A system that gave food for thought

A system that gave food for thought

Mohan Singh

There was a long queue of eligible interviewees outside the office of the Deputy Commissioner, a British ICS officer, in 1943. World War II was at its peak. The troops were supplied essential commodities as per requirement, but that brought about a food crisis in the country. It was to tide over that exigency that the government set up a brand new rationing department, and the DC was to recruit staff for Amritsar.

My brother, senior to me by 21 years, and who had just come into the new milieu after our return from Burma in 1942, was looking for a job. However, when the information reached him, it was too late, as it was the date of the interview. Still, he wanted to try. He reached the venue and wrote an application on a plain paper, and through a peon got it placed on the DC’s table. The DC was impressed with the flawless English written in a cursive hand, and called the candidate, who also had some experience of working under White officers in Rangoon. Surprisingly, he was the first to be selected, even before the interview started!

My brother did not have any certificate, though he had matriculated from the Anglo Saxon Khalsa High School, Rangoon. But he soon earned a reputation for drafting and typing mistake-free letters on his exclusive E-carriage Remington machine. This is how the new department, which looked after the supply of essential commodities like wheat, sugar, rice, pulses and kerosene, came into being. Even matchsticks were given only on ration card — one box of 60 sticks per month.

Ration cards carried the number of family members. Actual enquiries were made, from door to door, to check the veracity thereof. There were no photos then, but the card was a document and depot holders kept a meticulous record, fearing punishment, which was inevitable in case of any irregularity. Every family in the city had a ration card, though villages were excluded. Ward rationing officers looked after any queries from the public. There was a well-oiled system to check smuggling into cities, thanks to a chain of octroi barriers at all entry points, including the railway station.

After the war ended in 1945, the department was disbanded and the staff retrenched. When 1947 presented similar problems, the new department of civil supplies emerged with extended activities, and some of the old staff were re-employed. I remember that if you needed a bag of cement for repair in the house, you had to apply to this department, and after a month or so, you were intimated through a self-addressed 15NP postcard. Alas! The system fell into disrepute and extreme corruption. No effort was made to resuscitate it.

Inspector Raj soon saw the end of almost all depots. Nobody had the vision to appreciate the existence of an efficient public distribution system in emergencies like the one we are now facing, in the form of the coronavirus and extended periods of lockdown.

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