A case for expanding the PDS

Print edition : October 18, 1997

KERALA is unique among Indian States in respect of its public distribution system. The PDS has almost universal coverage and, more importantly, the quantity of foodgrain purchased from the PDS, which averaged 69.6 kg per person per year in 1991, makes a significant contribution to household nutrition and food security. Purchases from the PDS meet a little over 50 per cent of the consumption recommended by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), 135 kg per person per year. An annual purchase of 70 kg corresponds to around 6 kg a month for each person or about 30 kg a month for a family of five members.

Is it feasible to provide a similar quantity of foodgrain to vulnerable households in the rest of the country? If we attempt to provide 70 kg a year to roughly the bottom 60 per cent of the population, that is 600 million persons, then the annual requirement of the PDS would be 42 million tonnes. For a country that produces around 200 million tonnes of foodgrain, surely public policy should be able to ensure that about one-fifth of production be procured and distributed through the PDS.

Such a commitment will, of course, require a shift in the nature of policies of procurement, and, in particular, an expansion of the production base ("The grain procurement standoff", Frontline, May 30, 1997). Today, procurement is highly concentrated regionally in North-West India. In 1989-90, for example, Punjab and Haryana accounted for 23 per cent of all-India rice production and 63 per cent of rice procurement; in the case of wheat, the two States generated 69 per cent of the total output and nearly all of procurement.

In the long run, to support such a system of food security, the scheme of procurement will have to ensure some equity between States and across cultivators within a State (as suggested by I.S. Gulati and T.N. Krishnan several years ago). The rural rich, landlords and surplus farmers would have to contribute to the national food pool. The ballooning costs of transporting grain for the PDS from one part of the country to another also underline the need to procure locally. With a more widespread production base and local and regional procurement, the PDS can be expanded without a proportionate increase in costs.

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