Encountering the State

The ration shop is where the state is physically encountered by users of India’s Public Distribution System, the country’s largest food security programme. In this article I reflect on being in the ration shop, encountering the state in the form of the allowance, or denial, of goods that takes place within this crucial interface.

“Why do you spend so much time in ration shops?”

This is a question I got many times during fieldwork. Since my early, pre-Aadhaar studies of the Public Distribution System, India’s largest food security scheme, my questions have been in terms of what happens when an essential anti-poverty scheme is computerised. That is, when a food security programme that has long been paper-based, centred on transactions occurring through physical documents – called ration cards and enabling users to collect highly subsidised food rations – becomes digital, both in its front and back-end components. One fact is that, at the back end, much was happening way before biometric identification was introduced, across multiple states, in the ration shops where food rations are collected.

In Kerala, where my 2011-2012 fieldwork took place, a software called TETRAPDS (Targeted, Efficient, Transparent Rationing and Allocation Public Distribution System) was  conceived the first decade of the 2000s. Far from being centred on the front-end, where the PDS user encounters the ration dealer, TETRAPDS consisted of three back-end and only one front-end modules. The three back-end modules covered the phases of ration card processing, allocation of goods, and monitoring of ration shop inspections. All these were crucial for the management of the country’s largest food security scheme. More specifically:

– A Ration Card Management System (RCMS) was a workflow-based application where users could apply for a ration card (or for a change in their existing, household-based card, for example when adding a new family member or forming a new household). Upon reception of the online application, RCMS would get it processed by the Collector of Rationing and delivered through the local Taluk Supply Office, the state bureau in charge of ration card delivery. While protagonist of a large backlog in 2011, RCMS was designed for automatising one of the most important processes in the PDS, that in which users were enabled to receive the physical document that enabled them to access food rations.

– An Allocation of Commodities module allowed the Collector of Rationing to ensure correct allocation of goods to ration shops across the state, based on the theoretical requirement. This module was based on Allocation 2.0, an application for the allocation of PDS goods to ration shops across the 14 districts of Kerala. With a cardholder database revealing  the number of households registered with each ration dealer, the allocation module was designed to solve a dilemma that deeply affected the PDS: namely, how to distribute commodities in such a way that all users of the PDS in the state would be served. Years later, the Aadhaar-based PDS would have transformed this function through calculations enabled by biometric point-of-sale machines.

– An Inspection Monitoring System registered the outcomes of controls made by rationing inspectors, officials in charge of checking the regularity of sales conducted in the ration shops. With issues of leakage to non-poor households largely affecting the scheme, keeping a record of the activity of rationing inspectors was important to the state’s programme management. While not continuously implemented across the state, the Inspection Monitoring module revealed the importance of infusing a control component in the system, a control that subsequent, Aadhaar-based versions of the PDS linked to the amount of goods sold monthly by each ration shop to Aadhaar-registered users.

There was indeed a front-end module, called WebPDS. This was a website for the Food and Civil Supply Department to communicate with PDS beneficiaries. While providing information on the scheme, PDS food prices and other relevant points for users, this module was not “front-end” in the sense that it took place in the ration shops where rations are collected. It was so in the sense of providing relevant information to users, information that, at a time preceding widespread mobile governance, was largely accessed through the public-private telecentres diffused through the whole state.

Food supplies, Taliparamba municipality, Kerala, November 2011

But then, with such a large back-end machinery, why spend so long time in ration shops?

The answer lies in how image formation – that is, how users form their own image of the state behind anti-poverty schemes – takes place. Inspiring this view is Corbridge et al.’s (2005) philosophy of seeing the state” through encounters with it, encounters that, far from being abstract, are materialised in the people, bureaus and institutions that represent it. In the Kerala PDS, “the state” is not the abstract entity behind high subsidisation of goods to below-poverty-line users. It is the ration dealer, the material encounter with them, the physicality of the shop where people stand in line to be able to collect their monthly rations. When the biometric PDS came, and with it the exclusions denounced by large parts of the literature, the state remained entrenched in the materiality of encounters enabling or disabling people’s access to vital commodities.

And this is why I sit so long in ration shops. Because it is here, in the materiality of encounters with ration dealers and the machinery coming with PDS transactions, that the state is encountered. Whatever discussion is made of the abstraction behind it, of the subsidy-giving or denying entity that it represents, it is in the materiality of ration shop transactions that the state is met. And for us digital identity researchers, preoccupied with the large infrastructure that precede the state-citizen encounter, it is all too simple to neglect this human dimension: a dimension that is, however, the heart of the state-citizen encounter. And the one in which to sit, for as long as needed, to understand how this encounter is made and shaped by technologies and the politics behind them.

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