RECLAIMING DIVERSITY, RESTORING LIVELIHOODS
Indias Public Distribution System (PDS) played a key role in averting famines after independence. It purchased grain in surplus regions to build up stocks for transfer to food deficit areas in both urban and rural contexts. The Indian government has thus been able to distribute food at affordable prices to low income people through fair price shops. As such, the PDS is a crucial policy instrument for food security and political stability in India. However, the PDS evolved as part of the market-driven and irrigation-centred agricultural policies of the Indian government. These policies have favoured the better endowed, resource-rich areas and have neglected the needs and resources of people living in the more risk prone, rainfed, semi-arid areas that are home to 50% of the poorest people in India.
The PDS has encouraged a new pattern of food consumption in the semi-arid tropical regions of India. The poor have increasingly shifted from eating locally-grown rainfed cereals such as sorghum and millets to rice and other irrigated crops that are imported from the better endowed areas. This has led to sharp declines in the area under coarse dryland cereals and their associated legume intercrops (pigeonpea, chickpea, and other beans). As a result agricultural biodiversity has dramatically decreased on and around farms. Fallow lands have also increased along with chronic seasonal food insecurity among the poor. A number of local initiatives in dryland India are seeking to reverse these trends by reclaiming control over food production and distribution.
An alternative PDS
Like elsewhere in India, the PDS operates in the villages around Zaheerabad in the Medak District of western Andhra Pradesh. Every month each family that has access to this system (about 50% of the rural population) can buy 25 kg of rice, 2 kg of sugar and 2 litres of kerosene at a subsidised rate. This ration has become the lifeline for poor families. In this semi-arid region on the Deccan plateau, in the past those who had better lands grew cash crops like sugarcane, ginger, potato and recently even cotton. Poor people practiced mixed, dryland agriculture that took care of a variety of their needs. It gave them a nutritive mix that included pulses, cereals and green leafy vegetables. It provided fodder for their cattle, fencing material for their fields and houses, and straw for their thatch. But these poor peoples crops sorghum, pearl millet, foxtail millet, niger, pigeonpea, and horsegram have been increasingly wiped out by cheap rice. These dryland farmers have been slowly and insidiously displaced from their agriculture. Their lands have been laid fallow and rural livelihoods have been progressively undermined.
It took a few years for the women of Zaheerabad to recognise the consequences of rice entering their kitchens via the PDS. The effect on local farming systems and farmlands was only one impact. Another toll was on poor peoples nutrition. Rice is rich in carbohydrates, but not much else. Without adequate supplies of pulses and vegetables, the sustenance offered by rice is inadequate for hard working bodies. An increasing number of children and women started becoming anaemic. They recognised that the loss of nutrition in their diet was linked to the PDS rice, responding angrily with comments like: What strength buy rice, put it on the stove, drink hot water,How nutritious were our own crops! and We used to eat a variety of greens and were strong. That was how we did many hard jobs.
The morning roti eaten by the rural working people was their main source of sustenance. The roti, prepared with sorghum or pearl millet, is fast becoming a memory of the past. But more than a nutritious breakfast disappeared. About fifty percent of the work done in sorghum fields involved women who collectively weeded and harvested the crop. This provided cash income and was an important time to meet and work together. In the district of Medak alone, more than 100,000 ha of land have been put to fallow in the last ten years almost as a direct result of the PDS. This has meant the loss of wages for 250,000 women, in addition to important meeting opportunities.
The self-confidence and self-esteem of women are linked to their role as skilled food producers and seed keepers in their communities. As the manifold influences of the PDS became rooted in peoples lives and farm landscapes, their status was downgraded. Being reduced to mere food consumers undermined their self-respect. In addition, several celebrations related to food production and harvest were eroded. The rituals associated with ploughing, sowing, worship of earheads and finally the harvest constantly renewed peoples bonds with their land and sustained their dynamic rural culture. Many of the women farmers and labourers in and around the village of Zaheerabad thus gradually came to the conclusion that the PDS threatened them nutritionally, economically, socially and cuturally. What was the way out?
The women of the Deccan Development Society (DDS, see box) who had organised themselves into sanghams, voluntary associations of the poor dalit women, deliberated on this issue in meetings they held in about 75 villages in Medak district:
Cheap rice is attractive. But in the bargain we left our lands fallow
We hanker after 2Rs/Kg rice and neglect our own lands
Now we must manure and fertilise our lands, and grow traditional crops.
One answer was to reclaim their fallows and breathe new life into their half-dead lands. But this needed investments to the tune of 2,600 rupees (Rs, equivalent to US$60) an acre. No financial institution offers such loans to small farmers growing dryland food crops. But the women decided to fight for a reversal of this policy. The Ministry of Rural Development of the Government of India was approached by the womens sanghams through the DDS. The Ministry saw the merit of the womens case and approved funding for their proposed Community Grain Fund (CGF) in 1994. In this way, a cycle of regeneration was begun. During the past four years, groups of largely non-literate and poor women have managed this completely community-managed PDS system based on coarse grains that are locally produced, locally stored and locally distributed in thirty villages around Zaheerabad.
Women meeting women
Meetings were initially held in each of these villages with project partners, the DDS and the village poor who came forward to implement the project on their lands. The required money was advanced over a three-year period to the farmers to cover costs of ploughing, manuring, sowing and weeding. This money was later repaid in the form of grain grown on the newly developed lands. Rs 2,600 per acre was advanced and repayment was set at 860 kg of sorghum per acre over a five-year period. After every modality was explained, negotiated and agreed to, formal agreements were drawn up and a contract signed between the individual farmers and the DDS.
Committees of women were formed to oversee all the activities of the project in each village. About 100 acres of fallow land were identified in each of the 30 villages. The womens concerns with inter- and intra-village equity were reflected in the fact that all degraded and fallow lands belonged to the poor and that no single village had a disproportionate share of fallow land included in the scheme. A total of 2,675 acres were found suitable for the programme. The women selected about 20 acres each and supervised the work on these plots personally to ensure that ploughing, manuring, sowing and weeding are all done on time.
The women committee members collect the support funds and distribute them to the individual landowners. After the harvest, they are also responsible for collecting repayments and for storing the grain. During the food-scarcity season, the grains are sold by the committee to the poorer households in the village. They then deposit the sale proceeds in a Community Grain Fund (CGF) account. Each of the 30 villages has its own account, which is controlled and managed by the women committee members who are accountable to the villagers and the DDS.
Each committee member is responsible for the produce collected from 20 acres, which means she collects between 3000 kg and 4000 kg of grain each year. They store the grain using indigenous storage technologies, such as baskets made by the village basket weavers from date palm leaves and reeds like Vitex negundo and Addatoda vasica, both of which have insect-repellent qualities. The baskets are smeared with mud and cow dung and then dried. To ensure further protection against pests, the grain is mixed inside the baskets with neem leaves (a natural pesticide) and cow dung ash. The grain is stored in four to five separate baskets, each located in a different house.
The loan repayments are fed back into the local village economy and used to subsidise the sale of grain to the very poorest, so that they can get sufficient food to eat and become more productive members of the community. After harvest, the women of the village sangham identify about 100 poor households in each village for grain distribution. The identification of the poorest households in each of the 30 villages has been a fascinating democratic process in itself. For the first time in the history of this region dalit women, poor and from the lowest social rank in the village, were the ones to decide who among the villagers qualified for community grain support. A village map indicating all the households was made on the ground using participatory methods on the village square. This was done in each of the 30 villages and the map was visible for all to see and correct. Criteria for rural poverty were developed by the villagers. Each poverty level was identified by a different colour and each house marked accordingly after careful deliberations and group discussions.
The selected households were issued a sorghum card by the sangham. The government PDS rice costs Rs 3.50 per kg (US$ 0.08) and is supplied year round (10 to 20 kg bag per household depending on household size). Conversely, the local PDS card entitles a family to a monthly allowance of sorghum at the subsidised price of Rs 2.0 per kg (US$ 0.05) for six months a year during the rainy season (the period of the year when the poor cannot find work and when food is scarce). The poorer the family, the larger their entitlement. For example, very destitute families are allocated 10 kg per family member and the poor families 2 kg per head with a maximum of 10 kg per household.
Transparent procedures ensure that all the proceeds from the sale of the grain are deposited in the CGF account. The money is used as a revolving fund from year to year to reclaim more fallows in the villages. More and more food is being produced and sold locally, and more job opportunities are being created for people excluded from the mainstream economy.
Rural livelihoods on the rise
The social, ecological and economic benefits of this decentralised PDS have been impressive and visible within a matter of two years. More than 2,500 acres of fallow have been brought under the plough. In the very first year of the project an extra 800,000 kg of sorghum was produced in the villages. This has meant that the villagers were able to produce nearly three million extra meals in 30 villages or 1000 extra meals per family. The fodder provided by the newly-cultivated fields sustained more than 6,000 head of cattle in 30 villages. Finally, and most importantly, in each village 7,967 extra wages were created. The project in the first two years generated a total employment of 4,830 person days earning the communities in 32 villages a total wage income of Rs 72,450 (US$ 1,685).
More detailed evaluations done by the women themselves and the government confirm the remarkable results achieved in terms of gender equity, food security, the autonomy and capacity of local groups, the recovery of agricultural biodiversity and degraded lands, and sustainability. Comparing and contrasting some of the distinguishing features of the alternative PDS with those of the government PDS also highlights which practices may best regenerate sustainable livelihoods and diverse ecologies in the rural areas of dryland India.
These women farmers have brought back into cultivation extremely marginal lands that could barely yield more than 40 to50 kg of grain per acre. Today, each acre of these rejuvenated lands yields 200 to 300 kg of sorghum, 50 kg of pigeonpea, 50 kg of assorted pulses and amaranth, fibre crops, and fodder sufficient for two heads of cattle per acre.
The women feel that they have literally breathed new life into their lands. Both the sensuous experience of walking the land as well as scientific observations clearly show that there is indeed more biodiversity in and around their plots. The addition of organic manure to the soil after ploughing rapidly resulted in an enrichment of soil fertility. The myriad of reintroduced crop species and local varieties offer food, shelter and new niches for an array of naturally occurring insects, spiders, fungi, birds and small mammals. Complex plant architectures included mixes of pigeonpea, amaranth, Dollicos bean, niger, cowpea, horsegram, pearl millet, greengram, little millet, dry sown paddy and groundnut. The agroecosystem components not only include various crop mixes of up to 10 different species of food plants, but also many wild vegetables. These wild edible plants are highly nutritious and are important for local food security throughout the year.
The alternative PDS does not focus on maximising yields of individual crops but promotes a productive, functional diversity that can deal with risk and uncertainty while meeting village requirements for food security. Subsidies can be progressively reduced as soils are regenerated and internally diverse agroecosystems sponsor their own fertility, pest control and water management. Moreover, the diversity used in these different local contexts reflects and reinforces peoples own definitions of well being, their priorities and their knowledge. Local agroecological landscapes have thus become infused and shaped by peoples own conscious and unconscious definitions of life, culture and well being that encompass memories of the past and visions of possible futures.
Food availability has been enhanced through a self-reliant, equitable and low cost food security system in which peoplescriteria and their own definitions of poverty are central in decision making. The complementary links between the different forms of agrobiodiversity and rural livelihoods have created new job opportunities, some local economic surplus and a growing sense of dignity among villagers. The programme has also generated tremendous self-confidence among the women with the realisation that the poor can be producers of food for the PDS and not always helpless recipients of it.
The women sanghams experiment in Medak district entailed a one-time expenditure by government. The rest of the costs are taken care of at the village level. As one senior government statistician pointed out, The project ensured that out of every seven rupees spent six rupees reached people directly as against projected figures for mainstream PDS where the government spends seven rupees for each rupee that reaches the people. This is a phenomenal reduction of overheads.
This decentralised storage system is in stark contrast with the government PDS where all grain is stored in central warehouses of the Food Corporation of India. Each warehouse stores millions of kilos of grain, thereby prompting the appointment of a huge array of officials, reams of paper work and miles of red tape, as well as considerable storage losses. Moreover, the existing system can only operate through a centralised mechanism in which professionals define problems and solutions. A recurring investment is also needed every year to run the programme, and this ends up subsidising agricultural inputs for resource-rich farmers, or pays for long-distance and energy-consuming transportation, warehousing and extensive distribution networks.
Moreover, the government PDS is based on ecologically- and genetically-uniform farming on good quality lands. It uses large quantities of ecologically-harmful and expensive inputs like chemical fertilisers, water and pesticides. The scope of the existing system is restricted to irrigated farms, which have high capital requirements and thus reside in the hands of richer, male farmers in the well-endowed areas of India. In the social and political realm, there is a corresponding loss of farmers capacity for autonomous decision making as farm households become dependent on national and transnational suppliers of off farm inputs (seeds, chemicals, credit etc). Farmers Rights are thus reduced to the right to consume within the parameters decided by more powerful and distant entities. Lastly, by responding to the needs of the dominant market and narrow economic considerations, this type of farming actively suppresses agricultural biodiversity in the well-endowed rice growing areas and also stifles the diversity-rich agriculture and the potential of rural people in other areas.
Local control is the key
The decentralised and participatory management of the PDS opens up exciting new possibilities for achieving environment and development goals. For example, the women sanghams have shown the capacity and capability needed to manage biodiversity at the local level. Indeed, their experience in regenerating biodiversity through an alternative PDS shows the importance and necessity of decentralising selected roles and functions from central government in order to implement provisions of the international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.
It is particularly noteworthy that this approach to the conservation of agricultural biodiversity goes many steps further than most of the community seed bank and on-farm conservation schemes that have captured the attention of donors, NGOs and agricultural research institutions over the last decade. Community seed banks are used by women farmers to save different crop varieties in Zaheerabad and the neighbouring villages. However, most of the conservation of agricultural biodiversity is achieved through the active use of diversity by farmers and by the integration of this diversity in farmer-controlled systems geared to meeting present and future human needs. The key elements of this highly successful formula are:
Locally adapted germplasm, peoples knowledge, funds and technologies have been organised into democratically-controlled systems geared to satisfying the fundamental human right to food. It is in the context of these larger (but still highly localised) systems that agricultural biodiversity and food security can be regenerated.
The struggle to scale up
The financial support of the Ministry of Rural Development was crucial in initiating the alternative PDS in Medak District. Modest levels of government backing provided the necessary space to strengthen the economic base of the poor through the self-reliant, collective actions of the women sanghams. However, other parts of the government bureaucracy were less sympathetic to the womens initiative and subsequently did much to undermine, defame and attempt to close down the alternative PDS.
Part of the problem has been the very success of a scheme run by poor, illiterate women who belong to the lowest social castes in India. Local politicians have felt threatened by the women's increasing self-reliance and reduced dependency on them. They have worked hard to persuade the government bureaucracy to disbelieve the results of its own official evaluation. In an all-too-familiar way, governance in the hands of rich and powerful men has ended up colluding against women, the poor and the weak.
The flexible, local-level, adaptive management style that characterises the alternative PDS also clashes with the dominant blueprint approach to development. Rapid experiential learning and necessary adjustments to on the ground constraints and opportunities led the women to re-interpret a number of government definitions such as fallows, grain price, subsidies and poverty. For some government bureaucrats this was perceived as flouting the official norms. They remained insensitive to arguments made by the women and the DDS that a rigid compliance with blueprints and rules would have simply killed the alternative PDS.
The key women who made the project happen from their various villages
Despite a highly favourable evaluation by a government institute, an international letter-writing campaign, and DDS delegations meeting with high-level officials in New Delhi, parts of the government bureaucracy in Andhra Pradesh succeeded in delaying and blocking agreed payments to the women collectives in 1997 and 1998. Moreover the prime movers and shakers behind this remarkable initiative have been the targets of attacks in the press. Some vested interests in the bureaucracy and political circles have demanded that the DDS be blacklisted and criminal proceedings initiated against it. The policy and political contexts have thus been far from enabling for the scaling up and spread of the alternative PDS to more people and places, despite its massive potential. In Medak District alone there are more than two million people living in twelve hundred villages with fallows that account for at least 50% of the land.
When asked to advise other neighbouring villages on how to start an alternative PDS, the women sangham members say It is essential to have a sangham - a coming together of minds. We need to share information and thoughts. Then we can identify fallows and start reclaiming them together. These voices are both moving and courageous: they point to where the real investments in rural development and conservation should lie. The women farmers readiness to struggle against the odds is courageous. They have shown the willingness and strenght to challenge the policies and bureaucratic practices that militate against the right to food, sustainable land use and the regeneration of the biodiversity that nurtures local livelihoods. Their actions are both inspiring and empowering for the poor and disempowered all over the world.
The key actors from the womens sanghams who made this article possible are indicated in Table 1. PV Satheesh is Director of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), which can be contacted at: A-6 Meera Appartments, Basheerbagh, Hyderabad, AP 500 020, India. E-mail: [email protected] Michel Pimbert works with the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods Programme of the International Institute for Environment and Development and is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, UK. E-mail: [email protected]
* KS Gopal, and M Sashi Kumar (1997). Food security in the semi arid regions: towards a new paradigm. Mimeograph published by the Centre for Environment Concerns, 3-4-142, Barkatpura, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India.
* Press articles Deccan Chronicle, Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian Express