Abstract This paper discusses the history and political economy of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in India. This food distribution programme, which dates from 1939, is meant to increase food security both at the national and the household level. Since its emergence, it has passed through several phases, the latest one starting in 1991 when India introduced a Structural Adjustment Programme. From a social constructivist perspective, this paper aims to understand a) the most important features of this system in the various phases of its history, b) the social processes that led to the emergence and subsequent development of distribution policy and c) the various functions PDS has served in the course of its history. It concludes that in the most recent era, there are two contradictory tendencies (one coming from economic rationalisation, the other from populist politics) which push and pull the PDS in different directions. The latter tendency is so strong that a drastic curtailment of the food distribution programme is unlikely, despite the pleas made by those favouring cutting down subsidies and reducing the responsibility of the state.