Lockdown measures undertaken in order to control the spread of the dreaded Covid-19 has upended normal life and functioning. Business isn’t and can no longer be as usual. This has put tremendous pressure on sustaining livelihood in urban as well as rural areas. Such a scenario is not unique to India; it’s the same story everywhere across the globe.

The government has taken several steps to contain the pandemic as well as provide relief in terms of food and other financial support. An important challenge during these unprecedented times has been maintaining supply of food grains to the large population, especially the poor and the vulnerable. During the initial days of the lockdown, the government decided to provide an additional 5 kg per person of food grains to NFSA beneficiaries for three months under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY). This was estimated to cover around 81 crore people. To meet this demand, it is reported that the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has about 56 MMT of food grains in its stock. In its latest announcement, the government decided to provide assistance to the migrant labour with free food grain of 5 kg per migrant labour and 1 kg of chickpeas per family per month for the next two months.

It is well known that the food grain reserves with the FCI are well above the required buffer norms. There are even reports that it has food stock beyond its warehousing capacity. This often leads to food loss or wastage during storage. For a developing economy like India, where there is poverty and undernutrition, such preventable loss creates an embarrassing problem of plenty.

Times such as these present a window of opportunity for it to shed its excess food reserves to meet the emergent demand in the economy. Though these measures are essential for providing relief, however, due to the lockdown conditions, it takes time for the States to procure food grains from the Centre and then deliver it through the network of public distribution system (PDS).

Stocking at the micro-level

Such stringent lockdown and emergency response measures have taught us many lessons. Among many such lessons, one is the crucial availability and access to food. This is not only true for the urban areas, but also for the rural areas. The harvesting period for the rabi crops is yet to be over, and the lockdown has put the rural population in a precarious position.

One may view the operational and strategic reserves of the FCI as a macro-level stocking of food grains. However, this also brings up the question, why don’t villages have food stocking norms at the micro-level? This would make the villages less dependent on bureaucratic bottlenecks of accessing food grains and more self-reliant on meeting its own exigencies. Even during normal times, if a village experiences drought or any other crop-loss situations, it could enable them to tide over for a short period if not longer.

The Prime Minister in his latest public announcement called for Atmanirbhar Bharat or a self-reliant India. This could be considered as a macro view of the scheme of things. However, a micro perspective of this could be his announcement on April 24, on the occasion of National Panchayati Raj Day. While interacting with Gram Panchayats, he highlighted that an important lesson to be learnt from the disease response is that villages have to become ‘self-reliant and self-sufficient’. Of course, a village can never be self-sufficient in every aspect, but one crucial way of self-reliance is through availability of basic food grains. This could be achieved if panchayats prepare by storing a certain amount of food grains for the uncertain times. By providing sufficient storage facilities at the village level, would enable villages to be better prepared.

Every year, there is a large amount of food loss due to lack of storage facilities in India. A recent study by National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) highlights that the lack of access to a storage facility “is the most important cause of post-harvest losses for all types of food in India”. Increasing the storage capacity at the village level would not only prevent food loss, but also help the rural population be self-reliant in times of distress, such as the current situation.

Having access to storage facilities can not only make villages self-reliant, but also allow farmers to leverage it many other ways. It is often seen that due to a bumper crop and lack of storage facility, farmers have to sell their produce at a price which hardly covers their cost of production. Opportunity to store farm produce can enable farmers to postpone the sale to a later date when the market conditions are more favourable. It also helps farmers to go in for staggered sale of the produce to multiple agencies such as mandis , co-operatives, local traders, etc. This in turn would also make the farmer more commercialised.

A recent study by the author along with A Ganesh Kumar at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research finds that access to storage facilities significantly influences farmers’ commercialisation decisions. Access to a storage facility may also lead to more bargaining power for the farmers, so that they may be able to avail a higher price for their produce.

Building village storage capacity

In order to improve storage capacity at a micro level, such as at the Gram Panchayat level, the question that comes up is how to provide for the necessary infrastructure? The recent announcement of a ₹1-lakh crore package to boost agricultural infrastructure is a welcome step. Of this, a total of ₹500 crore is earmarked for providing subsidy to build storage facilities for fruits and vegetables, and bee-keeping.

However, spadework for this plan was laid down in this year’s Budget. The Budget for 2020-2021 had laid out a 16-action point agenda for boosting sustainable agriculture and development in the rural sector. One of this was investing in the ‘village storage scheme’ as a process of increasing backward linkages. The Budget speech notes that such village storage schemes will provide farmers with good holding capacity and also reduce logistics cost.

There is data on storage capacity with agencies such as the FCI, the Central Warehousing Corporation and the State Warehousing Corporation. But, there is lack of information about village or Gram-Panchayat level access to storage facility in India. Although NABARD has undertaken mapping and geotagging at the central warehousing capacity, at the Gram-Panchayat level, no such plan is in the pipeline.

The government recently launched the SVAMITVA scheme to digitally empower Gram Panchayats by engaging the latest surveying technologies to digitally map and record land and other properties. To make the most out of the scheme, one could also include digitally assess to farm household and Gram-Panchayat level storage facilities. This would indeed help Gram Panchayats maintain their record of storage facilities and also prepare by maintaining a record of its food grain stock. The current testing time has come with opportunities to learn a new lesson and prepare. Increasing agricultural storage capacity and making Gram Panchayats self-reliant for future rough-weather could be one of them.

The writer is PhD research scholar, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR)