Living with shortages
K S S Pillai
We, like people all over the world, are not strangers to shortages. Luckily, we are in a far better position than our ancestors, thanks to the efforts of successive governments since independence.
When I started my career in a government college in the 1960s, there was a shortage of even paper clips. The stationery clerk gave me five clips, though I had asked for a packet, and cautioned me I wouldn’t be getting another supply for a long time. The office even reused postal covers by writing the address on a piece of paper and pasting it over the earlier one.
Once we had a simple, dhoti-clad man as our prime minister. He skipped one meal every day when food was in short supply and asked others to follow suit. The number of guests at weddings and other social functions was also legally restricted to save food.
Shortage of water is common in many parts of the country even now. Women and children in remote areas trudge kilometres to fetch water. I remember the days when the pressure of tap water was so low that it took a long time to fill a bucket. Luckily, we were staying close to the residence of the district collector. A tanker of water used to go to his residence every morning. The driver was kind enough to allow us to fill our buckets. The movies of the period showed long queues of men and women in front of water taps every morning and the hero helping the heroine by giving his bucket of water to her and even carrying it to her home.
Other commodities also used to be in short supply at regular intervals. Shopkeepers had to display their stock of essential items prominently on a blackboard. Whenever fresh stocks arrived, there would be long lines of people in front of shops to get a limited quantity of commodities like sugar, rice, and cooking oil.
Since baby food was thought to be essential for the healthy growth of babies, even the poor would stand in a queue when the item arrived in medical stores. Among the rationed items was cement, bringing the construction work to a grinding halt. Those in urgent need could always find shortcuts by greasing palms. Naturally, building a house was very expensive those days. Shortages bred black marketing aided by corrupt officials who stood looking the other way.
That used to be the case for reserved tickets in trains. As important stations were given a quota of berths for long-distance trains, people used to sleep in front of booking windows overnight. Regular blackouts due to shortage of electricity, ban on electric displays, and other restrictions must be fresh in the memory of many.
Getting a gas or telephone connection or owning a scooter was a distant dream for the ordinary folk. Even petrol pumps that got erratic supplies used to witness long queues. An offshoot of coin shortage was the beggar dictating terms to the needy shopkeeper every evening. He used to exchange his collection of coins with currency notes at a premium.
A friend of mine in Kerala was recently at the receiving end of the shortage of carpenters. Most of them had gone to the Gulf countries for better prospects. My friend’s wooden cupboard needed some repairs. There were only a couple of carpenters in his area, and he contacted one of them. The guy came promptly, a deal was finalized, did some repair on the spot, pocketed the agreed amount, and left after promising to come the next day. There was no sign of him for the next several days, and it took more than a month of his irregular visits to complete the repair.
One shortage still prevalent seems to be government jobs. Though people would not send their children to government schools or go to a government hospital for treatment, they are after government jobs that guarantee security and several other benefits.
(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to The Kashmir Vision, he can be contacted at: email@example.com)