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Revisiting Welfare: Ration Card Narratives in India

The history of welfare distribution turned on the perception, the delineation and the interpretation of identification documents. The ration card itself was moulded and refashioned through experiments with security and identification practices, debates around the norms of residence and family and encounters with corruption and illegality. This paper attempts to revisit the concept of welfare through a discussion of ration card forms and practices from 1940 to 1960, a period that covered the late years of colonial rule when this document was first introduced and the early post-independence years when its purpose, form and function were furiously debated. Ultimately, this paper questions the premise of the current unique identification number project that universal or wider enumeration naturally translates into improved and more equitable access to welfare.


Revisiting Welfare: Ration Card Narratives in India

Tarangini Sriraman

The history of welfare distribution turned on the perception, the delineation and the interpretation of identification documents. The ration card itself was moulded and refashioned through experiments with security and identification practices, debates around the norms of residence and family and encounters with corruption and illegality. This paper attempts to revisit the concept of welfare through a discussion of ration card forms and practices from 1940 to 1960, a period that covered the late years of colonial rule when this document was first introduced and the early post-independence years when its purpose, form and function were furiously debated. Ultimately, this paper questions the premise of the current unique identification number project that universal or wider enumeration naturally translates into improved and more equitable access to welfare.

Early drafts of this paper were presented at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies PhD workshops and the LassNet Conference, Pune, 2010. I am grateful to Radhika Singha, Awadhendra Sharan, Aditya Nigam, Sanjay Palshikar, Ravi Sundaram and Ujjwal Kumar Singh for comments.

Tarangini Sriraman ( is at the University of Delhi and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

he current debate on the unique identification (UID) numbers has brought into sharp relief the identification document,1 its role, its reliability and its distinctive properties. The UID initiative and debate are especially invigorating when read against the backdrop of most academic scholarship on the public distribution system (PDS) which primarily debates the entitlement and not the document that carries the entitlement.2 Yet, some of the assumptions of the UID authorities and scholarship on the PDS, taken separately, are not so starkly different. Many of the promises of the UID initiative like number portability, identity authentication and de-duplication turn on norms of a fixed and stable address. UID authorities point out that so far, a cardholder had to present a rationing document carrying a residential address to a fair price shop (FPS) within a stipulated administrative jurisdiction. Under the UID’s new arrangement, he or she can now claim food supplies at ration outlets anywhere in the country, thanks to the UID number on the ration card. The UID authorities therefore believe that any real reform of the PDS should free the family ration card from the constricting norm of a fixed residential address. The history of rationing documents is however replete with uncertainty around the norms of family and residence; for instance, at a certain point, both family cards and individual cards circulated within the country, and cards were distributed to homeless persons as well as those with a fixed residence.

This paper attempts to revisit the concept of welfare through a discussion of ration card practices from 1940 to 1960, a period that covered the late years of colonial rule when this document was first introduced and the early post-independence years when its purpose, form and function were furiously debated.3 While some commodities like motor spirit, tyres and tubes and electricity were made available only to certain institutions and elite sections of government and society, others like foodgrains, bread and cloth, though rationed, were universally available. In the context of food distribution and rationing history in India, I try to trace the trajectories of the ration card, which I argue, originated, stabilised and disintegrated through socio-economic crises, changing political imperatives and encounters with corruption. I demonstrate that the rationing document was a fluid and evolving entity, constantly acquiring and shifting shape, instead of being fully formed at any given point.

This paper is inspired by Appadurai’s work, which renders commodities as animated objects or things having a life and social potential – a move that challenges the tendency to “excessively sociologise transactions in things” (Appadurai 1986: 5) or to understand things as enjoying significance only as a result of human social endeavour and interaction. I apply Appadurai’s

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methodological move of characterising the “social life” (of the ration card) as a break from scholarship that sees the document as operating within legal-rational modes of authority and imagines it as a stable bureaucratic instrument of a sovereign state.

I set for myself a few tasks in this paper. I would like to cast, through selective examples, the history of welfare distribution as one that turned on the perception, the delineation and interpretation of identification documents. Second, I wish to discuss the rationing document and its various features as resulting from debates around the norms of residence and family and encounters with corruption and illegality. Third, I would like to expand the terms of reference for the ration card, as a document which was not circumscribed within the field of public distribution but one that entered other domains of welfare such as housing and resettlement.

Historical Context of Rationing in India

Rationing, introduced in India as a wartime measure, was also intended to mitigate the suffering and scarcities brought on by monsoon floods and crop failures in Madras presidency, Bombay and Bengal, the sudden interruption in the imports from a regular supplier of rice, Burma, which came under Japanese occupation, and an unusually harsh famine in Bengal in the year 1943.4 Historians and economists like Sanjoy Bhattacharya and Amartya Sen have projected rationing as a palliative for the discontented civilian population and as a wartime necessity for priority sections. The swelling numbers of the Allied forces, the Japanese invasion of Burma, the impracticality of generating food supplies in the vicinity of Burma given the difficulty of the battlefront terrain – all provided rationales for the British to increase food production and make plans for rationing. Hundreds of men fighting for the British army, soldiers in the Maratha regiments, policemen in the Bombay city police, labourers in the mills, textile and other industries of Bombay and workers elsewhere on whom the colonial national security of India depended were in urgent need of food replenishment (Knight 1954: 197).

A wartime document that emphasised the material importance of labour between 1943 and 1945 was the supplementary ration card issued by various states and provinces. It entitled the heavy manual worker to rations in addition to the adult scale available for every person. The manual worker’s claim however needed to be processed through the imposing presence of an employer to attest his signature and accord his paternalistic assent for the document to be issued. Ajmer city, Bengal, Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands issued additional scales for heavy manual workers, though not all of them issued separate rationing documents for the purpose. The employer’s certificate within the application for the supplementary ration card was not an aberration; it was only one of many documents like the family ration card and the certificate for soldier’s dependents which reinforced and perpetuated hierarchies either of kinship or authority or both.

The ration card was also framed by an official fear within the country’s borders, of enemies who could drag down the war effort. The most hated of these enemies was the hoarder; the propaganda campaign against him or her was ubiquitous and worldwide. For instance, American popular culture during the

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second world war referenced somewhat darkly the hoarder in the controversial fairy tale parody titled Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, a short animated film or cartoon released in 1943. The Evil Queen plotting in this film against a black So White (instead of the fair Snow White) was a national threat because she smuggled out of sight not gold or riches but rubber, sugar, gin, coffee and other rationed items.5

In India, propaganda against the hoarder was not so creative but equally unsubtle. Repeated government advertisements splashed across the Hindustan Times in 1943, warned of “the hoarder or the unscrupulous spectator who operates illegally outside the grain trade, who hoards vast stocks of grain waiting for a further rise in prices in order to make huge profits”.6 The advertisement mentioned “the cultivator, the dealer and the customer” as the three men legitimately concerned with food, and then u nderlined the presence of the “unwelcome fourth man” or the hoarder, an illegitimate and sinister creature engaged in illicit trade, and an uncompromising enemy of the people and the a uthorities.7 Such propaganda was backed by voluminous legislation, with one such noteworthy injunction being the Essential Articles Restricted Acquisition Order passed in 1943, which enjoined subjects against hoarding or acquiring more than a stipulated quantity of foodgrains (Knight 1954: 203).

(In)ability to Prove Residence

In many of the government orders and notifications issued on the ration card, the category of location occupied a lot of analytical space. The administrative grid of rationing was configured territorially to ensure registration of cardholders with authorised retail distributors (ARDs) in a given area. ARDs were circumscribed, based on their licence, to operate within the district; states were regionally slotted into surplus and deficit rice and wheat zones across which movement of foodgrains was to be energetically monitored. This analytical space of location was characterised by unease relating for instance to the freeloader, who enjoyed free food in the hospital while retaining the units in his ration card,8 by apprehensions of all-too-likely negligent registrations of subjects with unlicensed catering establishments, by ARDs and later FPS registering larger numbers than they were jurisdictionally allowed, by recorded and feared instances of impersonation and fake claims such as those made by persons with fictitious addresses.9 Various documentary regulations in the form of food and baking permits, licences and blacklists were constantly introduced and revised to address such anxieties.

The most potent manifestation of the fraught official relationship with location occurs at the site of the domestic residence. Even at this early point in pre-rationing identification drives across various provinces and states, there was a tense contemplation of the place and import that residence or address should have in the ration card. The preoccupation with floating or itinerant populations and the incessant documenting of homeless persons was hardly something that the ration card heralded in India or elsewhere. The labelling, branding and tattooing of homeless persons and the creation of anthropometric passes for and the fingerprinting of vagrants, nomads, gypsies, traders and homeless persons has a resounding history across modern Europe.


Many governments indulged the eccentric ambitions of their police or prefectures and other administrative wings in marking their subjects, with Alphonse Bertillon’s elaborate experiments with anthropometry in France being the most celebrated example. Nor was the marking of homeless groups a token of narrow surveillance of marginal elements of society. Monitoring handouts through a perusal of documentary proof of residence was symptomatic of a larger welfare syndrome that probes the identity of those it patronises and provides for. Characteristic of 19th century welfare drives was the need to filter public charges to keep out aliens (read illegal migrant workers) who by that very status were freeloaders and undeserving of state support.

The ration card must be read at one remove from this historical record, being less obviously disciplinary or repressive than historically known punitive badges of identity, while at the same time being a document issued to indigenous subjects and not aliens. This document must be read differently from its counterparts in India as well, for instance the beggar’s permit that was issued in Bombay and Delhi in the late 1950s and the early 1960s respectively. The beggar’s permit sought to limit the number of beggars in the streets of Bombay and Delhi through a discursive move by which begging was rendered an entitlement that had to be sought through an application (form).10 The beggar was to carry the permit with him wherever he went “while soliciting or receiving money, food or gifts and shall, on demand by a police officer, produce it for inspection”.11

The original purpose of issuing the ration card was, unlike the beggar’s permit, far from debilitating, being a move, in the words of John Torpey, to “embrace” (2000: 11) or enable such persons to receive a ration. This did not mean that the enumeration of homeless persons for purposes of rationing was an irreducibly benign gesture. Discrimination against those without a sedentary lifestyle or settled habitation was not absent; homeless persons were issued only temporary ration documents and their cards were marked to that effect. Issuing cards marked “homeless” to persons who lacked a fixed residence at best suspended them between “threat and guarantee” (Poole 2004: 35); rationing authorities tried to ensure a ration but attempted to keep it as minimal as possible. Food administrations rounded up beggars and homeless persons; however, on issuing them cards which marked them as homeless, some administrations like the Bombay government extended a smaller ration than that provided to the bona fide resident, while others like the Coorg government withheld the ration altogether.12

But how were homeless persons to be enumerated if they lacked a stable residence? It seems that rationing authorities distinguished productively between residence and address, with clear instructions to enumerating authorities to describe the living space accurately. Henry Knight, adviser to the Governor of Bombay during the second world war, writes that a survey of beggars and homeless persons was carried out and the particulars of their identity were taken down and ration cards promised to them (Knight 1954: 203). It also appears that homeless persons were issued individual cards as there was no kitchen or mess around which families could be counted. Hugely disciplinary means were common in such drives as witnessed, for instance, in the counting of the homeless in some areas like Ajmer city after a police round-up.13 Post-independence when rationing was resumed or started afresh, headcounts were made of those living in refugee camps and railway personnel in some rationing areas like the Patiala and East Punjab States Union region.14

In evaluating the enumerations carried out for the Fuel and Kerosene Rationing Scheme in 1944, rationing officials could barely suppress their irritation over the lazy, confused and conceptually blurred entries that enumerators made in the enquiry forms. The clerks appointed for the task were told sternly to state the number of enclosures and accurately describe them (whether a certain room doubled up as living room and dining room or sitting room and bedroom) and to distinguish them from the partly enclosed spaces where the enumerating authority saw that someone had set up home under a tree or in a veranda. In these instances, such persons were to be listed as “homeless”.15 In addition, the clerks filling in the form were also required to state the nature of the relationship of every resident to the head of the family (whether family member, servant or lodger), and mention surnames as well as the exact occupation – railway coolie or loom worker – in place of “vague entries” such as service or labour.16 Both in the directive to count the homeless and to make entries that were sharp and precise, the colonial state may have been engaged in a symbolic demonstration of the power and reach of its enumerative machinery, one that could capture nuanced detail about those residing in houses, however makeshift, and even record those living under trees and in corridors.

Evidentiary Form

Ration card enumeration was fraught in a narrow and wide sense. In the narrow sense, authorities handed out diminutive rations or withheld them altogether to persons of a certain description as per the document. In a wider sense, the ration card, time and again, was manifest as an “enabling violation” (Spivak 2004: 524) across various realms of welfare;17 that it tantalised welfare claimants with entitlements and yet held them back from actually enjoying them. Claims to housing and the policy that determined entitlement to housing turned significantly on various proofs of residence, of which the ration card was the foremost. Every detail in the ration card, whether it pertained to the abstract codes, the year of issue, the signature inscribed, or the exact address, mattered and could impinge on a claim for housing entitlement. Post-independence, the future of any number of squatters in Delhi hung delicately on their ability to produce sturdy, legible, appropriate ration cards in jhuggi jhonpri (JJ) schemes.

I look here at some disputes between partition-displaced persons and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) over claims to housing under the Gadgil Assurance Scheme. The Government of India set up a committee under the chairmanship of N V Gadgil to determine the criteria for allotment of alternative plots to those who fled from Pakistan during the Partition of India and settled in Delhi on government land. The committee evolved various categories of entitlement to housing. Those who had set up residence in Delhi prior to 15 August 1950 were accorded the highest priority under category A; those who occupied their premises after 15 August 1950 were deemed category B and those who were

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squatting on such land after 1960 or after 1980 formed two more categories, C and D respectively. These refugees were allotted plots of varying acreage depending on the category their claims were determined to fall under, with category A deserving the most substantial plot size. The allotment of plots under any of these categories depended on the claimant’s ability to convince various committees of their eligibility through documents like refugee registration certificate, ration card, electric, water supply, telephone bills, census slips, voters’ lists, etc.

I look briefly here at a couple of disputes that were disposed off in the Delhi High Court. The ration card featured as defence in both the petitioner and the respondent’s cases in the first dispute I would like to present. The petitioner was one Nand Kishore who was occupying a category A plot in the western extension area of Karol Bagh and sought sanction for it; the respondent was DDA which had allotted him a plot under category C.18 Nand Kishore filed a writ petition in court in 1984 when the DDA arbitrarily raised the damages he had to pay for the 90 square yards he was occupying under category A from Rs 4.50 to Rs 450. Nand Kishore died during the course of the settlement of his plea and his wife, Darshna Devi, had to take his place as petitioner.

Over a long period of time, the petitioner managed to convince various authorities, including a committee appointed for the purpose and the Permanent Lok Adalat (PLA) of the DDA, of his claim. These authorities perused his documents – mainly a refugee certificate and two ration cards – and had decided that he was a bona fide case for a category A plot. However, the petitioner’s claim was cancelled on the basis of a complaint that the refugee certificate he had submitted was issued in the name of his father, who was the head of the family and had been given an alternative plot in a jhuggi in Karol Bagh. Surely, Nand Kishore could not then claim another plot on the same certificate, Harbans Singh, secretary of the West Pakistan Refugee Association argued in his complaint. But the PLA of the DDA countered this complaint and deemed Nand Kishore’s wife, Darshna, to be eligible by arguing that Nand Kishore was living separately in another jhuggi at the time of application and had produced two ration cards as proof, one issued in 1948 and another in 1950.

The matter was settled temporarily with the petitioner making a compromise and accepting allotment under category B in the interests of speedy settlement. The PLA strongly recommended her case for the allotment though it recognised her claim to a plot under category A. However, the DDA failed to even allot her the category B plot. The case came up again in court; the DDA submitted in its defence that the ration card of 1950 could not be relied upon, as the administrative code within the card did not match with the first ration card of 1948. If the petitioner produced two ration cards, each serving two different functions, with the first demonstrating occupation in Delhi and the second showing continuous residence in Delhi, the second was not valid as it showed the petitioner to be residing somewhere other than in the original residence. The DDA argued that it could not allot either category A or B plots because the petitioner could not submit the voters’ list of 1951. Also because he did not have a refugee certificate in his own name, the ration card went against his case.

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The court ultimately disposed off the petition in favour of Darshna Devi in 2007, two decades after the case first came up for hearing in the high court the first time in 1984. The court ruled that the petitioner’s claim was to be entertained on the grounds that the DDA had ignored decisions made by previous authorities in whose proceedings the DDA itself had participated and needlessly re-perused documents whose credibility had already been established.

In yet another dispute that reached the high court, a threemember committee formed by the DDA refused to accept the petitioner’s ration card as proof of time in relation to occupation of residence. In other words, the ration card submitted by the petitioner as proof that he had occupied the house before August 1950 could not be regarded as valid because the date looked smudged on the document. The high court dismissed the DDA’s plea, faulting it for privileging the ration card along with other documents “which were only meant to corroborate the true identity of persons”, when all that should have mattered was the refugee certificate and its veracity.19

One can underplay the role of documents by casting aspersions on DDA’s integrity and arguing that it kept bringing up and

reopening all these documents just to be able to deny a plot. While this may be true, it would only be pitting surmise against surmise. Instead, I would like to infer a couple of things about the ration card in particular, by assuming for a minute that DDA’s intentions in re-scrutinising all these documents were not suspect. Within the scope of these disputes, the ration card’s function was never the same; at times it sought to establish the identity of the claimant, at other times, it testified to the linearity of events and at yet other times, it sought to verify address and continuous occupation.

But in a broader sense, these disputes demonstrated a couple of things. One, the illegibility of entitlement – it was never clear which documents or which detail in the document clinched the claimant’s entitlement to the plot. Second, it showed that the document enjoyed currency in debates which had nothing to do with the withdrawal of rations, because the card embodied material aspects such as the signature or the fingerprint, address and family in a unitary evidentiary form.

Beyond War and Independence

In the present arrangement of the PDS, the documentary locus of agency is not the individual but the family. The family norm was, however, far from being an inevitable choice at various levels of administrative decision-making. Before I present some of the debates leading to the crystallisation of the family norm in India, I would like to first briefly outline the considerations behind retaining the ration card in the aftermath of the war.

Imports of rice from Burma, a regular supplier to India, were not considered likely to resume soon. Even with the Basic Plan in place,20 countrywide availability of food supplies was highly uneven, with many provinces and states in deficit and parasitical on their surplus counterparts, whose patience was failing in enduring the drain of their resources that such regional expectation caused. Related to this, authorities anticipated that food procurement after the war would be slow and would not match the


increase in the size of the population. It was expected that a section of the population, predominantly the large number of soldiers and army personnel returning to civilian life, would still be in need of ration supplies. The well-being of the police forces responsible for internal security also warranted sizeable rations.21

An interlude of decontrol prevailed in December 1947 (and later between 1952 and 1954), owing partly to strong petitions made by Gandhi and Members of Parliament like Pattabhi Sitaramayya and M K Siddhwa. Gandhi equated the idea of providing a rationed subsidy, measured out by a document, with the curbing of individual initiative, dependence on artificial supplies, the anarchy of black markets and the depredations of defaulting grain dealers and traders, all of which had the effect of further impoverishing the poor. Gandhi said on rationing (Jain 1965: 108):

Controls give rise to fraud, suppression of truth, intensifications of the black market and to artificial scarcity. Above all, it unmans the people and deprives them of initiative, it undoes the teachings of self-help they have been learning for generations. It makes them spoon-fed.

But the period of decontrol between 1952 and 1954 became in the following decades, a negative example of headlong and irrational optimism on the food situation in the country. To impose decontrol was to brush away in one stroke regional disparities and to ignore completely the prospects of good and bad seasons, or for that matter, the absence of floating surpluses, resulting scarcities, low agricultural productivity, high prices. It was to decide based only on present availability or a good year’s harvest or so Food Minister Jairamdas Daulatram and the Foodgrains Enquiry Committee 1957 indicated.22

The Foodgrains Enquiry Committee’s report (as cited by Mooij 1998: 82) said as much: “the total dismantling of controls appears to have been a hasty step, particularly inasmuch as government failed to take the opportunity to build up buffer stocks as prices fell”. Post-1954, an economy spurred by scarcity coupled with an impulse towards fair and equitable distribution informed the consolidation of existing ration card records at ARDs and relief quota shops. But what form was the ration card to finally take?

Stabilising the Family Norm

When it was first introduced, the ration book or ration card was universal to all the statutorily rationed states and provinces, while it was issued irregularly in the non-statutory areas.23 Ration cards were issued to the head of the family rather than to individuals for the first six months of rationing for reasons of convenience to the family. Henry Knight, advisor to the Governor of Bombay during the second world war, however records that colonial authorities feared that family ration cards would be prone to much abuse. Families often included fictitious names and did not report deaths and departures. The individual ration card was considered more economical and effective once a headcount was undertaken. Knight gives us the number of 1,80,000 ration cards distributed to individual persons soon after the initial six months of rationing (1954: 204-05). The individual ration card, once introduced, was officially preferred to the family ration card in the interest of reducing excess consumption (Knight 1954: 204-05).

So post-independence, what prompted the shift in favour of the family norm? Administrative considerations did not solely determine the choice. The family norm was indispensable for providing for certain classes after the war had ended. Many soldiers found, on taking leave and going back home, that cloth, kerosene and food rations were insufficient or not available at controlled rates. It was to provide subsidised rations to such soldiers and their dependents that the Bengal government drew up a family rationing scheme. This scheme entailed the submission of a certificate showing a person’s relationship to the soldier. It entitled him or her to foodstuffs, cloth and kerosene at controlled rates.24

Administratively speaking, while I cannot capture the logic of enumeration played out on a national scale, I do reproduce here excerpts of a debate about these two norms undertaken by a regional administration. From the point of view of rationing officials in Delhi, retaining the individual as the unit for the card was certainly not without its benefits. They recognised it to be more popular than the family card because with the latter, changes had to be constantly made with new additions or absences caused by deaths or disappearance or migration of any member of the family.25 A new ration card had to be prepared in all these instances and a trip to the rationing office to procure the new card was mandatory. The rations of the family during this period of verification were sorely threatened by the whole procedure. It was not uncommon for families to conceal sudden departures or absences if only to ensure continuing rations and save needless expense and effort.26

The individual ration card made all this facile concealment difficult as cardholders could draw rations only by producing the ration card in person in their ration area. This said, the family card was seen to be more suited to post-war conditions where rationing was neither as ubiquitous nor as tight as it had been during the war. It was argued that the urge to misappropriate rations was naturally stronger when the ration was fixed and enforced everywhere. With open market conditions persisting side by side with controlled distribution, the family ration card was a lesser administrative liability than the individual ration card. For one, it was easier and cheaper to issue cards to a family than to distribute an excess of documents to various individuals. Besides, accounting was made simpler when cash memos were issued to the head of the family irrespective of the number of members in the given family. The savings on printing cards would be considerable if family cards were introduced.27

This way, the family ration card was administratively reworked to manage previous discontentment. The government justified its advantage over the individual ration card. The family ration card was eventually issued in Delhi from 1 February 1953. What these debates convey, more than anything else, is that like most other aspects of the ration card, the family norm was not a historical constant but obtained through historically contingent considerations and administrative experiments with both norms.

Corruption as Modality

In an analysis of files pertaining to colonial rationing documents in the archives, I came across two sets of evidence. The first, for instance, witnessed in various files on motor spirit coupons, cloth permits and food cards suggested the proliferation of corruption, a term I loosely use here to cover instances of (1) theft of a rationing

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document, (2) misappropriation of a rationed commodity, and

(3) extortion or wrongful extraction of money. The second set of evidence corroborated the rampancy of security measures like colour backgrounds, serial numbers and watermarks, all of which had the effect of marking the document so as to render its misuse difficult and make any offence related to it traceable.

I also detected a relationship or conversation between these two sets of evidence. A certain instance of fraud was, very often, followed by a colonial corrective to create a designated authority; this authority regulated the use of the document or oftentimes, marked the same document that was breached in order to secure it. While it is probably true that colonial authorities archived some instances of corruption without reacting administratively through elaborate security measures, almost every file I studied in the national and Delhi state archives in which identification practices like the fingerprint and security measures were discussed bore a discreet or explicit mention of a recorded instance of corruption. I will demonstrate what I perceive to be a productive and invested relationship between corruption and identification practices around the rationing document in these three sites of theft, misappropriation and wrongful extraction of money.

In Bombay, one of the first reported cases of fraud following the rationing of food and cloth occurred in 1944 when blank ration permits were reported to be stolen by peons of the rationing department. Following this incident, the commissioner for civil supplies, Bombay, A D Gorwala, submitted a report on the corective measures that his administration took. These included the use of colour backgrounds in printing paper, use of changing number denominations, counterfoils, indents and cash memos.28 The colonial administration at the centre upheld this experiment, ordering regions and provinces across the country to emulate the Bombay authorities. In files containing correspondence on security features between the centre on the one hand and the states and provinces on the other, there is a recurring use of the term “vulnerable documents”,29 invoked in a manner that placed documents at the centre of the engagement with fraud. For instance, the centre would ask provinces and states to file reports requiring enumeration of instances of fraud involving vulnerable documents and specification of the models of security features deployed around documents and by implication, of the measures undertaken to crack down on fraud.30 This led to a paradoxical situation, where documents armed with security features were designed to battle fraud and when lacking these features, were vulnerable or liable to be imitated and appropriated. Documents, whether vulnerable or secured, remained a central point of reference.

The Money Extractors

The colonial establishment reacted similarly to practices of wrongful extraction of money by writers (read middlemen) who sought to make petty incomes around official procedures of document production. While I cannot produce any evidence here of how popular they were in various rationed areas, it would seem from the acknowledgement of more than two local administrations that predatory writers of application forms and cards were on the prowl for credulous applicants and some pocket money. The rationing adviser to the Government of India, H H Kirby,

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complained in 1943 of writers extracting money from illiterate applicants in a government-owned rationing office in the Mysore residency.31 Kirby observed that a writer demanded two annas from an old and poorly clad woman who was only “doing her duty”32 by returning a ration card that she was not entitled to use. Kirby recorded that for the mean task of filling in an application form that the woman was obliged to complete on returning her own ration card, the writer demanded a fee.

Following this incident, which horrified Kirby, he mobilised official opinion against the class of the self-indulgent writer who was to be prevented from fleecing applicants and cardholders on the job. Kirby demanded that such practices be discontinued and that officially recognised writers not be allowed to charge fees from consumers. Following this, the central food department passed an order for the creation of the post of junior clerks who would help applicants fill in application in rationing offices.33 Their duties would consist of providing rationing information to the illiterate public and filling in forms for them. No fees were to be charged for this purpose.

The same debate also features the thumbprint, which was suggested in the face of confusion when it was difficult to ascertain whether the information provided in the application form was supplied by the applicant himself or by the writer who was filling in the form on behalf of the applicant.34 This became a problem, or so colonial authorities indicated, in instances where the information relating to the applicant was false, rendering, say, the acquisition of a ration card wrongful. The problem was ultimately resolved through the fingerprint of the applicant, who alone was to be held responsible. This absolved the junior clerk or the governmentrecruited writer of all responsibility of furnishing wrong information. In Mysore residency, where this problem of writing, and the mediation of writers for ration card applicants was first discussed, the administration took well to the idea of the thumbprint and r eported that they had started using it on application forms.35 The fingerprint, in this instance, became a resource to negotiate with wrongful representation and the provision of false information.

While the British never once doubted the efficacy of rationing of commodities in a colony that was a “major supply base” (Kamtekar 2002: 190) for the second world war, colonial authorities keenly believed that rationing inflated the chances of its being smuggled or misappropriated. A reading of the files pertaining to the rationing of motor spirit (petrol or diesel), available only to certain administrative and diplomatic classes, educational institutions, war engineers and contractors, shows how each application was perused with a jealous eye to detect extravagance and wrongful transactions involving misappropriation of the commodity. In a province like Delhi, which was the nerve-centre of diplomatic comings and goings, the war effort as well as strategic decision-making, the strictest economy in the commodity was sought through the application process for coupons. It was recorded that motor spirit applications were deliberately misused and negligently dealt with by clerks and higher-ups among rationing authorities.

One such example involved the use of application forms by a clerk to siphon off motor spirit to a confederate who sold coupons in loose and in black. The fraud in question was not noted by his superior, Gurinder Singh of the Automobile Association of North


India, who pleaded innocence on the grounds that he was weighed down by a heavy burden of handling thousands of applications.36 Among the other cases that rationing and police authorities reported were the unlawful hoarding of petrol by lorry drivers, the sale of petrol on credit, i e, without coupons, the illegal sale of petrol by Oil Company drivers to petrol depots, the sale of petrol on dated coupons, etc. In each such case however, some detail or the other – like the date, the quota available, whether the coupon was loose or part of a coupon book the coupon serial number – underlay the detection and punishment of misappropriation.

Marginal Spaces of the State

So far, I have traced the trajectories or careers of the ration card within official realms. I must point out that the ration card also enjoyed a social life in marginal spaces characterised by informal everyday transactions and popular manipulative practices. One such practice was pledging the ration card or using it as a mortgage when desperate indebted individuals handed over their ration cards to moneylenders or friends in return for cash. In return for dispensing cash, these persons were able to claim rations that they were legally not entitled to, and in addition, to charge arbitrary rates of interest for the cash they lent. These practices of individual discretion, did not bear the sanction of the state, and were not regulated either, being often invisible to the legal gaze. This practice has been recorded in two places in India at least – in Kerala (Gulati 1977; Mooij 1999) and in Tamil Nadu (De Witt 1996). In Kerala, this practice was observed in remote hilly areas among squatters residing in illegal makeshift settlements they had set up. Jos Mooij, writing about this practice, tells us that 20% of the residents she surveyed (most of them scheduled caste) in Pattambi in Kerala did not possess a ration card because, she suspects, it was an illegal settlement.

While this paper cannot flesh out the anthropology or the politics of mortgage as documentary practice, I would like to suggest that we pause a little before we dismiss mortgage as some kind of rogue departure from the legal operations of the ration card in the hands of some deviant or desperate individuals. Given that those who have been recorded to pledge their cards reside in “illegal settlements” (Mooij 1999) and “squatter settlements” (Gulati 1977) means that they could only have acquired documents through informal negotiations. This practice of mortgaging the ration card may well be just another instance of the porous legality of welfare processes in marginal spaces.


Rationing documents played a critical role in welfare distribution but also in other sovereign functions of the Indian state. Once it was decided that the ration card be retained, it was deemed prudent to streamline disparate information, existing in the form of records maintained by ARDs and relief quota shops, into other sovereign functions. It was pointed out by a few discerning


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officials that the work of rationing organisations and the infor-poor in India hanging by a thread. Given that cards within the mation collected through the distribution of ration cards could PDS are all family cards and are still anchored to certain adminiprove invaluable for the preparation of electoral rolls and in strative jurisdictions, the UID numbers issued to each individual, the running of elections.37 Besides, the statistics and qualitative easily authenticable and accessible across the country, promise information available with the rationing organisations could to overhaul the “technology architecture”39of welfare networks be used for introducing other schemes such as community and thereby improve access. The history of rationing documents, feeding, school feeding and milk schemes and distribution of however, provides us with the insight that enumeration does protective foods.38 not always translate into equitable access for certain classes.

This paper covers a period in rationing history that does not These documents are furtively acquired and used in certain feature the various welfare classifications of below poverty line spaces. It is doubtful if the UID initiative will ease the struggles (BPL), above poverty line (APL) or Antyodaya whose changing of classes whose documents may always be more tenuous than definitions in BPL census-related methodologies have left the those of others.

Notes13 Food Department Rationing Branch, 1944, NAI, 36 Chief Commissioner’s Office Confidential Branch, file R1021/1/Vol II. DSA, 1944 28/13/44-C.

1 While strictly speaking, the UID authorities are 14 Food Department Basic Plan Branch, 1951, NAI, 37 Food Department Rationing Branch, NAI, 1945

issuing numbers and not documents, the task at

file BP II-1038/51. RP-1000/49.

hand is one of integrating information in various scheme-related identification documents with a

15 Chief Commissioner’s Office, War and Civil 38 Ibid. central database. 39 Unique Identification Authority of India (nd):

Supplies Branch, 1944, Delhi state archives (DSA), file 27 (26).

2 Much of this scholarship omits to mention ration “Creating a Unique Identity Number for Every cards; when scholars do allude to them, ration Resident in India”, Working Paper-Version 1.1,

16 Chief Commissioner’s Office, War and Civil Supcards are buried in discussions of proper target-p 28. Accessed on 3 September 2011: http://www.

plies Branch, 1944, DSA, No 9633-R, file 27 (26). ing in anti-poverty programmes (Dev 1996), plug-17 I am grateful to Sarada Balagopalan for pointing ging leakages (Indrakanth 1997), food security out this term to me.

and universal coverage (Swaminathan 2002), 18 Delhi High Court, 2007, Darshna Devi And Anr vs hunger (Patnaik 2003), populist schemes (Olsen DDA, 142 (2007) DLT 474, in 20 April. References 1989), etc. Mooij (1999) and Gulati (1977) are a 19 Delhi High Court, 2007, Ashok Kumar vs DDA,

Appadurai, Arjun (1986): The Social Life of Things:

few notable exceptions who acknowledge the 10 August. Accessed on 3 September 2011: http://

Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge:

mortgage function, or for that matter, the less

Cambridge University Press).

common functions of the ration card. 20 No foodgrains were permitted to be removed

De Witt, Joop W (1996): Poverty, Policy and Politics

3 I do however discuss the mortgage function of the from one province or state to another, except in in Madras Slums (New Delhi and London: Sage ration card that was recorded beyond this period. accordance with a central Basic Plan that the Publications).

4 Government of India (1943): Report of the Food-government created. Based on estimation of the Dev, S Mahendra (1996): “Food Security: PDS vs EGS: grains Policy Committee, Home Department, production of foodgrains, calculated mainly for

A Tale of Two States”, Economic Political Weekly,

Public Branch, NAI, file 165/43. Nominally, the kharif and rabi crops in every state or province, 31 (27):1752-64.

the plan fixed foodgrain quotas for the quantum Gulati, Leela (1977): “Rationing in a Peri-Urban Comrationing was introduced in the year 1939, with

of exports that could be moved, under permit, munity: Case Study of a Squatter Habitat”, Bombay being the first city to be rationed. But

from surplus states and provinces to their deficit scheme to have materialised only in the year

for all practical purposes, we can assume the counterparts. Ministry of Food (1950): Report of Economic Political Weekly, 12 (2): 501-06. the Foodgrains Investigation Committee, Govern-Indrakanth, S (1997): “Coverage and Leakages in PDS 1943: it was only after the formal endorsement of

ment of India, New Delhi, 2-3. in Andhra Pradesh”, Economic Political Weekly,

rationing by the Foodgrains Policy Committee in 1943 and consequent to the Price Control Confer-21 Food Department Basic Plan Branch, 1952, NAI, 32 (19): 999-1001. ences between 1939 and 1942 that the formal Express Letter No BP-256 (10)/49, BP 1013/21. Jain, Ajit Prasad (1965): Rafi Ahmad Kidwai: A Memoir decision to ration commodities was taken in the 22 “Pattabhi Questions Wisdom of Continuing Ration-of His Life and Times (Bombay: Asia Publishing year 1943. ing”, Hindustan Times, 14 March 1950. House). 5 “Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs”, accessed on 23 There were three models of rationing during the Kamtekar, Indivar (2002) “A Different War Dance: State 21 January 2011: second world war. Statutory rationing in a model and Class in India”, Past and Present 176(1): 187-221. =rXFSsKFrCgY. where rations were available only on production Knight, Henry (1954): Food Administration in India, 6 “The Fourth Man – The Hoarder”, Advertisement of a ration card was imposed on all the major 1939-1947 (California: Stanford University Press). issued by the National War Front, Hindustan Mooij, Jos (1998): “Food Policy and Politics: The

towns and cities; non-statutory rationing and Times, 7 March 1943.Political Economy of the Public Distribution System

controlled distribution were prevalent in rural and 7 Ibid. in India”, Journal of Peasant Studies, 25 (2): 77-101.

semi-rural areas. These catered to cardholders who needed rations. But these models did not

8 Authorities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands – (1999): Food Policy and the Indian State: The Public

disallow private trade in foodgrains (Knight 1954).

cautioned that those who were recipients of a free Distribution System in South India (Delhi: Oxford

24 Food Department Basic Plan Branch, 1952, NAI,

diet when admitted did not report that they University Press).

file BP 11-1013/21/52.

would not need rations for the time they were in Olsen, Wendy (1989): “Eat Now Pay Later: Impact of

25 Chief Commissioner’s Office Civil Supplies Branch,

hospital. Food Department Policy Branch, 1942, Rice Subsidy Scheme”, Economic Political Weekly,

1952, DSA, file 14 (23)/52

National Archives of India (NAI), file RT-1061 (2). 24 (28): 1597-1611.

26 Ibid.

9 Ibid. Patnaik, Utsa (2003): “Food Stocks and Hunger: The 27 Ibid.

10 Delhi Prevention of Begging Rules, 1960, Delhi Causes of Agrarian Distress”, Social Scientist,

28 Food Department Rationing Branch, 1944, NAI,

Gazette, Extraordinary, Part IV, 1961, 3 (1), 3 (2). 31 (7-8): 15-41.

R-1000 (15).

These rules were simply an extension of the powers Poole, Deborah (2004): “Between Threat and Guarantee: 29 Ibid.

conferred by Section 35 of the Bombay Prevention Justice and Community in the Margins of the of Begging Act, 1959. 30 Ibid. Peruvian State” in Deborah Poole and Veena Das 11 Ibid, 3 (3) 31 Mysore Residency Department, Bangalore Branch, (ed.), Anthropology in the Margins of the State 1944, NAI, 55 (7)-W.(Santa Fe: School of American Research Press).

12 Food Department Rationing Branch, 1946-48, NAI, Notification No. 60/R Dis 21 (C)/46, file

32 Ibid. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2004): “Righting Wrongs”, 1023/IX. The Hindustan Times also reported that 33 NAI, ibid. The Governor of Punjab obeyed this The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103 (2/3): 523-81. the Bombay government to have issued tempo-order by directing the creation of posts of junior Swaminathan, Madhura (2002): “Excluding the rary ration cards to 7,000 homeless persons in clerks to serve as writers in rationing offices. It is Needy: The Public Provisioning of Food in India”,

Bombay city entitling them to lower rations while not clear which other provincial and princely Social Scientist, 30 (3-4): 34-58. it gives us the number of permanent cards as state governments followed suit. Torpey, John (2000): Invention of the Passport, Sur18 lakhs. See “Rationing in Bombay”, Hindustan 34 NAI, ibid.veillance, Citizenship and the State (Cambridge Times, 19 March 1943. 35 NAI, ibid. and New York: Cambridge University Press).

Economic Political Weekly

september 17, 2011 vol xlvi no 38 59

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