Fellow Since 1999
This description of Kiran Kulkarni's work was prepared when Kiran Kulkarni was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
Kiran Kulkarani (1999) is introducing a model grain bank that adapts to rural cultural modes and empowers rural communities to address their food security issues through indigenous solutions. By placing food distribution responsibilities on primary agricultural producers, Kiran aims to spread his idea as a new response to the growing hunger crisis in the country ---- an area where government efforts have been inept.
The New Idea
Kiran Kulkarni has created a method for local communities to determine their own sustainable grain loan programs, thereby reconnecting the distribution of food with the small farmers who produce it. Kiran's idea for a cooperative grain bank responds to the total lack of food security in India's rural communities, and is based on the premise that those who produce grain should be responsible for its distribution. His model grain bank is managed communally, ensures grain to everyone, and uses traditional, community-specific methods and rules of distributive justice. It builds a volunteer base within rural communities and sidesteps the inefficient, corrupt distribution systems run by the government and rural elites. The reliance on local people and ideas makes Kiran's system sustainable and replicable all over India. It has spread to more than eighty villages. As the movement grows, Kiran aims to train emerging rural networks in broader issues of local food sustainability, such as organic farming and the restoration of indigenous grain varieties. "This is to ensure that the movement for local food security becomes intrinsic to how food is produced," Kiran says.
Since Independence, India has wrestled with growing food security concerns for its population of over 900 million. The government's initial response to the food crisis, the Green Revolution, emphasized the production of input-intensive commodities to the exclusion of traditional crop diversity and equitable food distribution. This approach divorced food production from food security, a separation that was entrenched by the creation of two separate ministries to dictate agricultural and food-supply policies. The Green Revolution created an illusion of national abundance while ignoring the breakdown of local food security. It had other adverse effects, as farmers began to produce for trade, rather than immediate consumption. The pressure to increase yield through expensive artificial inputs introduced a debilitating subsidy culture and destroyed the country's rich agricultural biodiversity. Despite record growth in agricultural production, hunger prevails across rural India. Even the mechanisms in place for ensuring food security have failed to provide equitable or sustainable grain distribution. The state-driven Public Distribution System (PDS), with its corruption, high prices, and lack of concern for local preferences, has fractured the relationship between supplies and the actual needs of people in rural areas. The government has tried to launch several cash-dependent grain banks. In the state of Mahrashtra alone, the government distributes grains worth Rs. 40 million (US $1 million). Unfortunately, repayments have been as low as 2 to 4 percent. In addition to government programs, groups from the citizen sector have attempted several seed banks to promote agriculture for local consumption, but high gestation periods and the unavailability of indigenous seeds have paralyzed the program. Therefore, current policies and programs designed to help ensure food security are only magnifying the problem. In the present climate of economic and structural changes, and with greater corporate entry into the agriculture industry, farmers face further marginalization and subservience to regulations and international prices. As the government cuts food subsidies to reduce budget deficits, the hunger crisis will only increase.
Kiran's model is a creative combination of a modern bank and a cooperative. Run by a democratically elected samiti (managing committee), the bank takes the annual harvest of a village and loans it out to families. Each family receives a loan based on their food needs. The bank makes all transactions in grain, charges 25 percent interest on every loan, and stipulates a fixed repayment time. The bank becomes self-sufficient over a period of four years as village families pay back all the interest. From the fifth year on, as interest accumulates in the form of extra grain, the village gains a buffer against future food shortages. The recovered interest does not simply sit in the village coffers; the managing committee can offer it to a neighboring village as a rotating loan, thereby spreading the bank model in a steady, sustainable way. Thus, the rotating seed capital can promote food security across a constantly growing chain of villages. Two elements of Kiran's strategy, (a) local participation and (b) indigenous methods, have made his model replicable and sustainable in practice. (a) The emergence of a large corps of volunteers, through the samiti, has created an alternative local leadership. The samiti is a group of five volunteers elected by the village with clear administrative, accounting, and management responsibilities for running the bank. They also mobilize groups to start larger developmental initiatives, such as the creation of an emergency credit pool that farmers can access during crop failure. In the extended area of Karjat, where several grain banks operate, a committee called the Swayampurna Garki Vikas Samiti has emerged, with eleven representatives from individual village samitis. This core committee oversees the eighty participating villages to preserve the spirit and process of the bank. It is primarily committed to the spread of the initiative to larger areas, coordinating farmer study-exchange programs and volunteer trainings for new entrants in the region. Sustained mutual contact is essential. Thus, the Swayampurna Garki Vikas Samiti meets thrice annually, and all village-level samitis meet once a year. Villages provide financial and logistical support. The grain bank samitis and the Swayampurna Garki Vikas Samiti have created an alternative leadership base in the tribal block of Karjat. As food security specialists, they critique and challenge the local PDS and assist those who lack food security. Despite the new power relationships, every stakeholder in the grain bank movement is held in a tight accountability chain to safeguard the democratizing element of Kiran's idea. (b) Villagers adapt the grain bank model to suit their collective history and particular needs. Local ownership over the program has led to the revival of several traditional methods and concepts; for example, the functional tools of a grain bank are volume-based measures called fari, which are traditional, easy to use, and hard to steal. The rules of participation are laid down communally by villagers and are flexible. As in the traditional village economy, grain is distributed during the monsoons and collected after harvest. Only the surplus after consumption is sold to markets, and the decision to sell the food is made collectively by all the stakeholders of the bank. Kiran first tested his idea in Khonderwari village of the tribal block of Karjat, after a detailed study of hunger in the region revealed economic frustrations that were typical of localized food crises all over India. During the monsoon season, a lean agricultural period, villagers had to take out loans of grain and cash from the landed gentry and sahukars (money-lenders). Exorbitant interest rates and unrealistic repayment periods created a cycle of indebtedness that prevented small farmers from growing enough food to sell to their creditors while also feeding their families. Kiran sidetracked the corrupt lending agencies of the village. Using the institutional base of the Academy of Development Sciences, the organization he was then employed with, Kiran loaned grain to the farmers of Khondenwari so they would not have to borrow from the sahukars. His team educated the village about the concept of a grain bank, coordinated the election of the village bank's samiti, and trained committee members in the bank's operation. Despite initial skepticism, villagers accepted the grain bank because of an accessible interest rate (25 percent compared to rates of 50 to 75 percent charged by sahukars) and a realistic repayment time (one year compared to the six months demanded by sahukars). The results were compelling: in eight years the grain bank movement spread to 80 villages across the tribal block of Karjat and reached over 2000 tribal families. With a 100 percent loan repayment and interest recovery rate, 48 banks are self-sufficient and being run independently by villagers. Kiran aims to build a movement around his idea and test it in drought-prone regions of the country. He has established the Institute of Rural Credit and Entrepreneurship Development (IRCED) to provide the institutional base to network actively with citizen organizations in the region. According to Kiran's estimates, it takes less than Rs. 16,000 (US $400) to launch a grain bank movement in a region. The cost-effectiveness of the idea has attracted much attention, and the network already has twenty member organizations. Kiran believes his model will be replicated across Maharashtra in five years. Recognizing that strong mobilization is both his biggest challenge and the key to success, Kiran is preparing documentation, training materials, and coursework for activists. In the long term, he plans to create a rural citizen base that will convince the government to accept the grain bank model as a superior alternative to its ineffectual efforts.
Kiran Kulkarni was born into a family of affluent grain merchants and has childhood memories of "dancing mounds of grain." At the young age of thirteen, he toured the whole country and participated actively in the Rashtriya Seva Sangh-a network of committed nationalists. In college, however, he turned to more progressive movements, becoming secretary of the Rastra Dal, a secular movement of socially conscious Indian intellectuals. He created a network of more than forty students and spearheaded a youth anti-violence forum in Belgaum to monitor state violence against the masses. After several brushes with conventional jobs, he joined the Academy of Development Science, a path-breaking organization for its time, and placed himself in a rigorous apprenticeship. He evolved the grain bank idea while at ADS, and left the organization only when it stopped its support of his model.