There is so much of talk about food inflation all around the world and serious concerns expressed regarding food security. On one side, we have nearly 60 million metric tones of food grains rotting in the open in India. On the other hand, we have 645 million people with less than 2400 Kcal to eat per day. While one is deeply disturbed by these contradictions, one also feels sad at the state of the Public Distribution System. India can boast of having the largest public distribution of subsidized food grains in the world. It has a network of nearly 500,000 Fair Price Shops (FPS) that distribute commodities worth more than Rs 15,000 crore (150 billion) to 160 million households. The 2005 Planning Commission report says that 57% of the PDS food grain does not reach the intended people. For every Rs 4 spent on the PDS, only Rs 1 reaches the poor. The food subsidy bill for 2006-07 for the Government of India was Rs 242 billion. 36 million tons of grain was procured that year, and 31.6 million tons was distributed through Fair Price Shops. Looking at these figures, one feels both disturbed and confused. Confused that we are doing so much but have so little to show; angry and disturbed at the enormous leakages and corruption that has seeped into this system.
As I look back and think on how this must be affecting the millions of the ‘real poor’, my mind is drawn to Basavi. Basavi, a Jenukuruba tribal, lived at Hosahalli with her husband Jadiya and three children. Living close to our Hosahalli campus meant that I would meet and interact with her every day. This was the early nineties and we were just building the school there. It was the post-monsoon season and nature was very generous that year. There were pumpkins and cucumbers all over the place and people were expecting a rich harvest (provided the elephants did not interfere). Basavi also had her share of these vines and would invite me to her modest hut every day for sharing a meal. Unabashedly, I would accept her invitation and sit with her family, making a small talk and learning about their culture and history. Meals on most days were ragi balls and a sambar made out of pumpkin leaves. Whenever she harvested a ripe pumpkin, she would make a small hole in it and fill it with chutney made up of onion, chilies, garlic and the other spices that she could afford. She would then gently barbecue it till the peal turned a brownish hue. Eating these pumpkin slices was something that I can never forget and thinking about those moments makes my mouth water even now. This used to be the meal on most days. Jadiya would occasionally bring in honey with the entire comb. They would crush the comb, pupae, larvae, bees, wax and the honey and eat this tasty concoction as dessert on a few days. There was so much joy and plenty of pumpkins to go around. They never felt hungry or wanting.
Thinking about this now makes me wonder what exactly is Food Security all about. Is it merely the provision of the requisite calories and nutrition? Or is it something more psychological which makes a person feel satisfied, contented and happy with what he is eating. Basavi’s family never felt poor or denied of food. She always felt that she had enough and more to share. This was something that I had not got my mind wrapped around in those days. I felt horrified that they had to eat this day after day, and felt obliged to do something about it. I could never understand that food security was also about culture, lifestyle and attitude towards life itself. It is not merely the presence of food in a quantity and quality sufficient for a family and its daily satiety and nutritional needs.
Over the next few years, we got her family a small portion of land where they started growing Ragi and Tapioca. This met all their needs and they now graduated from pumpkins to more structured meals. They also got dependent on the rain gods and were now at the mercy of the elephants. Staying guard against these marauding monsters, Jadiya’s family lost many months of their sleep. Peer pressure and our own limited understanding of the situation encouraged Jadiya to move into more ambitious crops like cotton and ginger. He now had more money. But this did not naturally translate into more food. It meant more alcohol and money spent on wasteful expenses. It also meant that he became more dependent on the Fair Price Shop and was at the mercy of the State for food grains. More damagingly, he changed his food habits to start eating rice and gave up on ragi. Being a Jenukuruba, he now carries an Antyodaya card, which entitles him to 29 kg of rice at Rs 3 and 6 kg of wheat at Rs 2. Ragi today costs him around Rs 8 and he has never figured out why the Government insists on giving him only rice and wheat. It was easier for him to change his food habits and begin making chapathis at home rather than negotiate with an insensitive State and demand ragi instead.
Most development activists would now feel happy and comfortable that poor Jenukuruba families like Jadiya’s are food secure. But Basavi disagrees. She still longs for the days when nature gave her what she desired, in plenty. She not only had enough for her family but plenty to share with people like me too. She was happy and contented with the fact that day after day, there would be something to eat. More than anything, she was independent and lived a culinary lifestyle that generations of tribals were used to. Today, she has acculturated into eating cereals that she never really likes, and all this in the name of Food Security!
The Union Government recently announced that they were considering Direct Cash Transfers. Operationalising this could possibly give people like Basavi the freedom to choose not only what they want to buy, but also where they want to buy it from. This will be a more realistic vision of Food Security for people like her. Till then, Basavi can only dream and reminisce about the way she ate and lived.