Historically, famine relief has been considered and accepted as the responsibility of the state. As early as the Mauryan period, provincial governors undertook relief operations in times of distress. Grain stocks were maintained in Government granaries, and released in the times of scarcity. History informs us that rulers maintained government granaries, in which grain obtained in lieu of land revenue was stored and used for famine relief. Despite all this, the sub-continent had its share of famines in the past. But these had been confined to limited drought affected areas. The last quarter of the 19th century, however saw country wide famines that caused wide spread distress, and affected millions of people. Between 1860 and 1909, there were twenty such famines.

The concept of grain reserve had been part of the British policy for meeting scarcity conditions in India also. But the Famine Commission of 1880 which seriously examined the proposal decided against it for reasons of finance and management. The Malthusian hypotheses of a fast pace of increase of population as against a much slower rate of increase of food production was taken to be the reason for this. The food situation continued to deteriorate till 1909. Then the British Government adopted a policy of importing and moving food grains from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity, and a famine code which provided work in the affected areas.

However, the Bengal famine of 1943 in which more than 15 lakh people died shocked the world. The first food grains policy committee was appointed, and rationing of essential commodities was introduced all over the country. The first scheme of centralised purchase from surplus areas, and rationing for equitable distribution was introduced. Statutory price controls and sale of rice through fair price shops was also recommended. In 1948, the need for Government intervention for alleviating distress and scarcity was emphasised, and finally, a middle road approach of allowing free trade even as the Government fixed its targets and purchased food grains for supply to the food scarce regions.

A gradual transition has been taking place from PDS to rationing, in which the single supply system is giving way to a dual market system, where people can buy limited commodities at fixed prices from the PDS shops, while also being able to access the open market. In 1957, the food policy came strongly under the influence of the PL 480, and substantial imports of wheat and rice from the US were agreed for. The imports continued till 1967, even though, there was clear evidence of the imports playing havoc with our food production and pricing mechanism. The food corporation of India was set up in 1965 with the responsibility of procuring food grains including imports as well as reaching foodgrains to different destination to service the Public Distribution system. In 1966, a food grains policy committee was set up to review the existing systems for movement, procurement and distribution of food grain in the country to bring about an equitable distribution of available food grains at reasonable rates. The committee pointed out the need for a national budget for supply and distribution of available food grains, including procurement at reasonable prices, and monopoly with the government. It also recommended the need for a well spread public distribution system and the creation of a buffer stock to cater for difficult years. The Integrated food policy suggested by the Committee was quite similar to the 1943 food grains policy which was a response the great Bengal Famine. However, a sever drought in 1965-66, and 66-67 indicated that the policy was not quite adequate to alleviate the distress of the people in times of need.

The PDS, which began primarily with the objectives of meeting war related shortages, and protecting the urban consumer against speculation and irrational price rice, continued to function as such till the 1970s. After the results of the green revolution started coming in, however, the structure and approach of the food policy underwent a change, and the Government started to intervene with the objective of protecting the farmer through a minimum support price. It was obligatory for the Government to buy rice and wheat through the FCI if prices fell below the MSP. With this also came a welfare dimension of the PDS. The huge stocks that built up with the FCI were moved to food deficit states including Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, etc. The major objectives of the PDS then switched to ensuring food availability, while protecting the farmer.

These can be outlined as under :
  • To increase for production
  • To increase nutrition standards of the vulnerable sections of the society by distributing foodgrains at low prices through the PDS and wage employment programme.
  • To maintain stock of food grains to meet the requirement of public distribution system.
  • To maintain buffer stocks to tide over crop shortages and to maintain stability of inter-seasonal prices.
  • To achieve regional equity in production and distribution of food grains.

Thus the PDS can be viewed as both an inflamationary as well as an anti-poverty measure.

In the early 1990s, reports of starvation deaths in the tribal regions of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh coupled with the adequate stocks available with the FCI, lead to a realisation that the vulnerable communities and the underdeveloped regions in the country are not getting a fair share or adequate coverage under the PDS. The government realised that the need for paying special attention to these neglected regions. It was thus decided to reorient the PDS to reach the remotest and most backward regions of the country which also had maximum concentration of the poor. With this aim, and also to be able to reach all in the poor area, the PDS was revamped specially for 1750 largely tribal blocks and hilly areas. The salient features of this were that the CIP or the (Central Issue Price) was decreased by Rs.50 per quintal in the revamped areas for rice and wheat, and a per family supply of 20kgs. Per month was more or less assured. Mobile vans for delivering the supplies were brought into the programme, and a more effective network of supply was developed. Judging by the increased off take in the revamped areas, which went up from a total of 19.68 lakh tonnes in 92-93 to 32.21 lakh tonnes for rice in 1996-97, the scheme was a success.

In 1997, the policy was further revised and the Targeted Public Distribution System was introduced to cover the poor in all parts of the country. The households were divided into two categories, the above poverty line (APL) and the below poverty line (BPL) families. The latter were issues a total of 10 kgs of food grains per month at 40% the cost to the food corporations, while the APL families were issued rice at 80% the economic costs. This resulted in further subsidisation to the BPL families, while APL families could afford to not buy from the PDS in normal years, as the open market costs approximated the PDS costs.

But, what has been the impact of all this on the economy, and what has been the subsidy provided. Increasingly, it is being argued that the burden of the PDS should be reduced, and that the government should get out of the role of distributing basic commodities including food grains, and allow the well-developed food grains market of the country to take over. But what is the burden of food subsidy on the economy? India is running what is surmised to be the largest PDS' with about 4.5 lakh fair price shops, covering about 60 lakh families, according to 1995 figures. The total food subsidy has jumped to Rs.14000 in 2001-2002 from 2800 crores in 1992-93. A five-fold increase in less than a decade in absolute terms. But if one looks at the percentages, then the burden of food subsidies in India is in fact much less than that of many other developing countries. The food subsidy in India as percentage of the GDP has not changed very much, and has on an average remained at 0.31% , over the last 31 years. This is much lower than the figure for countries like Sri Lanka, which presently provide a food subsidy of 1.3% of the GDP, which based on a means tested food stamps principle, is actually a steep reduction of the quantum of subsidy under the previous scheme. The food subsidy provided over the years by the Indian government is as follows :

Year Subsidy (Rs. In crores)
Year Amount(in CR)
1992-93 ₹ 2800
1993-94 ₹ 5537
1994-95 ₹ 5100
1995-96 ₹ 5377
1996-97 ₹ 6066
1997-98 ₹ 7500
1998-99 ₹ 8700
1999-00 ₹ 9200
2000-01 ₹ 12000
2001-02 ₹ 14000

One can also see that there has been a significant increase in the subsidy after the TPDS scheme was initiated. The TPDS created several problems for the states. Firstly, all states had their own figures for BPL families, based on surveys for assistance under the Ministry of Rural Development programmes. The new figures of BPL fixed by the Government of India, based on expert group methodology were much lower than these figures of the states. Thus, states were forced to exclude huge sections of the population, who actually deserved PDS supplies. Allocations under the TPDS were also slashed, from 25 million tonnes in 1996-97 to 17.5 million tonnes in 1997-98. This was even lower than the off take during 1996-97.

What have been the impacts of the state policies to ensure constant food supplies to the poorest of the poor at controlled prices? How have the people benefited from the PDS, which later was also able to benefit from the Green revolution? Ensuring food rights in a poor country like India required enormous organisational capacity, combined with sensitivity towards conditions on the ground. The green revolution lead to a jump in production level of essential cereals and the government declared that we have eventually reached self-sufficiency in food. But that food security is not the same as food self-sufficiency, and ensuring a hunger free India was amply demonstrated a couple of years back, when hunger deaths, and huge scale of distress migrations went hand in hand with over-flowing godowns. Even today, two years after the outcry in Orissa, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, and even in the near perfect Kerala, food shortage continues to affect people. Migrations have already started in districts like Kalahandi, Bolangir, and Gajapati in Orissa. While 80 million people are hungry, there is 60 million tonnes of food grains rotting in the FCI godowns. The mathematics of food security has gone seriously wrong somewhere, and we seem to be once again receding into the pre-independence days, when the threat of famine loomed large.

What is the situation in the tribal regions? A recent study in 6 most backward Blocks of Orissa found that there were hardly any safety nets in place in the interior tribal pockets, and people had to resort to their own means to overcome times of distress and drought. This coupled with the factors of deforestation, and increasing commercialisation of resources left these communities highly vulnerable. For upto 6 months in a year, the tribal communities depend on wage labour. However,there are few systems of employment assurance on the part of the government. Most of the people go for either agricultural labour, or migrate to find work in other states. It was found that the better off in the tribal villages are able to corner benefits under schemes for BPL, and other welfare provisions like the housing scheme under Indira Awas' old age pension, etc. However, majority of the poor were unable to access coverage under any kind of safety net. This means that not only are these people denied benefits of the PDS supplies, but they will also not be able to access benefits under any targeted programme for BPL sections.

Broadly, the problems in the tribal regions affecting the food security situation of the population can be identified as follows :
  • Improper coverage under social security net schemes like TPDS, old age pensions, etc. due to faulty identification.
  • Ineffective delivery of programmes.
  • Highly degraded resource base, leading to low levels of productivity.
  • Employment insecurity leading to low wage payment as the tribals do not have a bargaining power.
  • Distress migration to other states, which affects the more vulnerable groups within the poor like infants, and the aged and the infirm, as they are neglected in the process of migration.
The outcome of these problems is symptomatised in the poor human development indicators in the tribal regions :
  • High levels of infant mortality
  • Low birth-wait
  • A short average life-span
  • Severely reduced working capacity due to ill-health and poor nutrition
  • Loss of precious mandays of employmen
  • Inability to make even the minimal investment for the education of children due to factors of poverty, necessitating income from the children, as also increasing drop out rates due to forced migrations.
  • A situation of chronic indebtedness further aggravating the food insecurity situation.

As one can imagine all this leaves the tribal communities highly vulnerable and unable to reach a take off point for any kind of sustainable development. The problem is further aggravated because of exploitation by middle-men, land lords and contractors. In these regions, the PDS is not really accessible to the people, despite the provisions of special schemes like the RPDS, the TPDS, etc. In fact the operation of an economic cost linked pricing that is part of the TPDS scheme resulted in sharp decrease in off take by both BPL as well as APL populations. The total consumer subsidy for the BPL population has been much less than the budgeted amount. However, the total food subsidy has been more than twice the BPL consumer subsidy due to the excessively high storage costs in the overflowing godowns of the country.

Several options for food security have been tried out, in addition to the PDS. These include welfare as well as developmental interventions in the tribal and rural regions. Schemes like the mid-day meal, the ICDS and the Annapurna and Antodaya rice schemes have also been initiated. Substantial allocations of essential commodities have been made available for programmes for wage employment generation. The tribal regions however present a dismal picture, with the balance between life and death being precariously maintained through low paying agricultural wages, or distress migration. The tribal people do not have a political voice, and are unable to have any effective controls over most schemes and programmes being taken up in their regions. Welfare schemes like the PDS confront them with a highly centralised structure that leaves them with no means of effective controls to ensure proper delivery. Thus, huge percentages of stocks are misappropriated. A study found that on an all India basis, about 36% of the PDS stocks are mishandled. This figure would be much higher for the tribal regions, where checks and balances are much much less. We need to try out options that are much more decentralised and allow people to make better use of their own resources, and agricultural produce. Community grain banks, with minimal subsidies from the state are one such option which have a lot of positive ramifications, in helping to conserve local produce while also enabling tribal families to shake of the debt trap. This scheme, however cannot work in isolation. But, it is one critical intervention that can play a major role in breaking the cycle of debt and bondage.