, this model of external dependencies will not work. The Government of India’s proposal is far removed from the concepts of local production, local storage and local distribution. Even if the government ensures that the grains provided will also include millets and pulses, it will still not be sustainable.

In addressing the issues in agriculture and hunger in the country, the Centre’s planners do not draw from umpteen examples of biodiverse farming, community grain banks, community seed banks, etc. around the country . These initiatives have repeatedly proven the need for strong links between local production, storage, and distribution. They emphasize food sovereignty, not trade; the PDS has already spent decades oblivious to this important distinction, and millions of families have paid an enormous price for this myopia.

P.V. Satheesh, Director, Deccan Development Society (DDS), Pastapur Village, Medak District,

Zaheerabad – 502 318, Andhra Pradesh, INDIA



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