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Ideas from Nashik on real food security

Written by Ashwini Kulkarni |
June 6, 2009 3:49:47 am

Now there is food at home — even if one of us falls ill for even a week,there is food to eat at home,” said agricultural labourer Runda Potinde from the small village of Nagalwadi in Nashik district. This is the simplest and strongest definition of food security.

The problems in the PDS have been written about ad nauseum. Foodgrain doesn’t reach the village; beneficiaries don’t receive their monthly allotted quota; the shops are rarely open; if and when they get the foodgrain stock,the price demanded by the shopkeepers is generally higher than the announced price,the grains are adulterated and of bad quality. All these have been written about,studied and experienced for decades.

There are simple and effective solutions out there. Here’s one: give families food in advance.

A group of BPL beneficiary families can come together and demand three months ration in advance. Once this amount is paid,their quota of ration is delivered by the government to their village.

How does it work? Let’s say each family manages to put

together Rs 550 for three months’ ration. This amount is deposited in the block-level treasury. Once that is done,within a week,a tempo comes into the village: foodgrain sacks are distributed — on the basis of what has been paid to each family — right there in an open space in front of all the beneficiary families. The ration shopkeeper is still in the system,getting a commission for maintaining records,giving receipts and so on. Around 23,000 families in 240 villages in Nashik district have used this system for three years now.

Local self-help groups of women are quite impressed with this initiative and have taken it up in a big way. They collect the required amount,keep records of the collection,travel to the block office to pay,and are present during distribution to ensure proper allocation. In addition they bear the costs if a particular family has difficulty in putting together the required amount in a particular month.

The benefits of this scheme for the beneficiaries are immense. The entitlement of an allocated quota per family had remained abstract earlier; now it became a real experience for the district’s families. For the first time,those families were able to really understand that the government had kept this much foodgrain aside for each family. That was real “food security”,physically and psychologically. The mechanism’s inherent transparency also helps: the entire village sees for themselves who are part of the “Antodaya” and BPL beneficiaries. Include the undeserving or exclude the deserving,and the whole village knows.

There are administrative advantages too. The stock in the godowns gets shifted to families’ houses,clearing up much-needed space there. Stock is moved less often; most significantly,there’s no additional

financial burden — with the potential to actually reduce leakage.

The apprehension is that there could be some poor families who may find it impossible to put together so much money at one go. Storage space could be a hurdle,or alcoholic husbands might just sell the grain to buy country liquor. All this is possible. There are methods to overcome each of these. In any case,this new scheme doesn’t replace,but complements,traditional delivery systems. So the families who are unable to pay lump sums can continue to buy at the ration shop as usual.

Our Public Distribution System is gigantic,with problems of leakages and inefficiencies everywhere. This mechanism has the potential to impact one of the links at the fag-end of this network with its multiple linked chains of delivery. Nevertheless,since this change is directly visible to the end-users,it has the potential to create political pressure on the system itself.

This shows the power of the last,local link,of simple changes in the system,and of well-intentioned bureaucrats — in this case,Nashik’s additional collector,Shekhar Gaikwad. Mechanisms such as this have a momentum of their own. The experience of entitlements and the transparency it provides can provide the fuel to keep it running. Local panchayat politics ensures checks and balances in implementation. But its biggest impact is that after 60 years of independence and 50 years of the PDS,at last,some families can experience genuine food security!

Food security for the poor was one of the promises of the Congress and a new bill is in the works. Declaring a price of

Rs 3 per kg is well and good,but it leaves open the question of how that will reach the poor. Maharashtra,with state

elections round the corner,has shown us a way. Scaling

up of this effort assures rich electoral gains.

The writer is a Nashik-based

agricultural economist

express@expressindia.com

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