True, the salary could only be described as an abomination. But when I joined the ranks of academics many moons ago, the principal consideration was the prospect of a five-day work week and, additionally, the allure of a load of work no more taxing than an hour or two of lecturing everyday, that the job entailed. I was after all exiting a corporate routine with its eight-hour work shift, six days a week and generous dollops of unpaid overtime and stuff that harkened to one’s mind images of lives of slaves on a Roman galley ship.

Welcome as the perquisite of an opportunity of leisurely contemplation of life that the academia offered, the real icing on the cake, in my book at least, was that the job resulted in my getting a ration card with little or no effort on my part.

It happened like this. The era was the mid-80s. Rajiv Gandhi had in just the previous year been voted to power with a massive majority that even Narendra Modi could only have dreamt about. He had great ideas to turn the country into a modern, prosperous nation.

That meant getting the civil servants to think along modern lines instead of the fossilised ways of thinking of ‘licence-permit-quota raj’ of an earlier era that they were used to. His then Minister of State in charge of Personnel — none other than the present Finance Minister P. Chidambaram — felt that IAS officers should take ‘a week’s sabbatical to reflect on issues of national concern in a learning environment’.

Now, whatever else the Institute where I happened to work lacked then, a learning environment was most certainly not one of them. And so, civil servants did come in, in regular batches and did their best to reflect on such issues that they thought that their minister would have liked them to do.

The coveted card

To our eternal satisfaction, in the case of one particular officer who happened to be in charge of the Civil Supplies Department in the local State Government, the contemplation extended to the unfortunate situation of many among the Institute’s faculty and administrative staff not being in possession of that coveted document which to this day, defines public existence in India: A Ration Card. In time, he ensured that we were all provided with brand new rations cards. The process of getting a ration card in the Indian context has an aura that is almost bordering on the mystical. We all knew we needed one but were often unsure as to how to go about getting it. No one was quite sure about the process.

Newspapers didn’t run campaigns about this in much the same way as they do for getting auto rickshaws to flag down their meters while ferrying passengers, or for getting India and Pakistan to shed their mutual suspicions about one another.

The situation was reminiscent of what an old Tamil proverb had by way of an answer to the eternal question, whether God exists. Kandavar Vindathillai; Vindavar Kandathillai, goes the proverb. Meaning, those who have seen Him aren’t around to describe and those that profess to describe haven’t actually seen Him! So it is with ration cards. Those who possess it aren’t around to describe the process of going about getting one. And those who claim to know the way are themselves not in possession of one!

In my case, the process of getting one was made all the more complex because I had moved to Madras just a year earlier from Maharashtra and I had to prove that I was never issued one by the Government there, in the first place.

Not an easy task as any student of logic would attest. It is virtually impossible to prove the non-existence of something with any degree of logical rigour. You can imagine, therefore, my joy and relief at being magically presented with one under such fortuitous circumstance as I have described earlier.

‘Partial equilibrium’ sTATE

Which is why, I am a little amused by the intense debate about ‘cash transfer scheme’. Critics have been rather quick to pan it as a hare-brained scheme thought up by an imbecile mind. There were stories about how in one pilot scheme, only half the number of beneficiaries had been covered as the others didn’t have a bank account. Economists have a somewhat elegant way of putting down any public policy suggestion that they deem as not quite up to the mark, by calling it as only a ‘partial equilibrium’ solution.

It is used to describe a situation wherein all elements in a ‘System’ that the new public policy is supposed to address, cannot be contained in a state of eternal peace with one another and will in no time start sprouting horrible horns and limbs all over, so as to transform themselves as grotesque caricatures of their beautiful former selves. In the context of ‘cash transfer’ approach to food security for the masses, these critics are effectively telling the Government it had better come up with the most perfect scheme or else it better shut its mouth and carry on with the existing creaky public distribution system (PDS).

A miserable flop

It perplexes me that these critics do not judge the existing PDS with the same exacting standards that they demand of the alternative. The scheme, as administered in many States, fails, most conclusively, the two tests that are fundamental to it being rated asefficient. One, it should be universal and, two, supplies under it be predictable. It is unable to target 100 per cent of the universe of beneficiaries that deserve some State support in securing the essentials for a hunger-free existence.

Even the few who are fortunate enough to be under the State’s net are poorly served. The servant at home, for instance, had migrated to the city from one of the southern districts in search of employment. That itself had ruled out a ration card for her in the city. This wasn’t much of a handicap as she had access to ours. But when it comes to providing the food grains or kerosene in a timely and predictable manner, the scheme has always been a miserable flop. The maid was heard complaining the other day that she had been running around all over the place for a few litres of kerosene to no avail.

Leaky system

I can well imagine how ill-equipped the state-level civil supplies corporations must be in ensuring that stocks at PDS outlets are properly replenished. Logistics and just-in-time inventories are a nightmare for companies with the most sophisticated supply-chain infrastructure and managed by professional brains that are far superior in calibre and commitment than what the bureaucracy in the State-level civil supplies department can muster.

Another piece of statistic which shows what a leaky boat the PDS system is. The consumption of LPG has grown by 40 per cent during 2006-07 to 2010-11 (Petroleum & Natural Gas Ministry statistics). You would expect that there should be significant reduction in kerosene consumption as the former is clearly a superior cooking fuel. But there has actually been a marginal increase in the kerosene consumption. Are people switching over from firewood because of easier availability of kerosene?

Unlikely, as that would have meant that an additional 1.7 crore households should have been issued new ration cards with kerosene entitlements. Of course, the PDS can be reformed for the better. But if in 60 years, the country has not been able to achieve it, there is no reason to suppose that it can be done even in the next 60 years. The PDS is the ‘partial equilibrium’ solution for securing food security for the masses. It is time to give the direct cash subsidy a chance to at least to stand alongside a creaky PDS system, if not entirely supplant it.