Ration cards and my life have been indeterminably entwined, since the last 60 years.
Lest those that grew up as children listed for 2 units on the modern Indian Ration card, wonder about the mention of 60 years, I must issue a clarification.
Rationing really came into its own during the Second World War. Many countries amongst the Allies resorted to rationing to ensure that the populace was decently fed, and India, then part of the British Raj was no exception. A few years into the late 40's the rationing seems to have continued.
The reason I know about this is because, in the late 40's , my mother worked for the Rationing Office in Mumbai as a Rationing Inspector, and I have heard many stories from her as well as some admiring relatives about how she would cross the railway lines at Dadar, and exit through a barbed wire fence as a shortcut back to our house, so she could feed me as a baby (still on mother's milk), during her lunch hour, and return to office the same way. By and by a younger brother appeared on the scene, we moved to Pune, and for a while Ration cards disappeared from the scene.
Cut to the late 60's and early 70's, and a small red book, with permanently semi-stapled loose pages, was almost always prized as a Ration card. Every family had to have a Ration card, and it listed out the head of the family and the other members. And your entitlement.
By now it had actually started to serve as a proof of your existence as a citizen, and was greatly valued.
Strangely it listed the actual age instead of date of birth. And so I am permanently enshrined in the latest updated version, as being 49 years old.
Its not as if there was no free market sale, but the Ration card helped some, get the various staple grains and cooking fuel(kerosene) at controlled prices. Very soon, bad quality grains and the rationed variety became synonymous, and I would hear people talking about small sugar granules, and big sugar granules, how the shopkeeper is hoarding kerosene, and how folks are mixing weird things like white stones with the rice.
My individual interaction with the Ration card was when marriage necessitated a shift of residence and a new name, and one had to visit the Rationing office to strike your name off one (parent's) Ration card, and add it to another (husband's) Ration card. You had to come up with all kinds of proofs to confirm your shift in status and address. This was in the mid 70's, and registration of marriages not yet being the norm, a certificate of marriage registration was a novelty to the personnel who manned the counter at the Rationing office.
We arrived at the window and presented the papers. One to prove I was struck off my parent's ration card. One, an application praying that I be added to my husband's ration card. And the copy of the marriage registration certificate, to prove that I wasn't lying.
The fellow looked at both of us. Then at the papers. A bit more closely at the marriage registration. His eyes widened. He looked up from his desk at the window, where we stood anticipating some procedural advice...
Kind of gave a sly glance , and asked , " Run-away-marriage eh ?"
For a while the jaws dropped and stayed that way. There was some clearing of throats.
It was really none of his business, and he was probably bored deleting and adding names day in and day out. But this query really made us laugh. Most people then would provide copies of marriage invitations and photos of the event as proof. We had the relatives and family in full attendance, it was a civil ceremony, and there weren't any fancy receptions and stuff . So we gave a legal proof.
"Why do you ask ? Does it make a difference to the rationing authority ? Whether we ran or walked and who accompanied us ? How about the entire extended family running with us ?"
" Please . " He held up his hand. Probably trying to contain his mirth over possible visuals of folks of various ages running in their finery behind the couple, everyone in keds.
"Just asking..." And he picks up a pen to make some entries in a register, scribbles something on a form, attaches it to the existing ration card, and then directs us to another window to get some one's signature.
By this time there was some palpable excitement. My being highly untraditional, in a pair of jeans had convinced someone about this being a run away variety. And by and by , the excitement died down.
Nothing dramatic was happening. Should have landed up in a gold and red silk , with jewelery, and with my face covered.
The entire office was looking as the older gentleman made entries here and there, then did an almighty stamp on the last page and handed the book back to us. I was finally on another ration card.
Today, registration of marriages is the norm, and nobody looks at you twice when you go to add your name on the card. In the seventies, it was assumed that most normal folks had routine marriages in fancy decorated halls, complete with 500 guests, tons of presents , and 50-100 extended relatives wandering about, everyone undergoing several changes of clothes, menus, and attitudes throughout the whole day. Court/civil marriages were those for folks who were defying something or someone, were from different religions, or had a dramatic reason, like violent parental opposition, threats of revenge, perceived insult of family prestige, etc to run away and get married.
Over the last few decades, this dependence on ration cards to prove your citizen status has been misused, and an entire bogus ration card industry has enabled migrants from neighboring countries to claim residence and facilities in Mumbai. Surprisingly, at no point has anyone insisted on a photo display on a ration card.
Passports, PAN cards, Voter cards, Senior citizen cards, Drivers licences, all have now become identity proofs. All bearing different code/id numbers for a single individual. None of these code numbers are linked to each other on a master list. As a possible final death knell for the ration card, the central government has now ambitiously embarked on a UID (Unique Id) project headed by an IT Giant. Whereby every citizen would get a unique ID. Which will have pointers to all the different card-id's as mentioned above. Hopefully.
But the secret of success is in the implementation at the lowest level. And fine supervision of the same. Which has always been the key ingredient in the success or failure of anything in India.
A few weeks ago, the government suddenly announced a project for verification of ration cards . Certain forms were to be filled and ration card and other proofs/copies attached. The forms were insufficient, there were huge crowds at rations shops willing to pay for the free forms, and photos of the chaos appeared in the papers. In these days of "IT shining" no one thought of offering downloads of these forms.
A friend and I spent the last few hours before going out of town around Christmas, doing back and forth runs and brisk walks, one evening, to the neighbor ration shop, to collect, and organize our ration card verification forms and necessary proofs, so as to submit them before the day closed.
I asked the shopkeeper what happens now.
" I have no idea" he said. And shook his head with exasperation. "They will just take all these forms and the photos, put them in a file, and do something".
The rationing authority has a staff of 1200 to handle about 30 million ration card consumer accounts , spread across greater Mumbai across the North west and North east. The government has no money to upgrade these facilities , while allocating obscene amounts of money for putting up statues of historical figures in the ocean as a vote catching gimmick.
Methinks the forms will all go into files, which will be packed way up there somewhere on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Termites will probably taste the stuff with relish, and proceed to other files after converting some to fine powder, photographs and all.
.........A cloudy afternoon in 2025. Global warming has shifted the warming up north, and Mumbai now has cloudy weather. I slowly make my way through a sky walk to the Rationing office, cursing my arthritic legs, and myopic eyes. The rationing office is now a hall full of terminals. Inside the actual offices, a whole bunch of folks sit around having tea and munching chana.
I settle into the fancy chair (the minister's brother-in-law's son in law has been given the furniture contract), pull out the keyboard and type in my UID number. Something whirs. The screen goes blank, and says "please wait...".
I look up at the old lady who has shuffled over to see what my monitor says. Suddenly her face shows some recognition. She has a cynical smile. And she shakes her head. "So many years, so many forms. So many places I submitted copies of the card. And now , they make me come all this way, and the screen has the temerity to say , "card not found !" ?
And the two old ladies, painfully get up, and shuffle over to a window where it says "May I help you ?".
No one at the window.
Nothing has changed.