Life’s Mission Food Grains For All
Life’s Mission Food Grains For All, Rajiv Gandhi, Civil Servants. My meeting of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi happened on the 21st December 1985 at the reception hosted by B.K. Rao IAS, Secretary, Mines, Government of India following the wedding of his two sons. BK Rao held this reception at his residence C I/5, Lodhi gardens, New Delhi.
My meeting of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi happened on the 21st December 1985 at the reception hosted by B.K. Rao IAS, Secretary, Mines, Government of India following the wedding of his two sons. BK Rao held this reception at his residence C I/5, Lodhi gardens, New Delhi. Readers may recall that the very first article in this series of Reflections of a Civil Servant (the current article happens to be the 20th in the series) refers to BK Rao in the context of an investigation I had had to conduct in 1969 as Collector, Guntur against a close supporter of the then Chief Minister at the instance of BK Rao in pursuance of a Government assurance given to the Andhra Pradesh (AP) Legislative Council. BK Rao had then been Additional Secretary to the Government of AP but after 16 years was now a Union Government Secretary. As Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi walked in, all of us gathered there stepped back making way for him.
Ever a gracious senior, BK Rao introduced all his colleagues to the Prime Minister and when my turn came I was introduced as one who architected the Two Rupees Rice Scheme of AP and currently pursuing research into rural poverty. The Prime Minister stopped, greatly interested, and spent almost the next 15 minutes talking to me on these two subjects. He raised the question whether a food security scheme on the Andhra model could be designed and implemented for all India. I explained to him how it could and should be done. The Prime Minister asked that I give him a paper on this and would I please send it to his Additional Secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia? As I have explained in all my previous “Reflections”, this very thing was my own life’s mission and I was delighted. The Prime Minister also desired that I should meet Mr. KP Singh Deo, the Union Minister of State for Food and Civil Supplies to take the idea forward. I worked on the note on the Christmas Day 1985 and sent it to Montek. Meanwhile the Prime Minister had acted fast and I had a meeting with Minister Singh Deo at his request on the December 26. With Montek desiring a personal discussion we met in his office on the New Year Day 1986 followed by another meeting on the January 7 when I furnished him supporting statistical statements and later with more clarifications.
Minister Singh Deo had an elaborate meeting with me on the January 22 in which he said that the PM had been convinced by my proposal; and that the PM had felt that “what we are now doing is not enough” and wanted “all people below the poverty line should get food grains”. Stating that the PM was very serious about the proposal Singh Deo sought my concurrence for him to initiate action so I can join his Ministry as Joint Secretary, a request I respectfully turned down saying I was keen to continue with the larger research I had undertaken at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). However, I promised to assist him in every way required. The Minister said that the PM had already decided that “while all people below the poverty line should get subsidised food grains the rest should get it from the open market only”.
The Civil Supplies Secretary Pandeya was already working out the “mathematics” and he would call me to associate me with the work. Pandeya did call me and I had a very pleasant association with him working out the details for a nation-wide PDS. He too believed genuinely in the idea of affordable food for all the Indian poor. Mrs. Sarla Grewal, Secretary to the Prime Minister took meetings on this proposal more than once with the Secretaries concerned including the Secretary, Rural Development Mr. Vinod Pandey. I was invited to all these meetings. The finance department was not greatly enthused but Pandeya and I pressed on with our efforts. The Food Secretary TU Vijayasekharan was sympathetic and he had known me earlier as AP’s Commissioner of Civil Supplies when he was Additional Secretary, Food.
All these activities were preceded by the setting up in January 1986 at the instance of the PM, a study group on public distribution system for areas other than metropolitan cities by the Department of Civil Supplies, Government of India. It had 10 members and I was made a member of this Study Group. Mrs. Prathiba Patil, then Member of the Rajya Sabha and who would later become the President of India was also a member of our Group. I remember her graciously translating for me certain Hindi words into English during one of our meetings. The highly respected civil society leader Sanjit “Bunker” Roy of Tilonia was also a member of this Group. We travelled to many states in India that included the rural areas of Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Orissa and UP. We met the food minsters of Bihar and Kerala and officers of all these States. I was given the responsibility for the drafting of the Group’s Report and we submitted this report titled “A Study Group on Public Distribution System for Areas other than Metropolitan Cities” to the Union Government in October 1986. In this report we called for a reversal of the direction of the PDS in India from being a metropolitan and urban PDS to one addressing itself to every poor person in India, the majority of who were in the rural areas.
As I continued with this mission which included addressing IAS and other officers in some of their training institutions to sensitising them to rural poverty and the centrality of food grains strategies required to quell hunger, which was the first threshold of poverty, my two-year study leave was drawing to a close. The manuscript for my book based on my research had also progressed, which helped me in a big way in terms of the data required to design a comprehensive pro-poor, targeted PDS for India that would also be the delivery system for the food grains required for rural employment programmes and nutrition programmes associated with education and child development. In all this I sought and received great help from two senior officers of the Food Corporation of India, R Krishnaswamy and Muthuswamy Raju. Meanwhile, there was an enquiry from the Department of Power whether I would return to the Department of Power which was respectfully declined.
In mid- March 1987 I called on the Establishment Officer to the Government of India, the most distinguished J.C. Lynne to report to him that my study leave was ending and would he give me a posting back in the Government? Lynne said there were two pending proposals for me – one for the Ministry of Civil Supplies and the other for the Ministry of Human Resource Development in the Department of Women and Child Development. Preferring the latter, I called on Ms. Rama Mazumdar, Secretary, Department of Women and Child Development. She was India’s third senior most lady IAS officer. This meeting with her convinced me that was where I belonged and I joined there on the 25th March 1987. I spent 33 months in that department and I believe this was among the most happy and fruitful of my tenures in my career.
Ms. Roma Mazumdar was such a great civil service leader that she gave great autonomy and freedom to her officers. She would generally not disagree with her officers on file because she wanted us to take up responsibility for our views and the advice we tendered her and the Government. That was her way of encouraging leadership in other officers. However, if at any time she noted “please speak” on a file I knew there must have been something that was wanting in my understanding of the issues involved. The discussion that would follow would invariably confirm that. She retired in mid-1989 and went as India’s ambassador to Denmark. She was greatly taken up with my understanding of poverty and the role of food and nutritionsecurity in poverty eradication. Even after I joined her, she endorsed my closely associating myself with work connected with the redesigning of the PDS in India. I kept her fully informed of what I was doing and received enormous encouragement from her in return.
This was particularly because the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Programme, which was my subject in the Ministry, was closely concerned with rural poverty, nutrition, health, nutrition and health education and social integration. She found my research work useful for certain subjects related to the ICDS that came up in the meetings of the Committee of Secretaries, a great institution in the Government of India presided over by the Cabinet Secretary where all subjects of importance including those that have to go before the cabinet would get discussed and vetted. All these circumstances and Ms. Mazumdar’s stature and leadership helped us take a holistic view of food and nutrition security, a view that the Prime Minister himself was convinced about.