Food security is not charity

Give the poor a say in planning and executing drought relief works

By K S Gopal
Published: Sunday 15 August 2004

Food security is not charity

-- Food for work is amongst the relief measures adopted by the Union and state governments to address food distress in drought hit areas. But it has failed to ameliorate starvation. One look at the way it has been implemented tells us why. For one, a long bureaucratic process precedes declaring an area as drought-affected. Then comes identifying the relief works and the villages where they have to be undertaken; this is almost always contingent upon political diktats and the convenience of contractors. Consequently, starving people in remote areas rarely receive attention.

Moreover, once the works are sanctioned there is immense pressure on the bureaucracy to complete them as fast as possible. The focus of Food for Work projects consequently gets diverted towards addressing immediate official priorities. This leads to extensive use of labour-displacement machinery. And for those who find work, food comes in a huge deluge -- 500-600 kilogrammes (kg) at a time. The poor, not used to storing grains for long periods -- and under immense pressure from moneylenders -- tend to sell them off quickly.

Removing such inadequacies requires a paradigm shift. Currently about 65 per cent people in drought prone areas -- and about 42 per cent people in rural areas -- do not receive adequate foodgrains. This, when the godowns of the Food Corporation of India are bursting with food stocks, indicates something seriously wrong with our public distribution system.

Some advocate reducing foodgrain prices to address this anomaly. Past experiences show that this does not work: the subsidised grains do not even reach rural markets for they are siphoned off by the food processing industry and exporters. Moreover, our planners should realise that food security is not charity. A far better approach is providing foodgrains on credit to the poor in drought-affected areas.

A good example of such an approach is the Food Assurance Programme -- a project run by the Society For Implementation of Rural Credit (serp), an autonomous body under the Andhra government. The programme covers severely drought-affected areas in Adilabad, Mahbubnagar, Anantpur, Srikakulam, Chittoor and Vizianagaram districts of Andhra Pradesh. The state's Civil Supplies Corporation gives rice on credit to women's self help groups (shgs) in the six districts at a rate of Rs 6.40 per kg; it also charges an interest of 12 per cent per annum.

The serp identifies the shgs who receive this credit and also stands guarantee for its repayment. For the shgs, the price of rice including interest and transportation costs comes to Rs 6.50 per kg. These groups in turn loan the rice to their individual households at Rs 7 per kg. The 50 paisa profit accumulates into savings which come in handy if individual members don't pay back in time.

The villagers have responded positively to the programme. Observers say this is because improved food access has helped reduce their dependency on the machinations of unscrupulous traders and moneylenders. The villagers see food assurance as neither a dole nor a subsidy but a loan that has to be paid back in time and that ensures the programme's continuity.

The programme can be extended to other drought hit areas. Those availing the grain credit can pay it back by participating in the Food for Work scheme. However, this requires that the actual needy, rather than politicians and bureaucrats, have a greater say in planning and executing relief works. This will make such works more labour-centred and get rid of unnecessary intermediaries. More importantly, food availability will not be contingent upon a few bureaucrats' and politicians' discretion. The extent of government intervention can vary according to the severity of drought in a particular area.

K S Gopal is with the Hyderabad-based non-governmental organisation Centre for Environment Concerns.

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