Introducing ragi in the PDS is fraught with challenges
Unless consumer preferences shift to climate resistant crops, goals associated with the policy won’t materialiseanalysis Updated: Jan 15, 2018 11:02 IST
After a gap of three years, the Karnataka government has reintroduced ragi/finger millet in its public distribution system (PDS). To feed the PDS system, the government has announced a procurement price much higher than the market price and introduced bonuses. With interventions on the sides of both production as well as consumption, the objectives are to improve nutrition and increase the climate-resilience of agriculture since ragi is a drought-resistant crop and to improve returns for the farmer.
In theory, if ragi were to displace water guzzlers such as sugarcane and paddy, it should help fight climate change. Making ragi available at a subsidy should increase consumption. Procurement at high MSP should ideally reduce market uncertainty for farmers. To sum it all, ragi in the PDS should mean better nutrition, greater climate-resilience and higher farm incomes. Everybody is a winner, it appears. However, there are no free lunches and no free ragi either. Introducing ragi in the PDS is fraught with several challenges pertaining to implementation notwithstanding the promise of serial benefits.
Estimates from the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare show that for Karnataka, the costs of production per quintal of paddy (an example of a competing crop) are much lower and the yields much higher than ragi. To make ragi compete with other crops would require significant increases in the MSP for farmers, the costs of which might turn out to be prohibitive. The evidence, based on producer responses is that farmers have not switched from crops such as sugarcane and paddy in any significant way.
On the side of consumption, since millet is a naturally nutrient-dense food, making it available through the PDS should enable the poor to have higher consumption leading to improved nutrition. Though the National Food Security Act (NFSA) provided for disbursing millets through the PDS as well, the only state that has introduced it in the system is Karnataka.
Globally, one of the most commonly applied policies to improve nutrition among the poor is a food subsidy. Yet the outcomes show that improved nutrition from food subsidy is not guaranteed and evidence is mixed (Jensen and Miller 2011). There is substantive debate about the extent to which nutrition among the poor improves with lower food prices (Ecker and Qaim 2011; Behrman et al 1988; Guo et al. 1999; Shimokawa 2010).
Because of the high incidence of undernourishment, price subsidy programmes enjoy political and public support despite widespread evidence of corruption and poor targeting (Kaushal and Muchomba 2015). Yet, expanding the portfolio of PDS with nutritive products such as ragi could be desirable if it were to bring in nutrition benefits. The proponents of PDS product portfolio expansion advocate the move precisely on these grounds. Biraj Pattnaik, principal advisor to the Supreme Court commissioners on the right to food, argues: “It’s time for the PDS to diversify in a basket of foods. We are giving cereals but we should also look at distributing millets, pulses, oils, and possibly even fruits, eggs and milk to provide wholesome nutrition.” This reasoning overlooks the mechanics of consumer choices.
With inclusion in the PDS, only limited changes in consumption might occur: Households generally tend to reduce their market purchases of food to offset the government transfer, thereby spending exactly the same amount on total food expenditure irrespective of the food transfer. One can learn from the experience of the introduction of pulses in the PDS where despite it being provided for in the PDS, the consumption of the households showed status quo results. Households reduce the market purchase precisely by the amount by which PDS adds pulses to the basket (Chakrabarti et al 2016).
In Karnataka, there is a strong consumer preference for rice. The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in its study finds that despite PDS supply, Karnataka’s consumers source a significant proportion of their rice from markets. Similarly, a sizable proportion of ragi/jowar is also sourced from the market. The PDS accounts for less than 25% of millets consumed by households. Hence the same kind of offsets can come into play in case of ragi as well. With strong preference for rice, households could sell off extra millets and buy their preferred grains.
What is the food for thought here? Ragi or for that matter any product from which consumer preferences are shifting away cannot be revived through a patchwork of policies such as introducing ragi in the PDS and supporting it with procurement with elevated MSP. The core of the problem is shifting consumer preferences. Prices can do only a bit by making ragi comparatively cheap. The promotion of ragi with all the merits it can bestow is a promising step but expecting it to deliver on farmer welfare, consumer welfare and environmental sustainability is probably asking too much from one crop.
Mamata Pradhan is doctoral scholar, University of East Anglia
Devesh Roy, is senior research fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington
The views expressed are personal