The procurement of wheat has started in several parts of the country. This should normally be a very happy time for farmers but at the same time there are several reports relating to procurement being held up at some places due to some reason or the other. It may be a hassle over moisture content in one place and it may be a sudden stoppage due to the filling up of the storage space in another place. In addition there is the wider challenge of safe storage once the entire procurement process is over and a lot of effort will have to be made to avoid spoilage. However many problems can be reduced significantly by reforming the system.

Over the years India has built up an enormous food security system based  on procurement of food grains ( mainly wheat and rice) and its allocation for highly subsidized food rations under PDS ( public distribution system) as well as for nutrition schemes like mid-day meals and anganwadi ( ICDS).

The sheer-size of this system to cover the large population of India is impressive, even though there are frequent complaints of poor implementation or inadequate source availability. While there are several aspects of the debate relating to problems and possibilities of improvement, a reform which can bring significant improvement in nutrition while at the same time  reducing, not increasing, costs relates to decentralization of this food security system.

The existing system was initially built on excessive reliance on procurement of food grain from some  surplus belts ( the most prominent being the Punjab-Haryana belt) . Later this excessive dependence on a few surplus areas was reduced but only to some extent. Thus we see transport of food grain across very long distances to keep the food security system running. This leads to high costs and some delays in food grain reaching the places where it is badly needed. Another problem is that mostly only the surplus grains of wheat and rice get distributed while many local foods of high nutrition are not included. In particular the exclusion ( by and large) of highly nutritious millets and pulses in the PDS is harmful.

Hence it will be much more useful if the existing  centralized food security system can be replaced by a decentralized system of procurement as well as allocations. Under this system decentralization goes down to the level of a big village or a cluster of smaller villages included in a panchayat. This cluster can also be formed on other basis depending on local conditions.

In this decentralized system a significant share of the food crops is procured by the government directly for use within this village. This is estimated on the basis of the  food requirements of ration shops ( PDS outlets), mid-day meal scheme , anganwadi and any other nutrition scheme such as Sabla( for adolescent girls) or any schemes of state government. This procurement takes place as per cropping patterns of the area. A food security committee of representatives of all sections of villagers including farmers, landless farm workers etc. and well-represented by women, should be formed to guide this process.

The procured food should be safely stored within the village ( or a cluster of smaller villages). Safe storage adequate for the village should be arranged. This should have a component of emergency and disaster relief as well. The allocations can then be made from time to time to PDS and nutrition schemes using transparent and participative systems.

The procurement and allocation of food grains (including pulses and millets) and oilseeds can take place three or four times a year depending on cropping patterns. On the other hand the procurement and allocation of perishable food items like vegetables will have to be probably on twice-a-week basis.

Of course the procurement by the government can also be in excess of this to meet city needs and for the bigger storages. The needs of cities must be met as far as  possible  from nearer villages. The needs of bigger storages must be met from more surplus districts with  favorable conditions for various main food items.

There are several advantages of this decentralized system. Costs of transporting food across long distances will be reduced. The energy and GHG emission costs ( or the carbon foot-print) of the food system will also be reduced side-by-side. There has been increasing discussion in recent years on the miles travelled by the food we consume and the need to reduce this for environmental reasons.

Another gain is that it will be possible to include local preferred foods ( for example millets in place of rice or wheat ) which will add to  nutrition , diversity and taste. Several local foods including millets which have been stagnating or even declining despite their great nutrition value will experience a revival. Also it will be possible to get more fresh food for nutrition programs in such a decentralized system. In addition it will be possible to have more transparency and local participation in the food security system.

There has been a tendency in recent times to pay less importance to quality aspects of food ( including mainly health aspects) relative to quantity aspects. Once it is known that a more significant share will be consumed within the village and also served to children and mothers in mid-day meals and anganwadis  there may be more commitment to the quality and health aspects of food. Farmers in most regions will benefit from procurement of more diverse crops. This will encourage eco-friendly mixed farming  which has been given up in recent years in favor of monocultures.

On the nutrition front several problems have arisen because of the increasing dependence on a less diverse diet , dominated by what is available in PDS which in turn is dominated by just one cereal ( rice or wheat). Often there is a shortage of proteins, and perhaps even more so  of micro-nutrients. In a decentralized system there is more possibility of sorting out this keeping in view the diversity of local farm produce.

Of course such a local system is not possible in areas where staple food crops have been replaced almost entirely by plantation or commercial cash crops. However even in these areas efforts should be made to continue growing staple food crops on at least some land and the availability of a decentralized food security system can be an encouragement and a highly motivational factor for such a much-needed change.

The change-over to a decentralized system will have to be probably phased over a few years. This will need administrative and financial changes. But this is a small price for achieving several important, sustainable and broad-based gains.

These changes will be even more far-reaching if this decentralized system of food security is closely tied to a big increase in village-based processing of food  by setting up small and cottage scale rice milling units, oil milling units ( kolhus), milk processing units and sugarcane processing units ( for making jaggery). This will add greatly to nutrition for people as well as for farm and dairy animals ( for example by making available more oilcakes to animals ).

So all this is a win-win situation for improving nutrition and livelihoods at the same time, helping farmers and artisans, while also reducing overall economic and ecological costs. This is also very much in keeping with Gandhian ideas and also very much in keeping with the recent call for atma-nirbharta, if it is applied broadly in the context of the self-reliance of villages and village communities.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine.



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