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The alternative: Community autonomy over food and seeds

By P V Satheesh

In a globalised, mechanised, transnational-controlled industrial food and seed regime, the Deccan Development Society's women's sanghams have demonstrated that it is possible to set up autonomous, localised food and seed systems

The year is 2002. A severe drought grips the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, regarded as one of the most ‘modern’ states of India, the first to embrace neo-liberal reforms and implement them with unprecedented aggression. The state has large river networks, is known for its long pursuit of Green Revolution technologies in agriculture, has the highest rate of fertiliser and pesticide use in India, and prides itself as being a major IT hub in the country.

In spite of all this, in the Year of the Drought, the state could not find an answer for hunger in its chemically-fertilised farms. It was running critically short of foodgrain and sent an SOS to the Government of India. When the federal government promised to send 500,000 tonnes of rice every month, the government of Andhra Pradesh heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Switch to the southwest corner of Andhra Pradesh, the semi-arid region of Zaheerabad in Medak district. Farming here is completely rainfed, with no supporting canal irrigation. This is where the Deccan Development Society, a grassroots organisation, has been working for over two decades, with very poor dalit (a caste formerly referred to as ‘untouchables’, at the bottom of the Indian caste hierarchy) women, who comprise the most marginalised sections of society.

Since 1995, DDS sanghams (village-level women’s collectives) have been running what they call an ‘alternative public distribution system’ in over 50 villages. This is a self-provisioning food system based on the principles of local production, local storage and local distribution. By bringing cultivable fallow land under production, the women have been producing a basket of crops through a biodiversity-based, ecological food-production system. They now have enough grain for food-deficit members of their community (landless people, non-farming artisans, etc).

In 2002, the Year of the Drought, some of these villages produced more grain than they needed. At a meeting of members from all the villages, the question went around: “There is extra grain in some villages. Does anyone want it?” All the other villages announced that they had adequate grain in their community baskets and did not need any more.

Thus, some of the poorest and most marginalised women of Andhra Pradesh challenged the high-tech government of their state, which had proved incapable of feeding its people, through their capacity to produce adequate food by using traditional ecological agricultural practices.

Cut to 2003. The government of Andhra Pradesh announced, as it does every year, that it would supply subsidised seeds to farmers from its mandal outlets. There was a mad rush for seeds by farmers from all over the state. In Chevella mandal, close to Hyderabad, the state capital, the rush was so uncontrollable that the police had to fire on farmers, killing some of them. In Anantpur mandal, farmers were so desperate to access seeds that a stampede ensued and a few farmers were killed.

At the same time, in the Zaheerabad area, village-level community gene banks set up by the DDS’ women’s sanghams were overflowing with dozens of varieties of local seeds. Every family in the village had sufficient quantity and variety of seeds to meet its own needs, making the community gene banks almost redundant. Some villagers did not know what to do with their extra seeds so they started selling them in the market, much against the inherent cultural principle that seeds could only be exchanged, not sold. In the midst of the agricultural desert that the state of Andhra Pradesh had become, these villages had turned into farming oases.

In both instances, the women’s sanghams demonstrated that it is possible for the most marginalised people to recover their own food and seed sovereignty, and to set up autonomous, localised food and seed systems even in an era marked by a globalised, mechanised, transnational-controlled industrial food and seed system. The women’s achievements are the result of a decade-long struggle to retrieve community autonomy over food production and seed control.

The sangham women had a prolonged confrontation with the Telugu Desam government’s policies -- and its Vision 2020, which was drafted by a US consultancy firm -- designed to build a WTO-compliant Andhra Pradesh.

Vision 2020, which declared that “small farming was unviable”, proposed four principles as a way out of the severe agricultural crisis facing the state. These included: a) consolidation of landholdings; b) replacement of human labour and mechanisation of agriculture; c) contract farming; d) export-orientation. Vision 2020 also strongly advocated the pursuit of biotechnology as a major option for rescuing agriculture from its present crisis. (The Telugu Desam government was subsequently voted out of power thanks to a massive electoral revolt by agrarian communities.)

The sangham women, who were aghast at the policies of the government, organised protest rallies in village after village, day after day. They held public consultations and protest meetings. They also initiated a signature campaign endorsed by over 1 million farmers all across Andhra Pradesh. Not content with this, they put together a farmers’ jury called Prajateerpu (people’s verdict) consisting of 18 small and marginal farmers belonging to the poorest sections of agrarian society, with a majority representation for women, dalits and adivasis (indigenous people). After hearing evidence from government bureaucrats, agricultural scientists, biotech-industry representatives, farmer leaders and environmentalists, the jury delivered the now-famous verdict, categorically declaring its opposition to genetically-modified (GM) crops, including Vitamin A rice and Bt cotton, whilst advocating food and farming for self-reliance as well as community control over resources (see Farmers’ verdict).

Farmers’ verdict

“We oppose:

  • The proposed reduction of those making their livelihood from the land, from 70% to 40% in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Land consolidation and displacement of rural people.
  • Contract farming.
  • Labour-displacing mechanisation.
  • GM crops -- including vitamin A rice and Bt cotton.
  • Loss of control over medicinal plants, including their export.”

“We desire:

  • Food and farming for self-reliance and community control over resources.
  • To maintain healthy soils, diverse crops, trees and livestock, and to build on our indigenous knowledge, practical skills and local institutions.”

--- From Prajateerpu, the farmers’ jury on food and farming futures in Andhra Pradesh

The agro-cultural context

The Zaheerabad region hosts a wide variety of agricultural crops including sorghum, a range of millets, pulses and oilseeds, all of which grow in rainfed conditions. The diversity of this cropping system and its capacity to grow in infertile soil without demanding much water or external inputs, makes it uniquely important for the survival of ecologically sustainable agricultural systems.

As a matter of fact, the local people call these crops satyam pantalu (crops of truth), a powerful imagery to signify that these crops grow with practically no inputs at all, surviving on available sub-soil moisture. This perception guides the biodiversity-based agricultural system through a series of agro-economic, survival, cultural and spiritual paths.

Government intrusion

For these culturally rich, vibrant, self-reliant communities, the government’s neo-liberal economic policies constitute a harsh intrusion. They are seen as an unprecedented infringement on the autonomy of the people’s food and farming futures. In response to these policies, the women of the DDS sanghams were more determined than ever to withstand the onslaught through their own forms of resistance.

One of the new institutions of resistance that they decided to build was an alternative public distribution system, through a community grain fund. This initiative was meant to resist the havoc over the dryland food system caused by the government-sponsored public distribution system (PDS), which was originally intended to provide essential foodgrain at subsided rates. Through the PDS, the Indian State introduced a frightening homogeneity into the people’s food systems, selling only wheat and rice as staples at cheap prices through fair price shops across the length and breadth of a vast and diverse country like India, with its population of over a billion.

India’s rainfed farming system, covering millions of hectares, grows hundreds of varieties of millet. The PDS-induced homogenisation proved to be the death knell for these dryland food-producing communities. Cheap rice and wheat offered at government ration shops started destabilising agriculture, discouraging farmers from working hard on their lands and producing their own nutritionally-rich crops. As a consequence of this policy, farmers began leaving hundreds and thousands of acres of land fallow. It was also an assault on the food culture nourished by these communities over thousands of years.

To fight this multi-pronged attack on their traditional farming practices, the communities decided to institutionalise their own community-controlled local grain-based alternative public distribution (APDS) system. The APDS was dependent on local production, local storage and local distribution, which alone would ensure community autonomy over food production and consumption (see APDS: Local food autonomy).


APDS: Local food autonomy

Quantitative outcomes

  • Increase in agricultural productivity
  • Employment-generation
  • Change in land prices
  • Change in migration rates and patterns

Qualitative outcomes

  • Restoration of environmental and ecological balance, enhancing productivity and value of land
  • Conservation of biodiversity
  • Increase in food intake and improvement in health and nutrition status
  • Fodder for livestock
  • No more distress migration
  • Social capital formation
  • Women’s empowerment
A tale of two systems




 Mode of operation

Centralised operation

Decentralised/Community role

 Location of control

Centralised control

Local control over production, procurement, storage and distribution

Framework of implementation

The present PDS system and procurement policies linked to the PDS are ecologically damaging as they promote input-intensive and monocropping patterns of agriculture such as rice and wheat

Ecologically safe, focus on
crop diversity, sustainable practices, resource conservation practices, biodiversity


Access of PDS and coverage good in some states but not so good in many states

Community access for everyone without administrative hassles

Operational costs Excessive overhead costs No overheads
Operational loopholes System suffers from leakage and corruption No such problems
Source: From a study by the Global Research Group, Hyderabad

Some important gains made through this initiative are:

  • The women brought 2,000 hectares of fallow land in 50 villages under the plough. As a result, they produced an extra 1.5 million kilograms of sorghum in their villages every year since. This meant that they were able to produce nearly 3 million extra meals per year in 50 villages. In other words, 1,000 extra meals were available per participating family.
  • The fodder provided by the newly cultivated fields sustains over 10,000 head of cattle in 50 villages every year. In each village, 2,500 extra wages/year have been created. In all, over 120,000 extra wages are earned in 50 villages, every year. (When new land comes under farming, and when farmers start cultivating diverse grains, at least 50 employment days are created per year. The above wages have been calculated on the basis of each village having brought at least 50 additional acres under the plough.)
  • Dalit women, who were once recipients of grain under the government-run public distribution system, became the patrons of a system designed, controlled and managed by themselves. This resulted in a massive status reversal in favour of the poor and the marginalised.

As their knowledge increases, so too does the fascinating wealth of practices they employ to survive through dryland, rainfed farming in extremely hostile and fragile conditions, and the rationale behind these practices.

Food availability has been enhanced through a self-reliant, equitable and low-cost food security system in which people’s criteria for and definitions of poverty are central to the decision-making process. The complementary links between different forms of agro-biodiversity and rural livelihoods have created new job opportunities, some local economic surplus and a growing sense of dignity among the villagers. The programme has also generated tremendous self-confidence among women, with the growing realisation and recognition that the poor can be producers of food for the PDS, not always helpless recipients of subsidised food.

The decentralised storage system followed by the women is in stark contrast to the government’s PDS where all the grain is stored in the central warehouses of the Food Corporation of India. Each warehouse probably stores millions of kilos of grain, thereby necessitating a huge army of officials, reams of paperwork and miles of red tape. In addition, as is well known, the official system results in considerable losses, with much of the grain getting spoilt under poor storage conditions and the presence of pests. Besides, the existing system can only operate through a centralised mechanism like the state government, in which bureaucrats and others define problems and solutions. Recurring investments are required every year to run the official PDS; much of the money goes towards subsidising agricultural inputs for resource-rich farmers, energy-consuming long-distance transportation, warehousing, and the maintenance of extensive distribution networks.

Moreover, the centrally-managed government PDS is dependent on ecologically and genetically uniform farming, on good quality land. It uses large quantities of expensive inputs, like chemical fertiliser, water, pesticides and improved rice varieties grown as monocrops. The scope of the existing system is restricted to areas with water potential. Tapping, storage and supply of water in these areas is expensive -- so large amounts of credit are needed for this, as well as for mechanisation and other industrial inputs. As capital requirements are high, this type of intensive farming is largely in the hands of richer, male farmers in resource-rich parts of the country.

In 2002, the community-controlled PDS that the sangham women spread into 25 more villages helped in the reclamation of 1,233 acres of fallow land, providing more than 55,000 person-days of employment (including over 40,000 person-days of female employment), producing over 1 million kilos of extra foodgrain per year, and fodder that could support nearly 5,000 head of livestock in these 25 villages.

In another remarkable example of taking control of their food sovereignty, over 1,500 women farmers of DDS sanghams retrieved around 80 land races that had been obliterated by so-called modern agricultural practices, by growing diverse crops on their marginalised lands. They have conserved these seeds both at the individual farmer level as well as at the community level. The community-level conservation is done by a village-level seed-keeper, a woman who is responsible for managing and maintaining the community gene funds in over 60 villages. This effort has not only re-established vibrant agro-biodiversity on the farms, it has also restored women’s control and leadership over community knowledge about germplasm.

Local markets

Having understood that in the era of the globalised market, the only way to fight the invisible globalising forces is to establish their own markets, about 2,500 women from DDS sanghams have established their own cooperative market. The market purchases all the surplus millets and other food crops produced by the women, at a price fixed by their own committees. Prices at the sangham market are not dictated by external market forces.

One of the major concerns of the women is that the outside market does not recognise the value of their ecologically-produced foods, especially millets. In order to deal with this, they have promoted a consumer group called the Zaheerabad Consumer Action Group (Z-CAG) that facilitates regular interface between producer and consumer groups.

Biodiversity festivals

One of the major ‘tools’ used by DDS sanghams to take the message of community conservation to larger communities outside their sanghams is the ‘mobile biodiversity festival’, an annual, month-long celebration of biodiversity.

Displays of local seeds are mounted in traditional reed baskets and stacked inside colourfully decorated carts drawn by bullocks. The carts enter each village in a procession, with musicians and dancers, stop at a number of locations in the village and end up at the edge of the village from where the next village picks them up with their own bullocks. Each village is responsible for the festival’s process through the village.

A facilitated discussion takes place immediately after the procession, in a public place, and then village women feed the gathered people with traditional food. Some 60 villages, several mandal towns (representing a group of villages) and the district capital are involved in the festival every year, making it possible to engage village, mandal and district-level officials along with the general population.

The biodiversity festival has been getting the message of ecological farming, biodiversity, conservation and culture across to an ever-widening circle of farmers year after year. Over 150,000 farmers have so far engaged in the discussions, and many thousands are moving back to their traditional farming practices.

The year 2001 was a watershed year for the mobile biodiversity festival, with over 50,000 farmers participating in village-level discussions. They presented their agenda for the revival of the region’s traditional ecological farming systems, and the biodiversity inherent in them. Together, these communities produced an action plan for the agro-biodiversity of the region. The plan became a major part of the Government of India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan created as part of India’s commitment to the International Convention on Biological Diversity.

For the first time in the history of India, a small community came together to voice its concerns, eventually turning the discussions into a national plan -- a phenomenal achievement for the people of Zaheerabad.

(P V Satheesh is a founder member of Deccan Development Society)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2007