Home / Opinion / Progress! From a paper ration card to a plastic one

Two years ago, I had a dream. It was vivid as some dreams are. A giant elephant was being taken to be chained up. I remember waking up traumatized at the anguish of the animal at being pulled, pushed and dragged back to the place from where it had so recently got free. For some reason I still feel the helplessness of the beast, who simply wanted to be free. I can’t help but see the analogy with us as an aspirational nation, being bullied, dragged, prodded and pinched into going back to the 1970s. Having grown up in a middle-class DDA colony in Delhi, one set of the memories is about the lack of everyday things. Everything was in short supply - milk, butter, ghee, eggs. The line at the Mother Dairy milk booth would stretch 50-60 people long. And as kids charged with the responsibility of ensuring there was milk in the house, the neighbourhood gang would strategize on how to hoard milk tokens or get the better of the surly ‘uncle’ who ran the booth. Another set of memories is of walking about 2km with mum to the ration shop to get in the line to buy sugar. Mum must have bought other boring stuff like rice and kerosene too, but for a six or seven year old, what must have registered is the sugar bag that you could insist on carrying (to help mum of course) and then surreptitiously dip a wet palm in the bag to lick secretly all the way back. A kid needs the energy to burn, right?

The ration card I remember well. Smaller than a half A4 size paper, the card was actually a booklet with the photo of the family head, the number of dependants and leaves where entitlements and quantities were written. Each month you could line up at your designated vendor and see what rotten stuff he had to sell you. Get your stuff, get that month’s purchase ticked off and then repeat next month. Of course, some months by the time your turn came, the kerosene was all gone — sold on the black market. So when I saw the newspapers heavy with ads yesterday proclaiming the birth of a new ration card, I was thrilled at the progress we’ve made as a country. Why, the new ration card looks biometric. I haven’t seen a real one, but its picture (I intend to clip and keep to remember this time of glory) is truly amazing. It epitomizes the growth from a paper-based system to a new biometric system — it speaks of the rediscovery of our greatness (we discovered the zero, don’t you remember) through the information technology revolution — that now a card will do all the work that the paper booklet used to do.

Then there are other reminders that we’re back in the 70s. We’re gradually shutting down windows and shuttering doors. The free-fall of the rupee has a panicked central bank and government trying to stop a flood with little mud bunds. So now industry has limits to what it can invest abroad. Individuals can’t take more than $75,000 in a year out of the country, and no, you can’t buy real estate abroad any more. After raising duties did not work, the import of gold coins and medallions has been banned.

The throwback to the 70s is deeper than just shutting down the economy. The abuse of civil rights continues. India Gate has twice been shut down to protests in the recent past. Once after the December bus-rape and then again in April 2013 to stop protesters from gathering to protest the gang-rape of a five-year-old. It is unclear if the imposition of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) that prohibits public gatherings is still on at India Gate. Ban the symptom is now an established strategy of this government. Ajay Shah has a great piece titled ‘The convenience of the citizen or the convenience of the government?’ on the let’s-ban-everything strategy. You can read it here: http://ajayshahblog.blogspot.in/2013/08/the-convenience-of-citizen-or.html.

End Note: And this is a request to economists and analysts to stop suggesting that the government start raiding the temples for their gold. Yes these places are cash-rich, and yes the country needs the money, but no, it cannot be handed over to a government that loses the very files in a scam that would have implicated those that have been facing the needle of suspicion till now. You can’t hand over people’s gold to a government that inherited a humming economy and has brought it to the brink. And we’re near the brink in many ways. Those that are charged with governance (and fail spectacularly) must remember that an elephant maddened by too much pressure is a difficult beast to control when it runs amuck.

Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, and Yale World Fellow 2011. She can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com

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