Unravelling the food mess

Reaching food to people who need it the most has remained one of the most stubborn problems in India. The public distribution system (PDS) is in a shambles in most parts of the country with the poor unable to get their quota of foodgrains despite the biggest build-up of government stocks in recent times. A chunk of the grain mountain is rotting for want of storage space and effective mechanism for releasing adequate stocks in times of high food inflation. Is it time we dismantled the largely corrupt and inefficient PDS and switched to food coupons or cash transfers as some economists suggest? Some states have introduced food coupons but there is no certainty these will work any better. On the other hand, the Food Security Bill envisages an expanded PDS to cover a larger population. Can the system be streamlined? Latha Jishnu and Ravleen Kaur analyse the different facets of managing the food economy and find that the PDS could become highly efficient if innovation and technology are harnessed to political will, as Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu did. These states offer valuable lessons in resolving the problems of procurement, storage and allocation of basic food items. Aparna Pallavi, Ashutosh Mishra and Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, who travelled across large parts of the tribal belt, report on the extent of the problem that most destitute people face in getting their meagre rations, month after month. They highlight the urgent need to get food across to the large swathe of malnourished and chronically hungry people in the hinterland
Unravelling the food mess

A public supply department godown in Dahod district of GujaratAcross Navargaon village in Korchi tehsil of Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district one can see wheat spread out to sun on cots outside every home. The wheat is worm infested and Bhimabai Katenge, one of the residents, holds up a handful to show that the grains are nearly hollow. “This is the grain we have received after two months. When we asked the ration shop dealer about the last two months’ supply, he said it has lapsed.”

Katenge is not complaining; she is just grateful that some foodgrains have arrived finally. In neighbouring villages the situation is dire. In Saleh, a few residents have collected their first supplies of subsidised grain in three months and, again, the wheat given to them is rotten. The fair price shop (FPS) opened only for a few hours in the morning but even if the shop opens again, Lakshman Lengure said he is not in a position to buy any grains. “For three months we have been eating expensive shop grain. Who has money for ration wheat now?”

This is haduk season in impoverished Gadchiroli, where Maoists have established base and violence erupts sporadically. Haduk is the traditional term for the lean period from June to September when the leftover grain from last year’s crop has been sown and the new crop is still to be harvested. It is the hardest time of the year for the Gond, Kawar and other tribe people who subsist on basta (bamboo shoots) and satye (mushrooms) gathered from the forest. Excessive intake of this leads to stomach problem so many households have piled up heavy debts to buy grains in the open market. “The same rice that we get in the ration shops for Rs 2 or 3 is sold to us for Rs 14-16 per kg,” laments Dodke resident Rensingh Gawde. Now people are going hungry.
buffer stocks
Between the empty stomachs of millions of India’s poor and the bursting granaries of the government is a seemingly intractable problem—a broken public distribution system (PDS) that defies attempts to fix it. It is a story of corruption and entrenched interests at one end and callousness and apathy at the other, a scandalous mess in which political short-sightedness has combined with administrative apathy to deprive people of their right to food at subsided rates. The result: several million tonnes of grain rotting away, grain that the government has spent substantial sums to procure in order to provide food security to a country which is high on the world’s hunger index.

imageThe mess in the management of the food economy is replete with perverse ironies: the food subsidy has gone up with procurement of food grains by the Food Corporation of India (FCI), the designated agency, touching record highs in the past two years. Grain stocks are now touching a record 60 million tonnes, more than double the buffer norms of around 22-25 million tonnes set by the government, but instead of reaching the poor, the food is rotting— for want of storage space among other reasons. And at a time when food inflation was skyrocketing—the consumer price index for agricultural labourer had touched 15.6 per cent at one time—the government was doing nothing to offload adequate supplies to the market.

The paradox of plenty is not the only characteristic of PDS. The rot runs deep in the management of India’s food economy but it is an issue the political leadership and the bureaucracy have preferred to ignore over the decades. The only reason PDS is in the news today is because of the sustained media coverage of the rotting grains. The focus on the vast quantities of grain stored in the open and vulnerable to the monsoon has fuelled public indignation and forced the Supreme Court of India, which is hearing the right to food petition filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, to order that the grains be supplied free to the poor.

Here’s how serious the problem of grain wastage is: close to 18 million tonnes with FCI are lying in the open, kept on an elevated plinth and covered with tarpaulin sheets because the corporation’s storage capacity has been stagnant at about 12.9 million tonnes since March 2005. This is a systemic problem made worse by FCI’s decision three years ago, on the advice of global consultants McKinsey & Co and India’s Comptroller and Auditor General, to de-hire some of its leased storage space (See: To store and to have not). As a consequence, around 150,000 tonnes kept in the open in Punjab have been exposed to three monsoons and are not really fit for human consumption. It is this kind of wheat which appears to be finding its way to the tribal belt of central India.

imageHowever, the focus on storage in this debate is a red herring, insisted well-known economist and food rights activist Jean Dreze. “The real issue is not storage capacity: there is enough of it if grain stocks are kept within reasonable limits. The real issue is why the government is hoarding 60 million tonnes of grain, that too when food prices are shooting up and large parts of the country are drought-affected for the second year in a row,” said Dreze, a member of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC).

Rotting grains is just the most visible crisis in the PDS which suffers from a gamut of problems. It starts with the fundamental issue of who is eligible for the subsidised grain: the more indigent categorised as below the poverty line (BPL) and others classified as above the poverty line or APL. The rub is that states and the Central government do not see eye to eye on the number of the poor which are based on surveys conducted by the Planning Commission. Three have been carried out so far but each time on widely varying parameters that make it difficult to estimate the correct figures.

imageFormer Chhattisgarh food secretary Alok Shukla said the criteria used are pretty absurd and exclude far too many of the poor. That’s why states which deal with ground realities issue more BPL cards—as Chhattisgarh did while dramatically transforming its dysfunctional PDS to an exemplar for the country (See: A question of political will). Hence, the huge gap: while the Centre estimates the BPL families at 62.5 million, state governments put the figure closer to 107 million. A comprehensive survey of the poor which is scheduled to kick off next April may resolve this discrepancy.

The much maligned PDS has gone through many reform efforts in recent decades. A general entitlement scheme for all consumers without any specific target since the 1940s, it was in 1992 changed to the revamped PDS to cater to 1,775 blocks that were identified as economically and socially backward—primarily, far-flung, hilly and inaccessible areas. But following criticism of its negligible coverage in states with the highest concentration of poor people, it was recast as the targeted PDS in 1997.

Under the targeted system, each BPL family was initially entitled to 10 kg of foodgrain which was increased to 25 kg and later to 35 kg at special subsidised prices. But few of the ills have been sorted out. Former Planning Commission secretary N C Saxena, who is perhaps the best authority on the functioning of the PDS, said: “The fundamental issue here is poverty—people are too poor, they don’t have purchasing power. There is no problem with procurement; the problem is with offtake.”

Saxena, who is with the NAC, said the malfunctioning of PDS should be a matter of utmost concern for the Centre which should undertake an immediate evaluation to strengthen it. It should also “name and shame the states which are failing on the PDS”.

Although illegal diversion of supplies is generally seen as the main problem, Saxena pointed out that a complex set of problems plague the PDS. Top among these:

  • The poor don’t have the means to buy 35 kg at a time and are not allowed to buy in instalments

  • Low quality of foodgrains

  • Weak monitoring, no transparency and no accountability of the officials concerned

  • Price charged by the FPS exceeds the official price by 10% to 14%

  • The shop does not open for more than two-three days in a month, and card holders are not allowed to lift their quota of previous months

imageAs a result, a Planning Commission study of 2003 found that PDS was helping only private trade and corrupt officials, with 58 per cent of the foodgrains not reaching the poor. Given this situation does it make sense to continue with an inherently flawed system? And given the Centre’s knee-jerk reaction to release another 2.5 million tonnes of food over the next six months as a reaction to Supreme Court strictures is it logical that more grains are pumped into a leaky pipeline? Should the PDS be shut down in favour of a cash transfer scheme or food coupon system as some opinion-makers insist (See: Pushing the food coupon)?

Saxena pointed out that most critics of the PDS, economists included, gloss over the fact that it is linked to agricultural security in the country through the minimum support price or MSP offered to farmers so that the millions of small farmers across the country are assured of some returns instead of being exploited by private trade. “What else is the government to do with the grains it procures from the farmers? PDS is the only answer to MSP,” Saxena said.

imageEven then logic would dictate that FCI procures only what is required for the PDS over and above the fixed buffer limit so as to avoid an excessive buildup of stocks and huge carrying costs as is happening now. “You can never get that balance right,” said former agriculture secretary T Nanda Kumar. “Procurement is open-ended and has a twin objective: protecting our farmers and meeting the uncertainty of demand.”
The problem, according to Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen, lies in the way FCI operates. “FCI was set up with just one remit: to buy stocks from the farmers and move it across the country to wherever it was needed.

Remember only five states have a food production surplus; the other 24 are deficit and some hugely so.”

But very like the corporate sector, a high level of efficiency is required to keep the PDS operating smoothly. This is the trick that Chhattisgarh has mastered. “No food rots in Chhattisgarh,” said Shukla, “although the state’s procurement has shot up from 400,000 tonnes a decade ago to 4.4 million tonnes today.” Of this 2.4 million tonnes is given to the Central pool.

imageThis is no mean achievement. In just four years, the tiny state which is more notorious for its disastrous handling of the Maoist problem, has shown that a well-run PDS can work wonders with its agriculture and the wellbeing of its people. Around one million farmers are paid on the spot for their paddy (through computer generated cheques); 3.7 million ration card holders or close to 74 per cent of the population, get 35 kg of grain (on the whole) at the lowest prices in the country (Rs 1 and Rs 2) and there are no longer any reports of starvation deaths in Chhattisgarh.

And it did all this by tackling three besetting sins of the system: corruption, inefficiency and non-viability of the trade. No fancy technology like biometric cards, just computerisation of the grain supply chain. But above all it was the political will of the Raman Singh government to make PDS the flagship project that made all the difference, explained Samir Garg, a food rights activist and adviser to the commissioners of the Supreme Court on food security. That’s how the ruling BJP and Singh came back to power in Chhattisgarh in 2008, he said.



“It was a crazy time and we took great risks,” said Alok Shukla. “Sometimes I shudder to think what would have happened if we had not succeeded. We would have been facing audit questions the rest of our lives.” Shukla was referring to his challenging time as food secretary of Chhattisgarh during 2007-08 when he transformed the crumbling and corrupt PDS into an efficient, streamlined organisation. Thankfully, Shukla succeeded and was given the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration for 2008-09 along with two other officials.

Today, Chhattisgarh buys most of its food requirement from local farmers. Using the minimum support price scheme of the Centre, it procures three million tonnes of paddy in the kharif season, benefitting about one million farmer families of the impoverished state. Part of this procurement is given to the Central pool.

The story began with a political decision. In the 2003 state elections, Raman Singh, leader of the BJP, made PDS corruption a major issue and when he became chief minister he set about making good his promise of reaching food to the people. The first step was the landmark Chhattisgarh Public Distribution System (Control) order 2004 which took all fair price shops out of private hands and gave these to cooperative societies, gram panchayats, women’s self-help groups, primary credit cooperative societies and forest protection committees.

It proved to be a tough legal battle since 400 petitions challenging this order were filed in the high court. The case went to the Supreme Court but finally in September 2005 the state won the case and moved ahead with reforms, recounted Vivek Dhand, principal secretary, food and civil supplies department, who was secretary to the chief minister in 2004 when the PDS overhaul was conceptualised. The focus patently was on inclusion even if the costs are high (See:The cost of reform).

imageWith 45 per cent of its people falling below the poverty line, the state had to take bold measures to get food to these overwhelming numbers. Since the Centre had classified just 1.4 million families of the total 22 million population as BPL, the state decided to foot the bill for bringing all those eligible into the PDS. In 2007 it gave Shukla, who had just taken over as food secretary, a budget of Rs 700 crore and a mandate: increase the food subsidy (grain quota upped from 25 kg/month/family to 35 kg), make it more inclusive and clean up the system.

Rajeev Jaiswal, joint director, food and civil supplies, said around 3,000 new fair-price shops (FPS) were opened to increase accessibility and, more important, to make them viable—a key factor in making PDS sustainable. Interest-free loans of Rs 75,000 were given to each shop along with a month’s supply of ration on credit. This has pushed up monthly profits of fair price shops substantially.

The Centrepiece of the reform was end-to-end computerisation, said Jaiswal. Chhattisgarh computerised the entire supply chain from procurement of paddy at 1,532 purchase centres to the trucks carrying supply to 10,416 FPS for further distribution to 3.7 million ration card-holders. Close to one million farmers who sell their grain to the state receive computer-generated cheques without any delay.

Among the bold measures Chhattisgarh took was cancelling of all ration cards (2.1 million) to set up a computerised unified ration card database. It scrapped 300,000 fake cards but issued 3.3 million new cards with a hologram to the expanded list of the poor (the number has since gone up to 3.7 million) from a centralised database.

However, it is primarily efficiency that made the big difference. “The trick,” explained Shukla, “is to keep supplies moving without any carrying costs. So we buy, stack, transport, mill and then store the paddy simultaneously.” All this involves strict inventory control and careful logistics for which an MIS was created. Before the MIS it took 18 months to get the paddy to the mills but now the time lag is down to just four months. It also helps with financial management. States borrow from the market to finance their PDS operation and Shukla said it calls for some acumen to negotiate good rates with commercial banks and then to ensure that the capital is kept rolling for the shortest period.

But officials say all this will not work unless there is constant monitoring by the officials—and by the people. One of the most effective tools that Chhattisgarh deploys is a grievance redressal system: anyone with a problem can call a toll-free number and be certain that the complaint will be attended to. In the ultimate analysis, it’s customer care that makes the PDS work.

Panchayats and women’s groups make a success of food distribution in Bastar

bastarIn village Sonarpal, in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, a large yellow signage on a house with terracotta tile roof announces that this is the village ration shop. In the dimly lit interior, brisk business is on as several women queue up to receive BPL rations—25 kg of rice and 10 kg of wheat. Salesperson Kushal Singh Thakur fills out the day’s figure of stock of various commodities on a chart hanging on the wall. “I do this first thing in the morning,” he smiled, “If I don’t, the women start asking questions.”

The women are happy that for the last three years or so, the ration shop has been opening regularly six days a week (barring festivals) and everyone is getting their full quota of rations. “If we do not have enough money to buy the entire amount at one go, we can come back and take it in three installments,” said Parbati Lohar, a resident. Supri Padhe in neighbouring Devda Panarpara said, “Even when there are no supplies the shop is open, so we can come and find out when supplies are expected.”

Budhram Bagher, former gram panchayat member, said, “It is only in the last two and a half years, since the gram panchayat took over the running of the shop, that the shop has been running regularly. Earlier, the cooperative marketing society was running it, and it did not open for more than a day or two in a month.”

In Chapka, the running of the PDS store has been taken over by a village self-help group (SHG). The shop opens six days a week, you can take home your rations in three or four installments, and when kerosene stocks come, the women in charge of the shop spread the word, said Mahadeo Panara, as he hoisted a bag of rice on his shoulders. Lakshmi Dehari, one of the women running the shop, said, “Three women from our 15-member SHG take turn to work in the shop every day.”

The women complained that the government supplies that reach the shop are often subjected to pilferage en route. “So often a 50-kg bag contains only 48 or 47 kg of grain; there is no point complaining to authorities.”

In Chapka the PDS shop is run by an SHG, in Devda Panarpara, by the gram panchayat, and at Sonarpal, the gram panchayat has leased the shop to a cooperative marketing society. All three systems appear to be running effectively. Loveleena Jangde, an outreach worker with the Chhattisgarh government’s M Plus programme said, “This is the work of Mitanins.”

Link person

The Centre calls her Asha, in Jharkhand she is Sahiyya and in Chhattisgarh she is Mitanin. This key village worker was a role that was conceived of under the National Rural Health Mission in 2005. Every village it was envisaged would have its own Asha (accredited social health acitivist), someone who would link the village to government primary health care. Chhattisgarh was among the states that made quick progress by having a high number of of Mitanins in place; they were trained and given government support to extend their service beyond public health and include PDS in a programme called M Plus. That was four years ago.

“In the first year, Mitanins had to work first of all to make village women aware that they had rights with regard to PDS, midday meals and Anganwadi health care. People actually believed that the Anganwadi workers were doling out nutritious food out of pure personal generosity,” said Jangde, a nutrition worker coordinating with Mitanins and Mitanin trainers in the M Plus programme.

This was followed by collective action from women. “Women’s groups met the Sarpanch and the person running the ration shop in our village and talked to them about PDS rules, demanding that the shop, which opened just two-three days a month and doled out very scanty rations, should open daily and supply the full quantity of rations,” said Sonarpal Mitanin Shyamali Baghel. Following these initiatives, women’s groups and panchayats took joint decisions on who should run the ration shops, and how.

“We regard shops that are opening three times a week regularly as among the positive cases,” said Jangde. “It is a big improvement from the one-day-a-month frequency earlier, and most such arrangements are made by the village panchayats themselves.” There is also a simple, women-led grievance redressal system in place in case of problems. Mitanins review the rations situation with women regularly at monthly meetings, and in case of any problem, action is taken promptly.


The Assembly elections of 1967 revolutionised public distribution of food in Tamil Nadu and established an efficient PDS. “That was the first time Congress was voted out and regional parties took over,” said N L Raja, consumer rights activist in Chennai. He was also part of the Wadhwa Committee team in Tamil Nadu that looked into the problems plaguing PDS in several states on Supreme Court orders.

On coming to power the DMK offered rice at a highly subsidised price; about three kgs for Rs 1. “DMK was not able to cover the entire state as promised, but for both DMK and its rival AIADMK, food security became an issue that could change the tide during elections,” Raja said.

The second factor which led to an efficient PDS, he said, is universalisation— everyone was entitled to subsidised food. “In a targeted system, those in need are often left out and the undeserving reap the benefits,” Raja said. Tamil Nadu does not have categories like APL and BPL, but does recognise the poorest of the poor under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. As of now, there are about 19.6 million families with the PDS, of which 1.86 million are covered under the Antyodaya scheme; they get 35 kg of rice per month. The remaining get an amount ranging between 12 kg and 20 kg depending on the number of adults in the family.

Rice has been sold at Rs 1 per kg in ration shops since 2008. It was Rs 3 when the DMK came to power in 2006; it slashed it to Rs 2. People have a choice of green or white ration cards and the police officials get a khaki card. Green card holders can buy all commodities from a ration shop while white cardholders can buy everything except rice. There is also a no-commodity card for people who want to use it as a document of identity proof.

Since 2007, the fair-price shops have also been stocking fortified wheat flour, pulses, spices, iodised salt and palm oil, which they procure from open market, besides rice, sugar and kerosene. “The idea is to focus on nutrition security rather than just food security. As a result, our food subsidy burden is high but since political parties and the government support the scheme, funding hasn’t been a problem,” said a former commissioner of the Tamil Nadu Civil supplies and Consumer Protection department. The food subsidy budget for 2009-10 was slated to be Rs 4,000 crore (see table).

image“The subsidy burden is high but the state also earns about Rs 12,000 crore from liquor sale,” said Raja. With increasing subsidy there have been allegations that the state government has been diverting money from other schemes like Annapurna and the mid-day meal. “Nothing has been proven though. The noon-meal scheme in schools started in Tamil Nadu in 1977, long before the Supreme Court ordered that it should be implemented all over the country in 2002,” Raja added. The Kamaraj government pioneered the noon-meal scheme in the 1960s, but then it did not continue. It was relaunched in 1977 by then chief minister M G Ramachandran.

Another reason for the success of PDS is that cooperatives run 93 per cent of the ration shops; as of February this year, women self-help groups ran 617 fair-price shops. The rest are run directly by the state civil supplies corporation. “This has provided employment to rural women and there is one shop every two km,” said an official of the state civil supplies corporation.

Tamil Nadu has established a sound supply chain and strict monitoring, including flying squads, eliminating bogus cards. Officials provide information about food-stock on the website and provide mobile phone numbers of officers concerned for effective grievance redressal.


Distribution in Gadchiroli (Maharashtra) is erratic

“For the last three months I have not received any grain,” complained Prembai Lengure, 85. The frail woman is hardly able to rise from her bed and her eyes are almost opaque with cataract. “The control (local term for PDS) man tells me my quota of grain has not arrived.” She is nearly bed-ridden and living alone in village Tembli (tehsil Korchi) in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra.

Lengure does not know that her Annapurna ration card, which allows her to claim 10 kg of grain—wheat or rice—at no cost was cancelled three months ago. “The Annapurna card holders were overlapping with beneficiaries under the state government’s Shravanbal scheme, under which elderly persons are given Rs 500 per month,” said Prakash Sharma, district supply officer of Gadchiroli. “So a decision has been taken to phase out Annapurna cards and include beneficiaries under the Shravanbal scheme,” he added.

He said some 1,200 out of a total of 2,200 Annapurna cards have been cancelled after making sure that beneficiaries have been included under the state government scheme. Asked why have Prembai and others like her have not started received any money, he said, “The payment process will be finalised in another two to three months.”

This is small consolation for Prembai, who has been surviving on the kindness of neighbours.

PDS in Gadchiroli district is beset with one problem after another. Shops open only a few days and for a short duration, rations do not arrive on time and quotas lapse, the quality of grain is terrible, edible oil and sugar is available only occasionally and kerosene supplies are irregular.

In Saleh, the ration shop opened for just two days after three months. Villages Dodke and Aswalhudki, located further deep in the district’s rich forests, are denied even that; this is the third month that rations have not arrived at all in these two villages, which share a single PDS store.

Tembli is better off because residents here filed Right to Information (RTI) applications to get officials to release a year’s BPL and Annapurna grains that were supposed to have lapsed. “In December 2008, we filed an RTI petition, following supplies became somewhat regular for a few months,” said former deputy sarpanch Desirbai Ghatghoomar, “But things gradually slid back to usual, and we simply do not have the time and the resources to keep filing rti applications or holding demonstrations.”

There have been extraordinary delays in PDS supply. In the past three months, the deputy sarpanch said. “Usually grain stocks arrive between the 15th and the 20th of the month and the shop is open five or six days. But in the past three months, stocks arrived after the 20th, and consequently the shop is not open for more than three days,” she added. “About 50 per cent of the villagers have not been able to procure their full quota of grain for the past three months,” she said.

In village Marda in Gadchiroli tehsil, the PDS store opens only two Saturdays in a month, because the person running the shop lives in Gadchiroli town. “It starts at 10 am and closes at 2 pm,” said Shobha Podawi, village resident and Anganwadi worker, “If you can’t buy your entire quota within these two Saturdays, it lapses.”

Village Kasari has the rare distinction of having a PDS store that opens almost daily. “It is run by my brother,” laughs Sarpanch Prakash Uike, “And so it remains open every day unless he is out.” This is a blessing, say residents, who can procure their grain in instalments as and when they have money.

But not every village is as lucky. Residents of village Dongarmendha have been making rounds of offices for the past two years for the allotment of a ration shop. “We have to fetch rations from a village six km away,” said Madhukar Karpate, former gram panchayat member, “And with the shop opening just four to five days a month, that is very difficult.” Rations lapsing appears to be the rule in several villages. Residents estimate anything between 10 and 50 per cent card holders fail to procure their full grain quota due to lack of cash or because of the limited number of days on which shops remain open. And rations not claimed during a month are declared lapsed.

District supplies officer Sharma agreed that the incidence of unclaimed rations is high in the district: “It is not practically possible for shopkeepers to handle the additional burden of disbursing back-dated as well as current rations, so if there are stocks remaining after a month’s disbursal, most of them simply lift less in the following month.” He did not rule out some amount of corruption, but said that since most shops follow the above-mentioned practice, cases of corruption are not likely to be very high.

Sharma, known in the district to be an upright officer, has, in his eight-month tenure, taken stern action against shops which regularly lift their stocks late and have high quantities of left over stocks. The licences of 12 shops have already been cancelled and the shops marked for reallotment. About 50 more licences are likely to be cancelled in the coming months as shop owners have not responded to show-cause notices, he revealed, and all new shops will be allotted to women’s self-help groups in the village. He hoped that allotting shops to such groups would ensure they remain open more regularly. “At present, very few shops in the district are run by self-help groups,” he said.

Most residents of Gadchiroli believe PDS is for supply of grains and kerosene. And that sugar and edible oils are supplied only during festivals. “Sugar is supplied hardly four to five times a year, and oil even less,” said Mohan Fule of village Kasari, “And oil only during Holi, Pola (an agricultural festival) and Diwali.” This is pretty much true for the entire district. Sharma said most shopkeepers hesitate to lift stocks of oil and sugar because most people do not have enough purchasing power and stocks tend to pile up.

Three months’ rations at one go

The Maharashtra government’s new proposal to supply rations on a quarterly rather than on a monthly basis has met with universal opposition in the cash strapped tribal dominated Gadchiroli district. “It is simply not possible for even better off families to pay for three months’ rations at one go,” said Kumari Jamkatan, “As it is people are finding it difficult to pay for one month’s rations at one go, and stocks are lapsing in large quantities. It is absurd for the government to try to impose such a scheme on people so poor.” Jamkatan headed a delegation of women—people’s representatives, grassroots workers and self-help group members—from the entire tehsil which met the tehsildar and submitted a memorandum opposing the move.

Keshav Gurnule, who runs the non-profit Srushti in Wadsa tehsil, said, “In the villages, hardly anyone buys a whole month’s supply of anything at one go except for PDS grain, and that too because it is cheap. Most other essentials are purchased loose in small quantities depending on the availability of cash.”


Ghost ration cards and private dealers

PDS in Orissa’s Balangir district is in name practically

According to independent estimates, 50 persons in the age group of 30-45 have died of starvation and undernourishment in Orissa’s Balangir district during the last two years. The latest victims are from a tribal family in Chabripali village in Khaprakhol block. It lost five members within four months last year.

The gross inadequacies of PDS have only served to further strengthen Balangir’s claim of being Orissa’s chronic hunger zone. The distribution of wheat, sugar and the region’s staple rice is irregular in the rural belt where mainly panchayats have been entrusted with the responsibility. Even government officials admit that panchayats have failed to stick to the distribution schedule which is the 5th, 6th, 7th, 20th, 21st and 22nd of every month. Complaints of distribution even getting delayed by a month or two are frequent.

People of Kandakhal village under Ganrei panchayat of Muribahal block are still waiting for their July and August supply. “This is not the first time. Supply has been delayed by two or three months many times before this,” said Baishnab Mahanand, a BPL card holder of the village. The supply of wheat and sugar has been even more irregular. The APL card of Shyamsunder Bharsagar of the same village records 10 kg in June 2009 and 8 kgs in August the same year. After that wheat columns are blank in his card till December though he has been regularly asking for his monthly quota of 10 kg. “Each time I ask the people in the panchayat they tell me there is no supply. This year they gave me 12 kg only once in March saying this was my share for two months which means they gave me only 6 kg for one month against my quota of 10,” said Bharsagar.

Not only is the supply irregular, fair price shops across the district have also been flouting with impunity the regulations about displaying the availability and quantity of foodgrain in their stocks. With shops not sticking to the official distribution schedules, people rely on word of mouth to find out when a particular panchayat would be distributing. “Sometimes the executive officer would ring the local ward member and tell him the date but most often we come to know about it from others who happen to visit the panchayat godowns by chance,” said Bharsagar.

The PDS monitoring mechanism appears to have collapsed in the district with retail level advisory committees yet to be formed. “This is on account of lack of interest on the part of the block development officers and the fact that there politics over nominations,” said Trinath Sahu, senior clerk in the Balangir Civil Supplies Corporation office. The four-tier monitoring system includes block level, town level and district level advisory committees besides the retail committees. But so far only the formation of district committee and the block level committees besides a few town committees has been completed. Of these the most important are the retail level advisory committees which have been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the retailer lifts his quota and the stocks allotted are actually brought to the retail centre besides supervising its fair distribution among the consumers. In the absence of these committees, there appears to be no real check on the retailers in the district.

Like all other parts of the state, ghost ration cards plague Balangir’s food distribution system. While around 100,000 such cards were detected and scrapped all over the state during a three-month drive between November 2009 and January this year, 3,391 bogus cards were cancelled in Balangir. The district administration, which continues with its card verification drive, has also decided to try and reach the families of the large number of migrant labourers who go out of the state leaving their cards behind. “There have been reports these cards are pawned with money lenders, who misuse them,” said Bolangir cso, Ramesh Chandra Panda.

However, barring occasional seizures Corporation officials have been unable to check the rampant blackmarketing of pds rice in the district. In the latest seizure on July 30 six bags of PDS wheat were recovered from a private godown in Balangir town. Eight ration cards were also seized.

Grain Banks

In this scenario the formation of people’s seed and grain banks in around 60 villages of the district with the active support of an NGO called Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC) comes as good news. One of these running at Fapsi village in Brahmanijor panchayat has provided timely succour to a number of its members. This grain bank was actually an offshoot of the seed bank formed by the villagers in 2008 with a contribution of Rs 4,000 by RCDC. Part of the produce from the seeds bought with this money went to the seed bank which slowly grew in strength as people also contributed on their own to the institution from which they borrowed in times of need. “Normally we have a stock of 60 kg moong and 85 kg of paddy in the bank. In case we run out of stock and someone requires seeds urgently we buy it from the market and give it to them,” said Jibardhan Chandan, one of the members.

In the nearby Sialjor village bank foodgrain remain in the custody of women in three different houses. According to Khir Ghibela, one of the custodians, at present the bank has around 120 kg of rice which would stand them in good stead in the time of need. “Given the vagaries of the PDS in our area the need may arise any moment,” she quipped. RCDC field organizer, Akhandeswar Amat said the movement was catching up as people were becoming increasing conscious of the need to save and store grains for their own collective good.

Fair-price shops

In Balangir district there are 1,687 fair-price shops of which 1,246 are only kerosene dealerships which are in private hands. These have been licensed by the food supplies department only to deal in keorosene. The distribution of food grains remains in the hands of gram panchayats, women self-help groups, cooperatives; model fair-price shops are run by the civil supplies corporation. In the urban areas, there are 184 private kerosene dealers while the distribution of grains is being done by four model fair-price shops which have their extension counters as well.

storageSince May the media has been beaming images of foodgrain rotting in various parts of the country. FCI’s investigation revealed that grain costing nearly Rs 50 lakh was damaged at Harduaganj, Orai and Hapur in Uttar Pradesh. “We have to procure all the grain that farmers bring to us if it meets the criteria. There is no limit to how much we can procure. In the past three years, because of good minimum support price, procurement has been massive,” said an FCI official.

In July, FCI had a stock of 60.8 million tonnes (MT) against a buffer requirement of 24.3 MT. As per the central food procuring agency’s projection, the stock by March 2011 would be 47.8 MT against a buffer requirement of 21.2 MT to meet emergencies. The storage capacity till July was 30.6 MT; this included warehouses owned both by FCI and private parties, combined with grain under a plastic sheet.

According to Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s statement in the Rajya Sabha on August 10, FCI had a damaged stock of 11,708 tonnes of food grain in July 2010. State agencies of Punjab and Haryana that store grains for FCI had a non-issuable (damaged) stock of 55,834 tonnes of wheat till July. According to Pawar, the wastage of foodgrains has reduced over the years (see: ‘Wastage in the past decade’).

wastage“The problem arose only after the government’s stress on privatisation of storage facilities. There has been no significant addition to FCI’s own capacity over the past so many years, but there have been many incentives to attract private investors of godowns,” said an FCI official requesting anonymity. FCI’s own covered storage capacity has remained stagnant at about 12.9 MT since March 2005 while its hired capacity has varied between 8.6 MT and 14.4 MT.

Since procurement of kharif crop is to begin soon, storing the newly procured grain will be a challenge. The government has decided to create an additional capacity of 15 MT through a public- private partnership—the government will guarantee hiring godowns from private entrepreneurs for a minimum of 10 years. The scheme was introduced in 2005 with a guarantee period of five years which was increased to seven years in the last budget and finally up to 10 years.

In its advertisement to attract investors, those without any experience have also been lured with tax incentives. “Three years ago, when godowns lay empty, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India told us to de-hire them. And now the stocks are so abundant that we need those godowns again. But they are not free,” an FCI official said.

“FCI systematically dismantled its own storage infrastructure by returning 17 MT of storage space between 2006 and 2009. This is a classic example of poor planning,” said Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners in the Right to Food case. Instead of planning for peak procurement, they estimated future storage need based on the lowest level of procurement, he added.

That apart, there is the problem with storage technology. Following tradition, FCI stores grain mainly in jute sacks; but this causes problems as the gunny sacks are easily damaged by rodents. According to an official of the Central Warehousing Corporation (CWC), FCI has spent Rs 990 crore on gunny bags in the past 10 years.

“When the godown concept was introduced in the 1960s, vested interest appeared quickly because pilferage is easier with gunny bags. One can always say rats ate up the grain or fungus destroyed it,” said Suman Sahai, convenor of the non-profit Gene Campaign. With silos, which are being used in many countries for a long time now, monitoring the grain is easier.

A grain silo is a concrete or metal structure where grain is stored loose and not in bags. Grain is poured from the top by a conveyor belt and taken out from an outlet at the bottom. A system of first-in-first-out is maintained even as the grain is protected against rodents and humidity. “Jharkhand has been using gola, containers made of galvanized iron, for storing almost anything for a long time,” said Sahai.

K V Thomas, minister of state for agriculture, along with officials from FCI and CWC, visited China in June to study the country’s food storage technology. “The lesson from China is that we should go for bulk handling of grain (in silos),” said the CWC official. FCI did build a concrete silo in Mayapuri in Delhi in the late 1960s. There are silos in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu as well. “Grains were brought in bags, cut open manually and stored in the silos; they were again packed manually in gunny bags and despatched. Mass-scale handling was still in bags. It was both costly and cumbersome,” said an FCI official. The Delhi silo has been lying unused for three years now.

“FCI has invited us to take over the silo,” said S P S Shishodia, consultant with Adani Agri Logistics, in Gurgaon in Haryana. The company built more efficient silos with a capacity of 550,000 tonnes in 2006 at a cost of Rs 650 crore.

Besides the two main silos in the procuring states of Punjab (at Moga) and Haryana (at Kaithal) that have a capacity of 200,000 tonnes each, there are smaller silos at Navi Mumbai, Coimbatore, Hooghly, Chennai and Bengaluru. “Minimal manual work is required in our silos. At our main silos only 25 people handle the entire operation, which is totally mechanical,” said Shishodia. The company’s silo at Moga has a weighing bridge where simultaneously the grain is tested for quality. The tractor or trolley is then taken to a hydraulic tilting platform to which it is fixed and the grain is poured into pits. After mechanical cleaning, the grain is put in the main silos where it is fumigated with phosphine.

FCI awarded a build-own-andoperate contract to Adani for 20 years after a policy on bulk handling, storage and transportation of foodgrains was framed in 2000. The government pays for a minimum guaranteed tonnage at Rs 2,000 per tonne every year to cover capital cost. Plus, the company charges Rs 500 for each additional tonne.

The high capital cost of silos has slowed down its adaptation. “It is not just about the main structure, but the entire chain,” said I C Chaddha of CWC. The Adani silos have their own specially designed rail wagons that transport loose grain, he said. “But it has to be put in bags when transported in Indian Rail wagons. Creating this infrastructure is expensive,” Chaddha added. According to him, the cost of bag storage is about Rs 2,000 per tonne excluding the cost of land, which is same as silo storage cost.

“The cost of silos should not be a consideration at all because food security is not an economic issue but a social one,” said Sahai.

Right to Food activists feel the solution is not silos, but decentralised procurement and storage. “Large silos in the procuring states are not what we need. We need godowns at block and panchayat levels. At least three months’ supply should be available in the blocks at any time,” Patnaik said. “When we can build world-class airports in Delhi, can’t we create storage infrastructure?”

Down To Earth