Since she could remember, labourer Rama Nag (34) didn't know what her ration card meant, that as one of India's nearly 400 million officially poor people, she was entitled to subsidised foodgrain.
Until 2006, here in the heart of impoverished tribal India, on the edge of the sprawling forests of Bastar and the Maoist zone of Dantewada, Nag and her family of four survived on rice and whatever they could buy in the local market - while the owner of her local fair-price shop kept her card, grabbed her quota of grain and sold it for a profit of about 200 per cent.
What a difference a computer system, committed bureaucrats and - above all - a determined chief minister can make.
Today, Nag holds up her ration card. She knows she lives below the poverty line (BPL) - an income of Rs 12 or below per day in rural areas - and she knows she has a right to subsidised rice, wheat, kerosene and free salt.
"Nobody ever thought the poor will get their full ration on time without any hassles," said Nag, echoing a widespread feeling among Chhattisgarh's 15 million officially poor people.
"It's a relief, especially with rising food prices."
It's hard to keep food hidden from the poor in Chhattisgarh any longer.
"Earlier the sarpanches (village heads) wouldn't inform the people (of their BPL rights or even that they were on the BPL list," said Jagdalpur's Food Controller Vishwanath Netan.
"Now, a copy of the BPL beneficiaries is with every panchayat (village council) and their details are all easily available."
In a country with 23 million "ghost ration cards" in fictitious names and about 121 million deserving poor deprived of subsidised food (according to a 2010 report from a Supreme Court committee headed by former Justice D P Wadhwa), India's sixth poorest state in terms of per capita income, and one of its most insurgency ridden, has engineered a remarkable turnaround in all its 10,500 fair-price shops.
Idea to implementation
Chhattisgarh's great reform began with a chief ministerial idea, followed in 2004 with an administrative revamp and a two-year-long computerisation of Chhattisgarh's public distribution system (PDS).
The PDS is India's oldest, most-established welfare system, first launched by the colonial government in 1942 before going nationwide in 1956.
The political dividends were apparent when in 2008 Chhattisgarh's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister Raman Singh was re-elected.
Chhattisgarh's government first created a network of computers across the state's 146 development blocks in 18 districts, where details of every beneficiary, such as Nag, are put online.
Each beneficiary can also keep track of food stocks with an sms, which is sent immediately after a PDS shipment is sent from a distribution centre to a local fair price shop.
"The sms informs the beneficiary of everything, including the date, time, the vehicle number and the stock number," said Som Shekhar, principal system analyst at Raipur's National Informatics Centre.
As shipments were tracked online, fair-price shop owners received incentives to stop pilfering food. The commission for each shop was increased nearly 400 per cent, from Rs 8 to Rs 30 per quintal, and all shipments were tracked online.
On the outskirts of Dantewada, Jitru (42), a farmer who uses only one name, explains how he no longer has to walk 8 km to the nearest fair-price shop since every gram panchayat now has one.
PDS reform is giving tribals new hope, Hindustan Times found while travelling across the state.
In the heart of Dantwada's forests, Paru Karma stands outside his thatched hut and explains how he no longer barters valuable forest produce like honey for salt.
"I get two kg of salt free every month, along with 35 kg of grain, 1.5 kg of sugar and 3 litres of kerosene," said Karma, who until 2006 received only 20 kg of grain for the same price, Rs 70.
These micro improvements lead to macro savings. With computerisation, regular reviews and frequent verification, more than 1.3 lakh BPL cards were cancelled in 2008-08.
"Each fake card guzzles Rs 8,500 of the annual subsidy," said Rajeev Jaiswal, an architect of PDS reform and joint director of Chhattisgarh's food and civil supplies department.
"This was costing us more than Rs 100 crore."
Great leak of India
With 77 per cent of the Rs 55,578-crore national food subsidy bill for 2009-10 - India's biggest welfare spend - likely to be squandered in corruption and leaks, Chhattisgarh's reforms gain increased significance.
They serve as a precursor to national PDS reform, which will unfold as a corollary to Aadhar, the national project to provide every Indian with a digital identity.
While technology is a powerful tool, it is still that, a tool. The PDS system is firing popular imagination because it is backed by administrative will.
In Bastar, anganwadi (health) worker Jogeshwari, a Gond tribal, recounts how she called the PDS network's toll-free number when she did not receive her monthly quota of foodgrain.
What followed astonished Jogeshwari.
Two days later, a food officer walked into her village to fix the problem. "I was so surprised," said Jogeshwari.
Over two years, the toll-free number has registered 4,000 complaints and check a series of malpractices. Based on these complaints, the police registered 500 first-information reports; more than100 officials and shop-owners have been arrested. If citizens wish to follow their case, all information on action taken is available online.
Chhattisgarh keeps trying to improve its PDS: Last week, the government ordered fair-price shops to remain open for eight hours on working days, up from two to four hours.
The results of Chhattisgarh's reforms are revealing.
In 2008-09, the advocacy group, Right-to-Food campaign, found that 13 million BPL families were getting their full quota of foodgrain.
No more than a million fakes were unearthed, as opposed to more than 8 million previously, said Samir Garg, an advisor to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court in a right-to-food case.
In two years, the percentage of the satisfied BPL cardholders has gone from 4 million to 9 million people, according to the same survey.
Even the Maoists do not interfere with the PDS, insist state officials.
"I have not come across any incident of PDS stock being looted by the Maoists during the last couple of years," said Bastar Commissioner Manoj Pingua.
"The system is working well, even in remote areas such as Bastar."
With food subsidies expected to grow as the number of people officially recognised as poor slated to more than double, it's time India started listening to Chhattisgarh.
(Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Hindustan Times and Mint to track and understand policy reforms that could, if successful, transform India's efforts at inclusive growth. To see previous articles in the series go to www.hindustantimes.com/reimaginingindia)