On 2nd May 2011, the front page of the Times of India (TOI) beamed and screamed: “Don’t pay a bribe, file an RTI application – Equally Effective in Ensuring Service”. Two doctoral candidates at Yale University’s political science department had conducted field experiments in the bastis in Delhi in the year 2007 regarding poor people’s experiences in making applications for ration cards. The researchers – Leonid V Peisakhin and Paul Pinto – found that persons who paid bribes had their ration cards processed faster. However, those who filed an RTI request to know about the status of their ration card application, were “almost as successful”, the TOI report claimed. (The details of the study and the outcomes can be accessed through Peisakhin and Pinto’s paper “Is transparency an effective anti-corruption strategy? Evidence from a field experiment in India.” The paper was published in 2010 in Regulation and Governance Journal, volume 4, pp 261-280.) The researchers had also put people in two other control groups – one which neither paid a bribe nor followed-up and a second group which had filed their applications along with a letter of recommendation from the local NGO. Both these groups were not as successful as the former two groups in obtaining their ration cards. The researchers’ analyses veered towards two conclusions: first, that the RTI Act serves the poor who are usually denied/deprived of information. Secondly, reforms/laws which give more ‘voice’ to citizens and allow them to scrutinize the functioning of officials and elected representatives are more effective in ensuring transparency and gaining access to public services.
This headline story appeared in the TOI just around the time when the agitations for passage of the Lokpal Bill were gaining momentum. There was fervour and frenzy among the masses, or so the media projected, for increased accountability and transparency from government agencies and officials. I find transparency to be a very troublesome ethic, one which is sharper than a double-edged sword. The troubling aspect of transparency does not merely stem from the fact that transparency for one implies surveillance of another. Surveillance can be of several kinds as much as transparency manifests in heterogeneous forms in different contexts. It is the language of transparency – the way it is spoken of as a universally desired and politically correct value – that makes it a troublesome beast. Reform packages that are suggested to enforce and reify transparency including open data, standardization of ‘data’, digitization of records, computerized delivery of services, among others, receive applauses and legitimacy from individuals and groups at different ends of the ideological spectrum because openness, as it is conceived, is universally believed to be a very important ethic in the relationship between governments and state officials.
Little attention is however paid to how compliance/non-compliance to these transparency measures and reforms takes place, primarily. Compliance and non-compliance are not necessarily absolute meaning that the ways in which people accept and adapt to transparency measures may be partial and such practices distort/reconfigure the meanings and symbolisms of not just transparency, but the instruments that are used to reify transparency. For instance, in a research that a colleague and I conducted on e-governance kiosks implemented in rural parts of Karnataka, we found that middlemen, brokers and landed individuals had much appreciation and regard for the digitized land records system and they often spoke of the technology that was implemented to enforce transparency as being ‘correct’. Yet, these same persons were troubled and agitated with the digital system if they had to correct errors in their digitized land records because the correction process involved appealing to higher level bureaucrats and state agencies, as well as a great deal of time and bribes. These very same persons were both appreciative and cautious about the ‘open’ nature of the digital land records and the digital system; while they themselves constantly checked the records and maps on the internet to verify whether the details of their land parcels had not changed from time to time, and whether their lands had not been squatted upon, they were also concerned that other people were watching the details and records of their land parcels and that at some point, they may be coerced into parting with their land parcels if property markets were to heat up (Raman and Bawa, 2011). This double-triple-quadruple bind nature of the technology and of transparency caused people to ‘appropriate’ the material and symbolisms of the transparency and technology and to transform and/or make ‘porous’ (Benjamin, 2005, 2008) the procedures that were involved in obtaining public services digitally. I believe that such is the beauty and uncertainty of both politics and transparency, which then makes it possible for different groups of citizens to devise ways and means through which they can access the state and its services.
Neither is much attention paid to the fact that the state itself is a heterogeneous body and hence, there are some agencies and officials within the state who vociferously advocate transparency because it enables them to ‘watch’ over and ‘discipline’ their colleagues and counterparts within the same state agency or other associated institutions. For instance, a website was launched to provide details of the performance of municipal councilors in Mumbai. When the office bearers of the NGO went to different political parties to seek their buy-in (i.e. compliance) for the website and its performance auditing and citizens-monitoring-government features, senior party leaders in the state Congress Party unit asked the NGO office bearers if the web portal could provide them with detailed reports of the assets and performance of their municipal councilors. The office bearers realized only sometime later that the senior officials were keen to keep the councilors under the whip and command of the state party unit. And hence, their measures at instituting transparency could be dangerously and contradictorily bordering on the autonomy of individual elected representatives.
While I say all of the above and come across as a skeptic vis-à-vis transparency, I truly do believe, from my own experiences in Kashmir, that we need access to information about certain quarters of the state, such as details about how much and why the defence ministry is spending on arming the ‘nation’ and whether such heavy duty expenditure is indeed a requisite or is it an eyewash, draining valuable state treasury at the expense of not providing basic amenities to citizen groups who need them more than guns and barrels. At the same time, information is very precious and nobody understands and internalizes its value more than very poor and marginalized groups in society (and those who are constantly pushed and shuffled from the margins) who lose their claims on account of lack of information and who are variously exploited by officials and middlemen capitalizing on the information they possess (and which they produce from time to time). However, all the same, I cannot help but feel very concerned about the ‘materials’ that we target for enforcing transparency. We lobby for measures such as weeding out excess and ‘duplicate’ ration cards and voter id cards to ‘cleanse’ the Indian political system of corruption and vote-bank politics. While the intentions of such ‘cleansing’ can vary from being very noble to highly sinister, the question that we need to ask ourselves is whether ‘cleansing’ of the system and making it ‘streamlined’ and ‘clear’ also makes it simultaneously ‘accessible’ for groups who are variously marked as ‘informals’ and ‘illegals’? Does reduction in the ‘costs of transaction’ by making the system clean necessarily translate equally for all people, at all times? It must be borne in mind that poverty, marginality, informality and illegality are not ‘constant’ conditions and that people find themselves in situations of marginality and vulnerability owing to very noble interventions and acts of (epistemic and physical) violence by the state, civil society, corporations and other powerful bodies. Thus, a legal dispute around property, whether it is taken to the court or not, makes some people in the dispute more vulnerable than others, at some points in time in the dispute. This vulnerability is also compounded by other associated factors such as the person’s social and economic background, the networks that s/he is connected to and can mobilize in case the balances swing against him/her during the dispute, etc. Once we bear in mind this fact that vulnerability, marginality, poverty and such conditions are not always static and that they are produced by circumstances and the trajectories leading to these circumstances, our understanding of the worlds and their ways may also change …
For now, after this long drawn out introduction, I want to go back to the meat of this post – the topic of ration cards. Peisakhin and Pinto’s research findings seemed to bother me no end, because somewhere in their findings, what was missing was the treacherous and fluid nature of ration cards i.e., ration cards are curious entities. Ration cards can be faked. They can be marked as ‘fake’ because the process of obtaining the ration card may be delegitimized by governing authorities from time to time. The nature of identity and identification, which is what makes the ration card an invaluable identity document, are contradictory and problematic in the first place. The ration card itself can become the instrument that redefines and reconfigures the identity of the holders. We therefore need to expand our understanding of this critical material and what transparency means in the context of ration cards. Essentially, what I want to point out to in the rest of this post is that the very debates about weeding out ‘fake’ and ‘duplicate’ ration cards redefine our understanding of originals and duplicates and that such redefinitions then impact our imaginations and understandings of identity, property and governance. Let me try and explain this now …
After reading Peisakhin and Pinto’s research, I launched into an investigation to understand how poor people and ‘informal’ and ‘illegal’ groups obtain ration cards. I imagined that by investigating the process, I may be able to lay down insights regarding the complex nature of identity, identification, property, ownership and governance that underlies ration cards. My pursuit led me to go back to one of my field sites in Mumbai’s western suburbs. Around the time when I was conducting my fieldwork, one of the residents, who was also a lead agitator for the rights of the people of the settlement, told me that he was taking an ‘aandolan’ to the ration officer’s office to demand for ration cards for the people. I asked him why ‘aandolan’ was necessary to obtain ration cards. He instantly remarked in words that I will remember for a lifetime. He said:
I could go to the ration office myself and obtain the information about the procedure for making the ration card. I may go to the ration office myself and strike an acquaintance with the ration officer. But if I do so, on my own, as an individual, I will become a middleman, a broker. Remember, anybody who has even the slightest bit of information about the settlement and its people, can become a middleman.
The value of information became even more manifest for me, and the fact that there are several ways of transmitting, exchanging and reproducing information – the digital is only one of them, even though it is projected as the overarching medium in today’s time (this discussion I reserve for another blog post).
I went back to my field site to understand how the people had obtained their ration cards through their aandolan and/or other means and measures. As coincidence, which defines the life and work of a good researcher, would have it, I happened to be seated in the BEST bus next to a warm and gritty Maharashtrian lady. We boarded the bus to go to our respective destinations – she, to her flat in the MHADA housing complex next to my field site and I, to my field site. During the journey, this lady began explaining to me how she had obtained ‘insider’ information about the availability of MHADA – government housing – flats in Mumbai and how she was stitched into the process of creating value around her properties by virtue of purchasing the flats for cheap, in earlier times when property values were much lower in Mumbai. As she began speaking of her networks and her sources of ‘insider’ information, I casually asked her if she knew what the process of making a ration card was. She asked me whether I needed one. I said ‘yes’. And I also added that I did not own a flat in Mumbai, that I was a tenant, and I needed a ration card urgently. She looked very perplexed. She asked why I wanted a ration card in this city and if I wanted one, had my parents removed my name from ‘their’ ration card? I said yes, my parents have removed my name from ‘their’ ration card. She became even more perplexed now. She asked if my landlord was a nice person and whether he would allow me to use ‘his’ residential address to get a ration card? I said I would need to ask. She sharply remarked,
You must tell your landlord that you will issue a “promissory note” to him stating that you will never use your landlord’s address to make any claims on his property and that you only need the address to make a ration card.
She then asked me to produce associated documents such as a passbook of a bank account that I *should* hold in Mumbai, details of my parents’ address, the ration card that I held in the city that I was living in before I came to Mumbai, etc. Later, when I checked with people in my field site about the documents that are required for making a ration card, I was told that if you are a migrant from a village to the city, you need documentary evidence from the village such as electricity bills, property titles, etc to substantiate your application. This requirement, especially, the rural context, is strange because migrants to the city *may* own the land they till (though not necessarily always because migration is not a permanently marginalizing condition) and moreover, even to this date, there are several villages which don’t have individual power connections – so how does one produce an electricity bill?
It is this nature of the ration card, given the trail of documents and evidences that are required to produce it in the first place, that make it such an interesting and intriguing entity. And, at the same time, a ration card is not a frozen document. Let me describe some details here:
It is commonly known by now that poor, ‘informal’ and ‘illegal’ groups in Indian cities strive to obtain ration cards not only to access subsidized food grains and commodities from government authorized Public Distribution Service (PDS) shops, but also because the ration card is an extremely invaluable identity document. The ration card is a prerequisite for obtaining voter id cards, passports, LPG connections and access to a variety of associated documents and welfare provided by the state under various schemes and programmes. The ration card has similar value in rural areas where people need it for accessing government sites, housing, for establishing various kinds of claims on different categories of agricultural lands, and for obtaining government services such as PDS, public health and education, among others.
Primarily, the ration card bears the address of the holder and his/her family. This address fixes the identity of the holder to his/her household, in turn enabling the holder to consolidate claims over the property bearing the address mentioned on the ration card (and in cases where the claim over the property/land is precarious for any reason, the ration card enables the holder and his/her family members to stake claim/s on the property). In this way, the ration card perpetuates the legal fiction of ‘fixity’ of property i.e., the law recognizes landed property as fixed and static. Judges accordingly adjudicate on disputes concerning boundaries and ownership. A property is ‘fixed’ in a particular location, within certain boundaries and parameters, through various kinds of documentary evidences such as property titles, ownership deeds, visual evidences and through associated documents such as ration cards, voter id cards, birth and death certificates, etc. In recent times therefore, there is increased advocacy and lobbying, from groups at different ends of ideological spectrums, for clearer titles, digitized land records, and databases storing land-related information. Such clear records are believed to institute transparency in property ownership and to make dispute resolution easier and quicker. Digitized records and databases and transparency in land-related information merits a separate blog post, but for now, the point remains that ration cards have become linked, very intricately to “property claims” (Razazz, 1993) and the dominant framework of absolute ownership.
Given that the ration card is such a valuable document in that it establishes the identity of the holder and his/her household in government records, gives him/her access to the state’s welfare and resources, and also gives rise to claims around property use and ownership, getting a ration card will only be a pursuit. At the same time, it also happens that the same household vies for more than one ration card so that family members can double their claims over access to the state’s resources and welfare. It is also commonly known that ruling governments and politicians issue ration cards among and across their constituencies around the time of elections in order to get votes and support. The ration card is therefore a political and politicized tool and the process of obtaining it is equally politicized. There is an entire ecology of bureaucrats, middlemen, brokers, politicians, PDS officials and functionaries as well as the state government that is involved in the delivery and distribution of ration cards. The ration card is therefore one of the most critical instruments underlying what is known as ‘patronage’ and ‘vote-bank politics’. In the process, the ration card also becomes a means where parties, their cadres and politicians try to enforce loyalty among their constituencies while constituencies attempt to keep politicians, parties and cadres on their toes by their demands for ration cards.
The ration card is thus a lynchpin in the Indian political and voting system. Even then, the ration card is a complex, heterogeneous document because it is not issued in a uniform format, across different states in the country. This is mainly because policy pronouncements are made, from time to time, by national and state governments variously, about issuing different kinds of ration cards to different groups in the category ‘poor’. Thus, you have antodaya and Annapurna ration cards that are distributed to particular groups among the poor and indigenous tribes. Thus, there is also the element of discretion that is involved in issuing ration cards because the very category of poor and the different thresholds of poverty are revised from time to time by changing governments at the national and state level. At the same time, ration cards issued by political parties, incumbent governments and politicians at the time of elections are labeled as ‘temporary’. Recipients of ‘temporary’ ration cards have to lobby/mobilize/enter into negotiations to convert their cards into some kind of ‘regularized’ status. This is a complex process because while ‘temporary’ ration cards are provided by politicians, who in turn have put pressure on PDS officials to issue the temporary cards, the process of converting temporary cards into permanent status involves interfacing with officials and bureaucrats who may have an antagonistic relationship with politicians. Meanwhile, ‘temporary’ cards tend to get labeled as ‘fake’ or ‘duplicate’, in turn leading to marking the holders of these cards as ‘illegals’ or beneficiaries of patronage.
In recent times, governments in different states in India have variously attempted to ‘cleanse’ the PDS system of its ills. Among the different reform measures carried out, one of them has been to identify and cancel duplicate and fake ration cards. Planning Commission reports reveal that there are more ration cards than the number of families that have been identified and enumerated. The excess ration cards are marked as duplicates. However, it is interesting to note that the very Planning Commission, under Mahalanobis, had created the definition of a ‘household’ which forms the basis on which ration cards are issued. According to Mahalanobis and experts at that time, a household is counted as one unit when it has one stove. A few years ago, surveys were carried out in Karnataka to identify fake ration cards and re-issue ration cards altogether in the entire state. When the surveyors entered households to conduct the survey, they often found that there were two stoves inside the same house. They had to enumerate these as two units/households because of the presence of two stoves, even though all the members lived inside the same house.
From the above account, what becomes clear is that the political, social and economic architecture surrounding the ration card is a highly complex one because the very nature of the ration card as an identity document is both complex and ambiguous. Clarity in identity arrives at a much later stage, when the person/household has consolidated its position in its immediate and larger society and has attained stability. But to begin with, the ration card bears the identity of the household and not just the individual. That itself should cause us to probe deeper into the meaning of identity which is being highly individualized by identification schemes and transparency programmes (again something that merits another blog post).
Looking at the case of the ration cards, there are some questions that we need to seriously ask about transparency, politics and governance.
- What/who is a fake and what/who is original? Are these fixed entities? Some of the interesting research as well as disputes show us that different groups, at different points in time, create their own histories and narrate them in particular ways. Truth is but a matter of perspective, and politics a matter of which history or narrative gains precedence at what point in time. If we think of ‘fakes’ and ‘originals’ in the light of a certain fluidity of time and space, then the very notion of identity and subsequently transparency, is thrown into confusions and conundrums.
- Secondly, and perhaps very, very importantly, seeking solutions and searching answers in the realm of politics and everyday life is likely only to lead to confusions (as pointed out eloquently by Solomon Benjamin in a workshop in Bangalore). Such confusions are productive because, to put it in Solomon Benjamin’s words: “If politics happens by default, and not just by design, then we have to re-engage with whether we want to decentralize or re-centralize governance and it is important to recognize that. But there is also a counter to it. And these are not going to be easy answers because if we are seeking answers, then we’d probably be confronting confusion which might not be a bad thing because if there is a lot of political claims, which is, as all politics goes, is not very useful to see through an issue of, like your issue of transparency and accountability, inherently it is talking about a fluid situation where you are not going to get a perfect answer or an answer itself.”
I want to end this blog post here, although this does not seem a satisfactory ending for me because I believe we have a lot more insightful questions to ask. For now, it remains that transparency in the context of ration cards is neither clear-cut nor can it be instituted without costs such as impeding some people’s access to state services and welfare and that reorganizing ration cards can likely lead to centralizations of certain orders and kinds within governance, thereby increasing the social and political distances between the state and its citizens …
[Dedicated to Zubin Pastakia and to a desire to grasp cities, posters and imposters in our palms …]