Monthly Archives: February 2014

Nutritional Insecurity through the PDS

The Preamble to the Food Security Act, 2013 states that the Act’s intent is to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices”(emphasis added). One vehicle that will be used to implement the Act is the Targetted Public Distribution System (TPDS). While targetting access to food in itself is contrary to the intent of the Act, the purpose of this article is not to discuss universalisation vs targetting rather it is to explore the connection between the PDS and the increasing reports on the high incidences of Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in rural India and among the poor in urban India. Why should these non-communicable diseases (NCD) normally associated with overconsumption and obesity be so prevalent among the poorer sections of our society?

There are two components of the PDS that must be examined in this context – subsidised rice and edible oil. The PDS centrally procures and distributes polished white rice which apart from being of poor quality (stale, insect infested) in most States, has zero nutritional value. In fact it has negative nutritional value by virtue of its high glycaemic index. Providing subsidised white, polished rice has forcibly replaced local fibre rich millets and varieties of red / brown rice which have a low glycaemic index. This has resulted in (i) loss of nutrition from the poor household’s food basket thereby contributing to metabolic disorders such as Type II Diabetes along with other causal factors such as stress, poor sanitation etc. and (ii) erosion of local agrobiodiversity leading to loss in ability of communities to adapt to changing climate conditions in the long-term which further compromises the country’s food and nutritional security. The centralised procurement under PDS has destroyed local nutritious varieties of rice. It has replaced more nutritious local grains – a range of millet varieties which are rich in fibre and protein. Some of the millets are excellent sources of iron, calcium, and trace nutrients.

Edible oil that is being pushed through the PDS is palm oil, a replacement for dalda which used to be supplied under the PDS in the pre-TPDS period. It is reported that palm oil contributes to nearly 48% of the domestic edible oil consumption in India partly because it is 20-30% cheaper than other edible oils. Why is palm oil being supplied at a subsidised rate across the country when (i) it has to be imported (ii) the content of saturated fats in palm oil is significantly higher than locally used oils such as groundnut oil, rapeseed oil and sesame oil which were always part of local diets? What is the justification for further compromising the health of people who are already nutritionally compromised? Introduction of Palm Oil to meet the vegetable oil demand in India is ridiculous at so many levels – it is driving the large-scale cultivation of red palm which has resulted in ecological and social devastation in Indonesia and Malaysia; it is replacing traditional fats which were suited to local climate and local dietary needs in India; it is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor in India thereby increasing healthcare costs and driving people deeper into poverty. It is also destroying the local oilseeds agroecosystems where grain, pulses and oilseeds were cultivated as intercrops to meet the needs of humans and animal feed.

In this context it is worth mentioning a recent study published in the British Medical Journal in October 2013 ( content/347/bmj.f6048) which looks at how economic instruments such as taxes may affect population health in India. The study uses a mathematical model to project that if a 20% tax is imposed on palm oil for domestic consumption, it is likely to avert between 710,000 and 930,000 deaths from myocardial infarction and stroke over 2013-2014. This decline of course is a function of how the consumer uses other fats to substitute the palm oil. The discussion of taxation is probably relevant for consumers who have a choice in the market and who can afford to opt for another edible oil. In the case of India where the State is promoting the use of palm oil by providing it at a subsidised rate in the PDS this is a moot point. People are using this oil because it has been made the cheapest edible oil in the market as a result of skewed State policies. It is contributing to increased healthcare costs for a section of the population that is incapable of accessing good, affordable healthcare since India’s social welfare system does not provide universal healthcare. The PDS therefore is not enabling the individual to be nutritionally secure or adequately nourished rather it is actively compromising the individual’s health and preventing him/her from being able to earn a living or practice a livelihood which is affecting all other facets of his / her life. In essence, the State is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the poor.

While the FSA, 2013 is a step forward towards addressing the issues of undernutrition, unless the PDS basket of goods is revamped with the intention of ensuring true nutritional security it will be a huge waste of resources. The State must put in place a mechanism to decentralise the PDS – decentralised procurement and distribution. This will stimulate local agricultural systems including the much neglected rain-fed areas, revive local oil seeds,  provide access to nutritious food including traditional healthy fats as opposed to palm oil, enable people to practice their livelihoods and improve health. The resources that are being used to research and understand why there is an increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor are probably better spent if allocated to stimulating local agroecosystems and locally relevant food systems.





Our very own Santha (Farmers’ Market)

The idea of fresh, seasonal vegetables, freshly plucked leafy greens making their way to your plate in a few hours has immense appeal to most of us. While it might be a bit of a dream for the urbans among us for those of us living in this corner of rural Rayalseema it is a real possibility. On most evenings women come around to our houses with fresh greens, brinjals, okra, gourds (or whatever else the season permits). The idea of having a santha however was more exciting. One could pick up a few recipes along with the vegetables and some local gossip as well! Although agriculture is one of the main sources of livelihoods for small farmers in the area they would travel about 10-20 km to the nearest wholesale market or bus depot to transport vegetables to Bengaluru, Chennai etc. It was surprising to some of us that there was no local santha. After a year and a half of deliberation and discussion at hamlet level meetings, womens’ group meetings etc. the santha became a reality on January 19, 2014. Women were vocal about the need for one and their reasons were many…..

Food prices have skyrocketed. Those among us who are landless or have land but no water have to go to the santha at Angallu or Madanapalle (which are 10-20 km away). This means we have to take an auto or a bus so add the transport fare to the cost of the vegetables and it becomes inaffordable. How can we afford to eat vegetables regularly?

Our men usually go to the santha since we have to cook, clean, take care of animals and children. The men take Rs. 100 with them, come back with vegetables worth Rs. 50 and spend the rest on drink or some other worthless item. If we have a santha nearby, we women can go there walking, buy fresh vegetables and greens for a lesser price without spending money like the men do! And we can do this while managing the home.

Our own santha will mean that all of us living in this Panchayat can sell our produce locally. We don’t have to pay for transportation, take it to another santha where a middleman will offer to take it off us for a wholesale price and make money on our produce. We the producers will get a good price…a price that we deserve for our produce. The customers like you and other teachers at Rishi Valley and the residents of our Panchayat will also benefit. They will get fresh produce at a reasonable price.

In the face of all this what arguments can there be for not setting up a santha.

Most of the arguments were political. A leader must get credit for setting up the santha….political mileage could be pretty high. The previous Panchayat leadership kept postponing the setting up of the santha. As the old order changed yielding place to new – we elected a new Sarpanch in June-July 2013 – all barriers (political and otherwise) to setting up a santha were overcome. The site selected was by the Paleti Gangamma Temple (goddess of rain for the goatherds and shepherds) under the shade of tamarind trees and a Nux Vomica tree lining both sides of a Panchayat road that connects the Highway to various hamlets in the Panchayat.

So here we are creating our own markets!

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Fresh veggies – beans, tomatoes, chillies, greens, radish, field beans, potatoes, onions, garlic…… this season. We can look forward to all shapes and types of  gourds in the summer.

Our santha is a Sunday market, a socializing space where stories and recipes are exchanged and where bulls and cows wander in and out.


This week’s market saw the Devayaddu or the sacred bull blessing the vendors. He picked on a few tomatoes  from one vendor, a few veggies from another and moved on…taking only a little as tax for his blessing unlike the Indian tax man or the Finance Minister as a friend remarked 🙂