India: Village Grain Banks Free The Poor From Seasonal Hunger
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Published on 20 September 2011

Kalyani Devi (left) along with other members of the grain bank

(copyright: WFP/Radhika Srivastava)

Poor villagers in the hilly areas of the state of Uttarakhand in northern India no longer face starvation during the 'lean' season. Grain banks in their village, set up with WFP’s support, ensure at least two square meals a day.

UTTARAKHAND -- Kalyani Devi’s deeply creased face tells the story of her hardship. A grandmother of six children and a resident of Bhuiyansari village in the mountainous district of Tehri Garhwal, Devi, 54, had no option but to work as a manual labourer every time food ran short in her home.

“Along with other family members, I used to work eight hours a day lifting boulders, mud, uprooted trees and clearing up other debris caused by landslides,” she said.

Food would be hard to come by particularly during months of heavy rainfall, snow and landslides which would damage roads and make it impossible for villagers to access food from the market or the nearest government-run public distribution system outlet. “On days when an earning member of the family or I were too sick to work, we would quietly go to bed hungry. I had become used to this,” she said with a smile.

Freedom from hunger

Today, Devi no longer has to work as a labourer, but instead has more grandmotherly chores. “I knit and cook for my grandchildren,” she said. It is not as though there are no more landslides in the area or Devi’s family is not as impoverished as before. What has changed is that her village now has a Grain Bank which holds the key to her new-found food security.

The grain bank was set up with support from WFP that provided technical expertise and training and organized the state government’s support of 2.4 metric tonnes of food grain as a one-time start-up grant. All over the state of Uttarakhand, 55 such grain banks have been set up so far. Devi and the poorest people of her village have never, since, gone to sleep hungry.

The bank is fully managed by a self-help group comprising 24 women from the village with Devi as the leader. The women are from the poorest families in the village. Although the members are semi-literate, they fully understand the functioning of the bank.

“We charge 24 per cent annual interest from everyone. So if the borrower returns the principal quantity of 50 kilograms of rice after six months, he will have to deposit an additional six kilograms of grain,” Devi explained. A neatly labeled register along with the signatures of the borrower and the bank representative bears testimony to the transactions.

Local millets used

The women members are proud to show off their one-room bank. Four gleaming metal storage bins with lockable lids are lined up here. Most are half-full with food grain. A weighing scale hangs in the middle of the room on which grain is weighed at the time it is lent or returned. Instead of just the staple rice, the grain banks also stores locally grown Amaranth and Finger millet.

“Our borrowers have the option of returning the loan with a grain other than the one they borrowed,” explained Devi. The local millets help in diversifying the villagers’ food basket.

Village headman Gajendra Singh said, “We are extremely dependent on the weather for our incomes and well-being. A spell of hail storm destroys our crops completely and the winter and monsoon months cut our villages off. This is when people face hunger the most.”

Singh said the grain bank has not only addressed such seasonal hunger but has also brought the village women to the foreground. “These women are very proud to be part of the grain bank. Now other villages in this area want a similar bank,” he said.

Now, whenever her family faces hunger, Devi promptly goes up to the grain bank and borrows 50 kilograms of food grain which is enough to last her family a couple of months.

“I cannot express what a difference this grain bank has made to our village. The assurance of having food when one is in need is a blessing,” she said as a smile lit up her weather-beaten face.