the malnourished in India formed a country, it would
be the world's fifth largest - almost the size of
Indonesia. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO), 237.7 million Indians are currently undernourished
(up from 224.6 million in 2008). And it is far worse
if we use the minimal calorie intake norms accepted
officially in India. By those counts <http://www.thehindu.
(2200 rural/2100 urban), the number of Indians who
cannot afford the daily minimum could equal the entire
population of Europe.
Yet, the Indian elite shrieks at the prospect of formalising
a universal right to food. Notwithstanding the collective
moral deficit this reveals, it also shows that the
millions of Indians whose food rights are so flagrantly
violated are completely voiceless in the policy space.
India's problem is not only to secure food, but to
secure food justice.
What can food justice practically mean? First, to
prevent situations where grains rot while people die
- a very basic principle of distributive justice.
But it has to mean a lot more: people must have the
right to produce food with dignity, have control over
the parameters of production, get just value for their
labour and their produce. Mainstream notions of food
security ignore this dimension.
Food justice must entail both production and distribution.
Its fundamental premise must be that governments have
a non-negotiable obligation to address food insecurity.
They must also address the structural factors that
engender that insecurity. Most governments, however,
appear neither willing nor able to deliver food justice.
It needs therefore the devolution of power and resources
to the local level, where millions of protagonists,
with their knowledge of local needs and situations,
can create a just food economy.
This is not quite as utopian as it may sound. Something
on these lines has been unfolding in Kerala - a collective
struggle of close to a quarter million women who are
farming nearly 10 million acres of land. The experiment,
''Sangha Krishi,'' or group farming, is part of Kerala's
anti-poverty programme ''Kudumbashree.'' Initiated
in 2007, it was seen as a means to enhance local food
production. Kerala's women embraced this vision enthusiastically.
As many as 44, 225 collectives of women farmers have
sprung up across the State. These collectives lease
fallow land, rejuvenate it, farm it and then either
sell the produce or use it for consumption, depending
on the needs of members. On an average, Kudumbashree
farmers earn Rs.15,000-25,000 per year (sometimes
higher, depending on the crops and the number of yields
Kudumbashree is a network of 4 million women, mostly
below the poverty line. It is not a mere ‘project'
or a ‘programme' but a social space where marginalised
women can collectively pursue their needs and aspirations.
The primary unit of Kudumbashree is the neighbourhood
group (NHG). Each NHG consists of 10-20 women; for
an overwhelming majority, the NHG is their first ever
space outside the home. NHGs are federated into an
Area Development Society (ADS) and these are in turn
federated into Community Development Societies (CDSs)
at the panchayat level. Today, there are 213,000 NHGs
all over Kerala. Kudumbashree office-bearers are elected,
a crucial process for its members. ''We are poor.
We don't have money or connections to get elected
- only our service,'' is a common refrain. These elections
bring women into politics. And they bring with them
a different set of values that can change politics.
The NHG is very different from a self-help group (SHG)
in that it is structurally linked to the State (through
the institutions of local self-government). This ensures
that local development reflects the needs and aspirations
of communities, who are not reduced to mere ''executors''
of government programmes. What is sought is a synergy
between democratisation and poverty reduction; with
Kudumbashree, this occurs through the mobilisation
of poor women's leadership and solidarity. ''Sangha
Krishi'' or group farming is just one example of how
this works. It is transforming the socio-political
space that women inhabit - who in turn transform that
space in vital ways.
This experiment is having three major consequences.
First, there is a palpable shift in the role of women
in Kerala's agriculture. This was earlier limited
to daily wage work in plantations - at wages much
lower than those earned by men. Thousands of Kudumbashree
women - hitherto underpaid agricultural labourers
- have abandoned wage work to become independent producers.
Many others combine wage work with farming. With independent
production comes control over one's time and labour,
over crops and production methods and, most significantly,
over the produce. Since the farmers are primarily
poor women, they often decide to use a part of their
produce to meet their own needs, rather than selling
it. Every group takes this decision democratically,
depending on levels of food insecurity of their members.
In Idukki, where the terrain prevents easy market
access and food insecurity is higher, farmers take
more of their produce home - as opposed to Thiruvananthapuram
where market access is better and returns are higher.
Second, ''Sangha Krishi'' has enabled women to salvage
their dignity and livelihoods amidst immense adversity.
Take the story of Subaida in Malappuram. Once widowed
and once deserted, with three young children, she
found no means of survival other than cleaning dead
bodies. Hardly adequate as a livelihood, it also brought
her unbearable social ostracism. Now Subaida is a
proud member of a farming collective and wants to
enter politics. In the nine districts this writer
visited, there was a visible, passionate commitment
to social inclusion amongst Kudumbashree farmers.
Our survey of 100 collectives across 14 districts
found that 15 per cent of the farmers were Dalits
and Adivasis and 32 per cent came from the minority
Third, ''Sangha Krishi'' is producing important consequences
for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee
Scheme in Kerala. Because of Kerala's high wages for
men, the MGNREGS in Kerala has become predominantly
a space for women (93 per cent of the employment generated
has gone to women where the national average is 50).
From the beginning, synergies were sought between
the MGNREGS, the People's Plan and Kudumbashree. Kudumbashree
farmers strongly feel this has transformed MGNREGS
''We have created life … and food, which gives life,
not just 100 days of manual labour,'' said a Perambra
farmer. In Perambra, Kudumbashree women, working with
the panchayat, have rejuvenated 140 acres that lay
fallow for 26 years. It now grows rice, vegetables
and tapioca. Farmers also receive two special incentives
- an ‘area incentive' for developing land and a ‘production
incentive' for achieving certain levels of productivity.
These amounted to over Rs.200 million in 2009-10.
They were combined with subsidised loans from banks
and the State, and seeds, input and equipment from
Krishi Bhavan and the panchayats.
However, serious challenges remain. Kudumbashree farmers
are predominantly landless women working on leased
land; there is no certainty of tenure. Lack of ownership
also restricts access to credit, since they cannot
offer formal guarantees on the land they farm. Whenever
possible, Kudumbashree collectives have started buying
land to overcome this uncertainty. But an alternative
institutional solution is clearly needed. It is also
difficult for women to access resources and technical
know-how - the relevant institutions (such as crop
committees) are oriented towards male farmers. There
is also no mechanism of risk insurance.
Is this a sustainable, replicable model of food security?
It is certainly one worth serious analysis. First,
this concerted effort to encourage agriculture is
occurring when farmers elsewhere are forced to exit
farming - in large numbers. It re-connects food security
to livelihoods, as any serious food policy must. But
more importantly, the value of Sangha Krishi lies
in that it has become the manifestation of a deep-rooted
consciousness about food justice amongst Kerala's
women. Kannyama, the president of Idamalakudy, Kerala's
first tribal panchayat, says she wants to make her
community entirely self-sufficient in food. She wants
Sangha Krishi produce to feed every school and anganwadi
in her panchayat - to ensure that children get local,
chemical-free food. Elsewhere, Kudumbashree farmers
plan to protest the commercialisation of land. Even
in the tough terrain of Idukki's Vathikudy panchayat,
women were taking a census of fallow land in the area
that they could cultivate. Some 100,000 women practise
organic farming and more wish to. Kudumbashree farmers
speak passionately about preventing ecological devastation
through alternative farming methods.
In the world of Sangha Krishi, food is a reflection
of social relations. And only new social relations
of food, not political manoeuvres, can combat the
twin violence of hunger and injustice.
* This article was originally
published in The Hindu on February 1, 2012