Tuesday, August 10, 2010

India - Get rid of the public food distribution system for food grain

Failure of Public Distribution System is leading to sheer poverty

The article below was published in New York Times few days ago. The article shows that the so called Public Distribution System in India has not only failed miserably but also has led to another type of bonded labour and slavery where illiterate and poor are held hostage by the merchants who are supposed to be the retail end of this failed system.

India and Indians need to think about the entire supply chain from food production to food quality and eating. Indians need to think about what is happening to the agricultural land, forests and ecosystems through mindless growth and use of land for urban pursuits rather than either to develop high production systems or maintaining biodiversity.

How can this whole utter cruelty of poverty be dismantled? Can it be dismantled? making it a right will not change anything as people first of all do not understand the legal implications of a right for anything means. The right does not guarantee anything when the exploited and the exploiters have completely different power bases socially, emotionally and economically.

It is my opinion that India needs to seriously restructure its logistics right from subsidies for farm production, water and electricity to on farm and large scale silo systems to transport using trucks including chiller trucks all run through solar power systems. Farmgate collection of produce and grain should be the norm rather than put the burden of transport on farmers. All irrigation should be done at night using pumps which monitor water flows according to the crop requirement rather than based on farmers lack of knowledge and convenience. Pump sets should be provided with solar systems only to those farmers who install drip irrigation systems. All canal and drip irrigation systems should be phased out as studies have shown that up to 40% of the water from these systems will end up evaporating.

Silo systems should be set up every 25km for grains and produce chiller system should be set up in every district and one for 5 villages. This will allow grain and produce to be collected locally, stored locally and sold to resellers locally. This will reduce the cost of transport, food miles and carbon footprint of food production while keeping grain viable and produce fresh.

All PDS shops should be scarped fully. Currently ration card holders and later UID holders should be allowed to purchase grain at any shop they want. This will stop the PDS shop owners acting as money lenders and stop them from holding people's ration cards and enslave them. The shop keepers should be provided digital meters which will automatically record the ration card number, amount and type of grain purchased and when. On a monthly basis the shopkeepers should submit this record to the government and government should remit the money back to the shop keepers so that they are not left short changed.

This will prevent this 2 tier system for haves and havenots. It will give choice for the poor to shop at places where they can shop. It will stop a corrupt system feed off on poor and destitute mercilessly. This may not stop corruption 100% but it will improve the capacity of the people get food grain.

Poverty is not just a social or emotional or a financial problem. Poverty is an ecological problem in a big way. Every poor person who lives off in a subsistence manner is not contributing anything to the productivity of the country. However they are using some amount of fuel, food etc although minimal to live off. Many poor people use wood fire by either picking up wood from forests, road side or where ever they can find them. This wood is actually home for millions of insects, worms etc and thereby reducing area for biodiversity.

Every poor person can not purchase new technology of any kind although they would benefit the most from it. I am not talking about Ferrari or plasma TVs. For example a person who can purchase a smokeless stove can benefit from a health perspective which in turn increases the persons mental well being and productivity. This in turn has flow on effect as children are no longer inhaling the smoke which causes lung diseases and they are better for it and have better learning outcomes too at school. Smokeless stoves can reduce environmental carbon emissions too.

Every malnutritioned person unfortunately becomes a burden on the society as it leads to physical and mental health problems and lack of participation in the main stream economy. Malnutrition is as bad a obesity in its effect on the society and health of the society.

Giving land to landless is not a solution either. The people who are landless are landless for a reason. It is better to provide microcredit to the person and encourage them to develop a business of their own rather than depend on vagaries of weather, markets etc. while developing financial literacy, networking capacity provided by microcredit NGOs and develop confidence in their ability. Giving land to people who lack confidence will only make them sooner or later make them vulnerable to money lenders.

India needs to address its food wastage problems. It needs to address is logistics and distribution systems urgently to prevent use of food to exploit the poor and make them slaves for a corrupt failed system. Making it a right only looks good on paper not provide real solution as use of a right also comes with empowerment of the poor. Indian poor irrespective of caste or creed are not empowered despite governments interest in developing schemes which fail again and again.

India Asks, Should Food Be a Right for the Poor?

By JIM YARDLEY Lynsey Addario for The New York Times Published: August 8, 2010

Meera Damore sat with her severely malnourished son, Pappu, in the Jhabua District government hospital in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Inside the drab district hospital, where dogs patter down the corridors, sniffing for food, Ratan Bhuria’s children are curled together in the malnutrition ward, hovering at the edge of starvation. His daughter, Nani, is 4 and weighs 20 pounds. His son, Jogdiya, is 2 and weighs only eight.  Jogdiya, 2, lay with an intravenous drip in the Jhabua District Government Hospital as his father, Ratan Bhuria, looked after him and his 4-year-old sister.

A line outside the Fair Price Shop, a government store where subsidized food is sold, in the village of Ban outside Jhabua. Landless and illiterate, drowned by debt, Mr. Bhuria and his ailing children have staggered into the hospital ward after falling through India’s social safety net. They should receive subsidized government food and cooking fuel. They do not. The older children should be enrolled in school and receiving a free daily lunch. They are not. And they are hardly alone: India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty — an estimated 421 million — than Africa’s 26 poorest nations, one study recently reported.

For the governing Indian National Congress Party, which has staked its political fortunes on appealing to the poor, this persistent inability to make government work for people like Mr. Bhuria has set off an ideological debate over a question that once would have been unthinkable in India: Should the country begin to unshackle the poor from the inefficient, decades-old government food distribution system and try something radical, like simply giving out food coupons, or cash?

The rethinking is being prodded by a potentially sweeping proposal that has divided the Congress Party. Its president, Sonia Gandhi, is pushing to create a constitutional right to food and expand the existing entitlement so that every Indian family would qualify for a monthly 77-pound bag of grain, sugar and kerosene. Such entitlements have helped the Congress Party win votes, especially in rural areas.

To Ms. Gandhi and many left-leaning social allies, making a food a legal right would give people like Mr. Bhuria a tool to demand benefits that rightfully belong to them. Many economists and market advocates within the Congress Party agree that the poor need better tools to receive their benefits but believe existing delivering system needs to be dismantled, not expanded; they argue that handing out vouchers equivalent to the bag of grain would liberate the poor from an unwieldy government apparatus and let them buy what they please, where they please.

“The question is whether there is a role for the market in the delivery of social programs,” said Bharat Ramaswami, a rural economist at the Indian Statistical Institute. “This is a big issue: Can you harness the market?” India’s ability, or inability, in coming decades to improve the lives of the poor will very likely determine if it becomes a global economic power, and a regional rival to China, or if it continues to be compared with Africa in poverty surveys.

India vanquished food shortages during the 1960s with the Green Revolution, which introduced high-yield grains and fertilizers and expanded irrigation, and the country has had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies during the past decade. But its poverty and hunger indexes remain dismal, with roughly 42 percent of all Indian children under the age of 5 being underweight. The food system has existed for more than half a century and has become riddled with corruption and inefficiency. Studies show that 70 percent of a roughly $12 billion budget is wasted, stolen or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs. Ms. Gandhi’s proposal, still far from becoming law, has been scaled back, for now, so that universal eligibility would initially be introduced only in the country’s 200 poorest districts, including here in Jhabua, at the western edge of the state of Madhya Pradesh.

With some of the highest levels of poverty and child malnutrition in the world, Madhya Pradesh underscores the need for change in the food system. Earlier this year, the official overseeing the state’s child development programs was arrested on charges of stealing money. In Jhabua, local news media recently reported a spate of child deaths linked to malnutrition in several villages. Investigators later discovered 3,500 fake food ration booklets in the district, believed to have been issued by low-level officials for themselves and their friends.

Inside the district hospital, Mr. Bhuria said he had applied three times for a food ration card, but the clerk had failed to produce one. “Every time he would say, ‘We will do it, we will do it,’ ” Mr. Bhuria recalled. “But he never did.” A farmer, Mr. Bhuria fell into deep debt six years ago after he mortgaged his land for a loan of 150,000 rupees, or about $3,200. Like most people in the district, Mr. Bhuria is a Bhil, a member of a minority group whose customs call for the family of the groom to pay a “bride price” before a wedding. Mr. Bhuria spent most of his loan on his brother’s wedding and was left landless, yet he and his wife kept having children. They now have six.

He and his wife migrated with their children to work as day laborers in the neighboring state of Gujarat. Working in Gujarat is common for farmers from Jhabua, but since none can use their ration booklets outside their home villages, they struggle to feed their families. When migrants returned to plant their fields in July, the malnutrition wards began to fill up at the district hospital.

“This is a cycle,” said Dr. I. S. Chauhan, who oversees the wards. “The mother is also malnourished. And they are migrant workers. They work all day and can’t care for their children.”

Moneylenders are common across rural India, often providing loans at extortionate rates. Some farmers hand over food booklets as collateral. Sitting in a small shop, Salim Khan said people approach him for loans when a child is sick or if they need cash to travel for migrant work. “Until they repay me,” he said, “I keep their ration card.” He uses the cards to buy grain at government Fair Price Shops at the subsidized rate of about 2 rupees, or 4 cents, a kilogram. He resells it on the open market for six times as much. The margin represents interest on the loan. He has held the ration cards of some migrants for seven years. “Sometimes I’ll have 50 cards,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll have 100 or 150. It’s not just me. Other lenders do this, too.” He said he was willing to lend slightly more money to the most destitute because their yellow ration booklets made him eligible for the full 77 pounds of grain, the most available in a tiered rationing system. “The yellow ones are best for me,” he said.

This is just one of the illegalities that permeate the system, according to people in Jhabua. Bribery is also common; government inspectors are known to extort monthly payments from the clerks who sell the subsidized grain. Some clerks pay small bribes to local officials to get their jobs or keep them. In turn, moneylenders slip money to clerks to let them use the ration cards to collect the subsidized grain, sugar and fuel. In a cavernous government warehouse, bags of grain are stacked almost 15 feet high, awaiting trucks to carry loads to different Fair Price Shops. R. K. Pandey, the manager, blamed local men for the persistent malnutrition in the district, saying they often sell the subsidized wheat on the open market and buy alcohol. He also noted that the Bhil population favored corn, not wheat, so besides buying alcohol, they also sell the grain to buy corn.

Efforts are under way to reform the national system. Officials in the state of Chhattisgarh have curbed corruption by tracking grain shipments on computers, so that officials cannot steal and resell it.
Many social advocates, suspicious of market solutions, say that such reforms prove that the system can be improved. But pro-market advocates say that issuing either food coupons or direct payments would circumvent much of the corruption and allow recipients more mobility and freedom of choice. They point to the eventual creation of a new national identity system — in which every person will have a number — as a tool that can make such direct benefits possible.

These sorts of debates seem like abstractions in much of Jhabua, where poverty and hunger are twinned. At the malnutrition ward, Dr. Chauhan said that Jogdiya, the tiny 2-year-old, had pneumonia, diarrhea and possibly tuberculosis. His health had been steadily deteriorating in recent weeks, but his father, Mr. Bhuria, had no money for either food or medicine. He had gone to Gujarat in mid-July in search of migrant work but then quickly returned after Jogdiya and Nani became sicker. A relative had warned him not to go, saying his children were too sick.

But he had felt he had no choice. “We didn’t have anything to eat,” he had said.