If the poor represent a majority of voters in India, why doesn’t this electoral power translate into better quality government services?
If the poor represent a majority of voters in India, why doesn’t this electoral power translate into better quality government services? Why are some vulnerable communities able to secure development from the state while others fail?
These are some of the big questions that political scientists Adam Auerbach and Gabi Kruks-Wisner shed light on in this week’s episode of “Grand Tamasha.”
Adam is assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University and his new book is called Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums. Gabi is assistant professor of politics and global studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India.
Milan talks with Adam and Gabi about citizenship and political leadership in 21st century India, the strategies the poor employ to win access to development, and whether or not their research leaves them optimistic or pessimistic about democracy’s future in India.
"Unabashed" "The most unpredictable" "becomes a headline." "The most volatile" "outrageous behavior." “Unsubstantiated narratives" "A battle of personalities."
Milan Vaishnav (00:12):
Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 2004 two economists at the world bank, Philip Keefer and Stuti Khemani, published an article entitled "Why Do the Poor Receive Poor Services?" If the poor represent a majority of the electorate in India, as in so many other developing countries, the authors asked, why doesn't this electoral power translate into better quality government services like health, education, or even sanitation? Of course, not all poor citizens suffer equally. The ability of poor citizens to access development varies wildly, even within the same urban ward or rural block. But the question remains, why are some vulnerable communities able to secure development from the state while others fail? And how, when and why do the poor engage public officials in the pursuit of social welfare? These are some of the big questions that political scientists, Adam Auerback and Gabi Kruks-Wisner shed light on in two new books on India.
Milan Vaishnav (01:03):
Adam Auerbach is assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University and his new book is called "Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India's Urban Slums." It draws on more than two years of fieldwork in Northern India to uncover why some urban slums succeed while others fail to secure public services. And Gabi Kruks-Wisner is assistant professor of Politics and Global Studies at the University of Virginia. Her new book is called "Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India," and it delves into the lives of ordinary rural Indians and documents when and how citizen activism can actually succeed in making claims on the state. I'm pleased to welcome them both here for the very first time. Adam, Gabi, thanks for joining me.
Adam Auerbach (01:43):
Thanks for having us.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (01:43):
Milan Vaishnav (01:44):
So congratulations to both of you. These are two big new books that tell us a lot about the poor, a lot about development, political economy, public services, and the state, not just in India, but I think these have lessons for, you know, the rest of the developing world and maybe even broader. Both of these books stem, like many first books do from, from dissertations, each of you have been working on for probably more than a decade, probably more than we want to acknowledge sometimes, but I'm always interested in hearing how people kind of started out. So Gabi, let me start with you. How did you find yourself in rural Rajasthan trying to decipher this question of, you know, why and how the poor make claims on the state?
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (02:24):
Yeah, it's, it's it's kind of a backward story. So I actually started out nowhere near Rajasthan actually started at Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. This was after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. And I ended up doing some work there with with Oxfam America, an NGO, and they were studying how people were coping with what they called the second tsunami of aid that was coming in after the tsunami. And I found myself in a lot of really similarly affected, disaster affected fishing villages, noticing that within the same villages, people were navigating access to aid and access to resources in really different ways, even within the same villages. And this was interesting to me, right? This sort of effected by the same things, but devising really different strategies for accessing government aid, international aid, NGO aid. Uand so this was a puzzle to me that I wanted to pursue,ubut I wanted to pursue it under more quotidian, kind of day-to-day conditions as sort of everyday conditions of being poor and underserved in rural India. Uand also somewhere where I could speak Hindi since I speak, not a lick of Tamil. Uand so that's what took me up to Rajasthan. Uand uyou know, it seemed like a set of questions that seemed worth exploring about why in similar kinds of places people were pursuing resources in such different ways.
Milan Vaishnav (03:41):
So I want to come back to Rajasthan in a second, but Adam, let me ask you the same question. You spent, I think, two years plus traversing in and out of slums and Bhopal and Madhya Pradesh and Jaipur in Rajasthan. These are, suffice it to say, not neighborhoods that most of us actively seek out when we're traveling to India. How did you end up there?
Adam Auerbach (03:59):
Absolutely. So I think that you know, in looking back, there was really two sets of experiences in graduate school that really shaped my interest in local governance and politics in India's slums. The first was a summer internship at the National Institute for Urban Affairs in New Delhi um as part of JNNURM, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
Milan Vaishnav (04:16):
And this was a big central government scheme.
Adam Auerbach (04:19):
Yes, unprecedented at that time. We were getting survey data back from cities throughout India on sort of urban slums in those cities. And as I was going through the data, I found it just absolutely striking that not only across cities but within cities, within municipal wards settlements that had - some settlements that had emerged at the exact same time had completely diverged in terms of their access to very basic public goods and services. So things like piped water, paved roads, sewer connection, streetlights, municipal waste removal. And this is of course despite, you know, common shared vulnerabilities across these, these neighborhoods, which made it even further puzzling that some settlements in India and elsewhere face an a weak or absent form of property rights widespread informality in employments and state institutions that are really widely understood to be dismissive to the poor.
Adam Auerbach (05:06):
The second set of experiences unfolded in Jaipur sort of straddling that internship. Early again, early in graduate school I was living in the Eastern part of Jaipur where there's dozens of slum settlements that run along the mountains that sort of frame the Eastern part of the city. And I started exploring these settlements, talking to residents about how they go about sort of petitioning and engaging government officials to extend public services to their neighborhoods. And it was, it was clear very early on in my preliminary fieldwork that these neighborhoods have very strong forms of informal leadership and, and governance. So the set me off on my, my dissertation research.
Milan Vaishnav (05:41):
So back in 2007, you recall this in your book, you had this sort of formative conversation with a man named Raju who was an informal leader in this Jaipur squatter settlement. And in talking to him, tell us a little bit about that kind of eureka moment you where you're like, okay, this is what I'm going to be doing for the next, you know, five, six, seven, eight, nine years.
Adam Auerbach (06:02):
Yeah, it really was a eureka moment. So I mean a hundred meters behind the house that I was living in that summer and I was taking a Hindi, Hindi language courses. There was a particularly large slum settlements at the base of the mountain. And I became acquainted with and actually later friends with one of the informal leaders of the community, Raju. And he completely deviated from sort of what I had understood at that point to be, you know, what, what would a some leader be like, sort of the Hollywood depiction of you know, gun slinging, criminal slumlord. He was instead, you know, a soft spoken private school teacher and he considered exerted a considerable amount of effort to help residents sort of solve everyday problems for themselves. And he was also a worker for the Bharatiya Janata Party and did a lot of the activities that we typically associate with a party worker, you know, getting residents to come out during elections and to rallies.
Adam Auerbach (06:48):
What I found particularly striking was just the year after I initially met Raju the settlement was facing an eviction. And the community members decided to hold an informal election with actual sort of paper ballots that they made themselves. They invited the police to oversee this, to grant it legitimacy to make Raju the adhyaksha or the president of the, of the settlements. So yeah, over the course of the two years of my field work for the book I spent time with dozens and dozens of these some leaders, but it really was Raju who first introduced me to this complex world of slum leadership and really inspired me to look deeper into the politics of these spaces.
Milan Vaishnav (07:20):
So Gabi, I want to take you back to the very first page of your book and your account, this conversation with a tribal woman in Udaipur named Chandibai who had no formal education to speak of, but she kind of walked around with this mobile phone on her neck and on that phone she sort of had all of these local leaders on speed dial. Tell us about what was so unexpected about running into Chandibai.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (07:43):
Yeah, no, this is, this is probably my equivalent of of the Raju moment for Adam. I'm meeting this woman. So I call her Chandibai and she is on the very first page of my book and she's in fact, one of my very first encounters in my - early on in my fieldwork before I really knew what I was doing at all and I met her outside an NGO training center and she had a, as you said, a mobile phone that she wore on a cord around her neck. And she kind of with great glee was showing us all the numbers she had saved. So she had the number for the district collector and for various different block officials and for different Panchayat village level officials. And you know, she was, she was telling us, look, I have all these numbers. I can call these people. They're going to take my call. And you know, even even people in, in my community who think a woman can't do this work, they'll come to me because they know that I can, that I can make these calls and that officials will answer. You know, and she, she defied a lot of the social science priors and kind of predictions of all the stuff I'd been reading in grad school. Right? So this was a rural area. Think about the kind of the rural periphery. A tribal woman living under conditions of poverty, functionally illiterate, female, right? All these strikes against her in terms of the sort of broader literature on democratic participation. We predict that this is not the type of citizen who would with such intensity and with such chutzpah to, to mix my languages would be actively engaging and making demands on the state.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (09:13):
And so, so in that sense, she, she really defied a lot of these predictions. But what I found was in fact she didn't really defy the odds similar to what Adam was saying about then spending a lot of time with a lot of different, slum leaders. I, I found that there were a lot of people acting in similar ways who were actively making claims on the state, making demands on the state in ways that the broad literature on participation -looking at elections, at social movements at large scale protests - overlook. And I thought this was worth studying, right? This was worth digging into these more everyday types of participation in claim making that I wasn't kind of seeing in the broader literature.
Milan Vaishnav (09:50):
So Adam, let me kind of turn to you and kind of get into some of the book's main ideas, right? So if I step back, the main thesis you're putting forward is, look, you have a lot of variation in the provision of goods and services in slum settlements, right? Some people get stuff and some people don't. And these are things like streetlights and paved roads and sanitation and you know, little local public goods. And the main factor you find that determines whether you succeed or fail is essentially political networks, right? Whether political party organizations are present. Unpack that for us a little bit. What is the work that political networks seem to be doing? Because on the one hand it seems like, okay, yeah, obvious, obviously people are inter-mediating, but they're not doing so evenly across time and space.
Adam Auerbach (10:39):
Exactly. So, you know, party workers and the party organizations in which they work really sit at the center of the book's theory. And so yeah, the first quickly to find these actors. So in, in slum settlements, there are residents who attract a following a popular following of other other residents. And they come to take this title of basti neta or informal slum leader. These, these actors are absolutely pervasive across India's urban slums. If I could transport the three of us to I think any city in India it'd be a good bet that if we went in any settlements we would come across these informal leaders doing leadership work. And over time many of these slum leaders end up being extended positions within party organizations, bringing them into the party, folds with formalized positions. And so in the two cities that I study Jaipur and Bhopal, this would be the BJP or the Congress.
Adam Auerbach (11:32):
This then situates them in these vertical political networks that connect them, their followers to really the highest strata of party organization at the city level and the district level. And from a resident's point of view, you know, these party workers are really important because for many residents it's a, it's daunting to approach an official and ask for something by yourself. Be it something like a ration card, electricity connection or something more collective like a paved road or a street light. In fact and this motivates you know, a paper that I've been working on with Gabi, just 12% of my survey respondents think that if I went alone to a government office, I would be given the, the audience of an official - that they would actually give me attention.
Milan Vaishnav (12:10):
So 12 percent of people who live in these squatter settlements in Bhopal and Jaitpura believe that they can go themselves and get stuff done.
Adam Auerbach (12:18):
Exactly. yeah. So out of just over 2000 respondents across 111 settlements.
Milan Vaishnav (12:24):
Adam Auerbach (12:24):
A very tiny fraction believe that they would be able to get attention from officials. And this really props up the importance of people that have these sort of extra local networks that can help navigate the state for them. So we know from a really expansive literature in comparative politics that, you know, political brokers, like these local party workers, really a loom margin, the politics of, you know, these low income urban neighborhoods. So you're not only, you know, slum settlements in India's cities, but Brazil's favelas you know, migrant neighborhoods in the Gilded Age period in the United States. But what I think in exactly as you said earlier, what, what this literature I think is missed, and systematically missed, is that these networksof party workers are highly uneven in their spatial distribution across neighborhoods.
Adam Auerbach (13:02):
So they're uneven in their presence, their density and their, their partisan distribution within neighborhoods. I mean, by density I simply mean the number of party workers sort of per capita in the settlements. So some of these settlements are completely flush with these actors. Any, any galee, you know, alleyway that you could go down. There's likely to be a party worker there and it's, there's usually no ambiguity about it. They have a sign in front of their door, you know, with the, the lotus flower of the BJP or the open hand of the Congress with their party position. Others have just a few of these figures and some have absolutely none at all. They've been marginalized from the extension of these, these networks by parties.
Milan Vaishnav (13:32):
So let me, let me push you on that a little bit because from the standpoint of a political party, you know, like why not just flood the zone, right? Saturate the space, send your guys into all of - I mean, every vote in a small municipal election could matter. Why is it that you have some of these places that have a ton of BJP and Congress people and others where they just kind of seem out to lunch?
Adam Auerbach (13:52):
Absolutely. So these are, these are really scarce positions within the party organizations. I focus on the Hindi where it would be padadhikari people that actually have positions within the party hierarchy. The parties are, I mean, they, they very much mirror sort of classic party machines that you had read about like Tammany Hall in New York City. There are booth level committees, there are ward committees, there are block committees, mandal committees, district committees each of which will have a president and vice president and so on and so forth. And it became clear to me by asking this exact question to to political elites, why don't you just give every white, why doesn't everyone just become the ward president? And it was clear that that cheapens the position. These are positions that carry a great deal of sort of social weights. It's a big deal to be, you know, the, the ward vice president or ward presidents. And there's limited party patronage to, you know, go to the workers to both encourage their own sort of you know, party work and then even spread to voters. So this limits sort of the size of the network.
Milan Vaishnav (14:50):
But also one of the, that I found somewhat counterintuitive is about the role that ethnicity and ethnic diversity are playing here. Right? So if I understand your argument correctly, it's where you have more castes or religious diversity, a mix of people from different committees living together, you're actually going to throw up more political leaders because they have to represent particular groups and that's going to get you the citizen or the voter more stuff from the state.
Adam Auerbach (15:14):
Yeah. The sort of looking deeper into the origins of these networks. Why, why do they vary in the first place? Across the neighborhoods? What is the historical process that generates this unevenness? My fieldwork's really pointed at two particular factors that shaped this, one of which you just mentioned: ethnic diversity. India's slum settlements are amazingly diverse in terms of jati, sort of sub castes the region of origin that the migrants are coming from and religion. The average settlements has sort of representation from Hindus and Muslims - in some cases, Buddhists and Sikhs. What I find is that the more diverse a community is that typically those settlements typically produce fragmented forms of leadership. There's simply more sort of slum leaders per capita given higher levels of diversity. Over time, parties extend networks to these multiple nodes of leadership in the community creating sort of denser party networks and more competitive party networks in communities that are more diverse.
Milan Vaishnav (16:08):
So Gabi, let me turn to you now and then I want to come back to see how these pieces kind of fit together. Your book looks at how, you know, ordinary citizens, they make claims on the state through what appear to be pretty mundane, everyday acts like, you know, you attend a meeting, you file a petition, you send someone a letter, you approach a local bureaucrat for help. And I think you point out very nicely that you know, the puzzle here is why so many citizens choose not to exercise their voice, right? If you think about Albert Hirschman's famous kind of framework of you can either exercise exit and just leave, or you could exercise voice. Some are doing the former and some are doing the latter. I just want to quote two people you spoke with who kind of typify these two options.
Milan Vaishnav (16:48):
So one man you talk to says, you know, why are you wasting your breath? The sarkar or the government does nothing for us. They come at elections, they eat the votes and then they go away and we're forgotten. Then another person that you talked to says the exact opposite, which is, you know, when the water is flowing in my area, it's the responsibility of the state. They bring the water, we don't know where they get it from, from God knows where, but they bring the water. So I guess my question to you is, you know, why do some citizens make claims on the state while others just kind of keep quiet and deal with the bad hand that they've been dealt?
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (17:18):
Yeah. This is the real fundamental puzzle that the book is grappling with. Why is it that some citizens are actively engaging and making demands on and seeking services, seeking entitlements, seeking the fulfillment of rights from governments local governments or at higher levels at the state level. And why are some people not? And you know, I don't think it's just a matter of exercising voice or exit. There's a third option, which is silence, right? So you could exit and turn to the private market or self provide. But there's also just a lot of kind of this, this expression in, in, in the quote that you just give is sort of God willing, we survive, right? So sort of doing nothing. So not actively exiting, not exercising voice. But a third option, which is kind of quiescence or silence right in the end.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (18:03):
So that's the puzzle I wanted to dig into. And what I end up arguing in the book is that people hold fundamentally divergent understandings of what the state is, what it's doing, what it should do, what it will do, and what their position is vis-a-vis the state. And that these different stances towards the state, the different expectations that people hold about the responsiveness or potential responsiveness of different government officials reflects different kinds of aspirations, right? What it is you think is sort of on offer the range of goods and services out there, whether they're intended for people like you, whether you're entitled whether if you speak up your voice counts right? Whether you have a sense of kind of personal and political efficacy where the people will respond. And so people hold these very different aspirations and also have different capabilities. They have different information different knowledge, different understandings, different linkages, different points of access.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (18:55):
And so what this means is that people are navigating their way to the state in very different ways. And what I argue in the book is that this is a function of their social and spatial networks. People who are more constrained by let's say, boundaries of village, of neighborhood, of caste, occupation, gender who move and more limited circles within their own community, their own localities, quite simply put, learn less about the state, learn less about what the state's doing, what it's providing, learn less about potential claim making strategies. And by contrast, people with greater social and spatial exposure. Those who cut across boundaries of community and locality are learning through direct observation, through encounters with public officials and programs, and also through these narrated accounts from other citizens about what it is that the state might provide. And that this in turn is sort of motivating people to make more claims on the state. So that's sort of the fundamental point of divergence is what are you learning and seeing around you in terms of what it is that the state might provide?
Milan Vaishnav (19:53):
Only half of the story as you acknowledge, right? Because this is essentially, we're talking about people from the demand side approaching the state, not approaching the state, but the state still has to have the capability to deliver something, right? Like if you have no state capacity to build toilets or to deliver paved roads or drinking water, then it doesn't matter how many claims you make.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (20:15):
Absolutely. Right? So the demand side of the story really makes very little sense without the supply side of the story. And the supply side of the story is about kind of the, what I call the terrain of the state, right? How far and how deeply is the state penetrating in terms of its delivery of services and schemes? What's the level of state capacity And what's the sort of level of sort of unevenness sort of particularism or maybe more programmatic deliverythat we see? And what I end up arguing is that, you know, people gain exposure to and learn about the state, but it matters what they're learning. So if they look around them and they see a really scarce level of service provision, if they see really predatory state actors, if they see a lot of people not getting much, then active claim making, demand making doesn't seem very worthwhile.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (21:01):
By contrast, if you look around you and you see relatively abundant resources and you see very rule-bound programmatic service provision and you turn on the tap and water comes out, you don't really need to make a lot of claims on the state. So there's this intermediate set of conditions where the state's visible, present, active, central in people's lives, but really uneven and really unequal. And it's that combination. It provokes expectations. I too want clean drinking water when I turn on the tap and also grievances, I'm mad when I don't get it. When I say the statement,
Milan Vaishnav (21:32):
It's sort of like like if you think about, you know, that famous gonna Lant Pritchett thing, right? So it's not a failed state. It's not Denmark either. It's like this flailing state, right?
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (21:41):
Milan Vaishnav (21:41):
Sometimes it does it, sometimes it doesn't. And because you see it sometimes delivering that helps raise the expectations. I want to transition here to talking about some pieces of received wisdom that these books kind of puncture. And that's what I like about both of these books is that we have many pieces of conventional wisdom. Those of us who study India, those of us who study local politics and the books that does away with them. Adam, we kind of touched on this earlier. You know, there's a basic understanding in political science that where you have more ethnic diversity, you create problems for public goods provision. You know, simply in diverse places, people have a hard time kind of coming together.
Milan Vaishnav (22:18):
And you find find the opposite. And Gabi, what I found interesting, and let me, let me put this to you. You seem to really kind of downplay the role of caste. And that's somewhat surprising in a state like Rajasthan, which if you know anything, you know about how rigid society is and yet you write in the book that if you know a citizen's caste and you know their social status, it actually tells you next to nothing about whether that person is likely to try to engage the state to get stuff or not. Why, why is that? Why is it that caste isn't maybe a salient and would evolve, been led to believe and maybe have told people ourselves.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (22:52):
Yeah. So let me, let me qualify that a tiny bit. So I think it's absolutely true. I don't think, I'm trying to downplay caste, but I am trying to say that it doesn't give us the kind of home run explanation that a lot of our priors when we think about a caste-based politics in places like Rajasthan might predict. So looking, and this is through my survey data looking at caste characteristics and the likelihood or probability of of engaging in claim making acts as you said, tells us almost nothing. There's really no significant difference across different caste groupings in terms of the likelihood of engaging in claim making. That doesn't mean caste disappears, right. Caste does play a role in determining the kinds of strategies employed. So for example the land rich, those with the most land and the the general or sort of upper caste groups are the most likely to be contacting politicians, right?
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (23:45):
Whereas the lower caste, the scheduled caste scheduled tribes, those with the least land are the least likely to be contacting politicians. So caste does play a role in determining, determining the actual channels, the actual strategies pursued. It also plays a role in determining the mix of strategies. So I look at two things. I look at the likelihood of claim making, but I also look at the breadth of strategies. I call it the sort of the claim making repertoire. What's the whole range of things that you're doing? And I find that individuals from lower caste or tribal communities are employing a narrower repertoire. So they are just as likely to be making claims on the state, but they're more constrained in the channels through which they can do so. So what this means is equally active citizens, right? Doing the same kind of intensity of work to make their demands known to government, but a certain individuals, lower caste individuals, tribal individuals are more constrained in terms of the channels that they can pursue.
Milan Vaishnav (24:40):
Adam, you know, one piece of venture wisdom that bites the dust in your book is this idea that slums are nothing but quote unquote vote banks for politicians. And I think it's something that you heard over and over again during your field work. We've all kinda heard that, that, you know, there's this ingrained notion that politicians use slums for votes. Elections come, elections are over. They disappear until the next election. That's not what you find at all. Why do you think we've gotten this wrong for so long?
Adam Auerbach (25:07):
Yeah, as, I mean, as you just said it, it became very apparent early on in my fieldwork that slum residents really are far from the highly constrained sort of citizens under the thumb of politicians, you know, or these captive vote banks that don't have much of their own political agency, which really does sort of capture the sort of dominant approach to understanding these sorts of neighborhoods. I find that residents, you know, are very active and make routine acts of petitioning and protests on the states. They don't wait for things and elections in particular to have sort of goods and services dangled before them. I find that, you know, they articulate their demands right from the bottom up. It's not captured by either local elites or local politicians. I also find in the book and, and describe in the book that they select their slum leaders. I mean in a variety of ways. Many settlements have informal elections to decide upon who their informal leaders will be. Others are decided through deliberative meetings. And for some it's the everyday choices that residents make over who in the settlement am I going to go to for help? And who will I follow? So there's an incredible amount of agency from the bottom.
Milan Vaishnav (26:09):
And I should just point out for our listeners that most of the politicians you're following are not people who are directly elected through urban local elections. These are people who are informal leaders that they may be attached to political parties, but they're coming through a completely separate system.
Adam Auerbach (26:27):
Absolutely. These slum leaders are totally informal actors. They're not formally elected. They don't hold state positions. Their entire sort of title as slum leader and their popularity rests on their reputation falling into this informal position. Yeah. And in addition to that, I find, you know, considerable associational space in these communities. These are oftentimes neighborhoods where we typically don't think that there'll be sort of neighborhood associations and other sort of associational activity that it's sort of captured by, by local politics. And, but I find that many of these settlements have you know, what would be called in Hindi vikaas samitis, development associations that to help spearhead the claim making efforts in the communities.
Milan Vaishnav (27:08):
But do you, so have we gotten it wrong on political parties? 'Cause We tend to think generally in India, like the short hand is like we have pretty weak political parties, but in fact what you're saying, what comes out of your book is political parties are actually pretty present on the ground in between elections. They may not be visible in the same way but if you're somebody who is a resident of a Jaipur local slum, you are actually seeing the Congress and the BJP up close and personal throughout that period between elections. Is that a fair statement?
Adam Auerbach (27:39):
Yes. And I think a lot of the conventional wisdom, most of which has been done on rural India sort of renders parties as these sort of weaker, fleeting organizations. They sort of come during elections or they'll lean on local sort of informal actors, you know heads of you know, caste associations to build votes. This would come to much, you know, a large surprise to the residents and the communities that I was study that I study where political parties are sort of a an everyday presence manifest as the local party workers living in the communities that are engaging in these everyday forms of problem solving for residents.
Milan Vaishnav (28:12):
So maybe this is a good time to pivot because you guys are actually doing work together. And in fact, you have a paper coming out shortly, which looks at your collective experiences working in rural India and in urban India. And I think the takeaway from that work is that, you know, poor citizens in urban and rural areas have very different expectations about the state and that based on that set of expectations, you're going to navigate or engage the state in very, very different ways. And so I'm wondering, Gabi, if you could just tell us a bit about when you bring these two rural and urban pieces together, what answers do you find? Cause you're telling somewhat different stories, right? I mean, for instance, political parties haven't showed up much in your narrative where they're absolutely central to what Adam has to say.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (28:57):
Yeah, absolutely. So I think part of what was so fun about writing this paper coming out of our to our two research projects and our two books was noting places of convergence, but then also this very dramatic divergence. So the, the, the convergence is in both settings, rural and urban. And, and to be clear, what we're doing in this paper is we're comparing similarly poor populations. So rather than sort of thinking about kind of urban versus rural in this big sort of secular way and said, we're saying let's look at similarly marginalized and similarly poor populations in rural villages and in urban slum settlements. And what we find is the common ground is active citizenship, lots of demand, making, lots of claim making. But as you said, Milan, it takes place in really ways. And this comes down to a fundamental difference in expectations of a responsive government. So as Adam mentioned earlier on, right, about 12% of the respondents in his study of urban slum residents said that they expect a response if they directly go to a government official, either elected or appointed bureaucrats and ask for help in resolving some kind of issue. In the rural setting, looking at very similar questions, we find that almost 50% of people expect a direct response if they personally go in an unbroken sense.
Milan Vaishnav (30:14):
Wow. So that's a huge difference between the two.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (30:14):
It's a huge difference. It's a huge difference. And what that means is that this sense, and to be clear, it's not that everyone thinks they're going to go to response, but substantial numbers at least compared to the urban setting thinks that they can get a direct response.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (30:27):
And what this means is that there's a much larger need in the urban setting for brokers, for political brokers. And so the political parties start to play this really salient, central role. They are, as you mentioned, largely I wouldn't say absent, but they sort of pale by comparison in the rural setting. The description you gave of the kind of conceived wisdom of the weakness and like lack of local rootedness of parties actually does still ring true in a lot of rural settings. And because of this lack of robust party organizations in the rural setting, but also because of a much deeper and more institutionalized presence of local elected bodies, the grand panchayat, that becomes in the rural setting, this first port of call for demand making and claim making that sort of fills this gap that in the rural, excuse me, in the urban setting is being filled by by party organizations. And so that's the key divergencies really different expectations that are then manifest not in an absence or presence of claim making, but in different pathways to claim making different pathways to demand making a direct largely through the panchayat in the rural setting and brokered through these dense partisan networks in the, in the urban setting.
Milan Vaishnav (31:36):
So I'm trying to understand if this is a good news or bad news story, right? So if you, if you come back to where we started this conversation, this idea or this question of why do the poor get core services right? In an electoral democracy, the poorer represent the median voter. The politicians know that if they don't deliver the poor going to check them out of office. Now you guys are telling us about when and why success happens, but people have to work really, really hard. And things are not working as they should. And so people are doing this jugaad for lack of a better word, to kind of navigate it. So Adam, let me start with you as you step back. Like does this make you more optimistic or more pessimistic about the state of Indian democracy? Right? Because like you could see it either as a glass half full, glass, half empty, and I'm not really sure having read both of your books and really enjoying them, where I personally fall down.
Adam Auerbach (32:30):
Yeah, it was, I mean, it was interesting writing the conclusion and having to reflect on, you know, what is, what is unbalanced? You know, this is sort of promote optimism or pessimism? And I think in terms of the active forms of a claim making and petitioning that are emerging in these communities I think to me that is a sign of, of optimism. That's people feel as though sort of there is a state that is - that could be responsive even though they're having to go through local leaders to oftentimes gain access to that. However, as I discuss in the conclusion of the book, much of the leadership and collective action and organization that I document in the book, it's highly fragmented across neighborhoods. Many of these sort of settlements have, you know, common problems that they share with neighborhoods. They're oftentimes right down the streets but there's very little sort of inter settlement organization to try to push forward sort of more programmatic change at the city level towards residents of informal slum settlements. And so, yeah, I think it's certainly a sort of a low level equilibrium in the sense that's we wish that you know, residents wouldn't have to sort of engage in these you know, forms of distributed politics to get things for their communities that it would sort of flow more programmatically. But I think these, again, these active forms of claim making and citizenship are extremely impressive.
Milan Vaishnav (33:49):
I mean, I sort of struggle with this in my own previous work on criminal politicians. Cause on the one hand, part of my argument is like, well, of course there are lots of bad things associated with having criminals in politics, but in fact they can get stuff done. And so in fact, they're consistent with democratic accountability. Now the problem is it's a very partial kind of accountability. They're only accountable to certain segments, say their caste-mates or their religion, the religious kin, and they're really geared towards private goods that can be given and taken away as opposed to fixing the system. Gabi, what's your take from all this time in rural India? Is this a glass half full glass or half empty story for you?
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (34:24):
Yeah, no, I think this sort of ambivalence that that you and Adam are pointing to is strongly resonant in my work as well. And I think you know, so the, the glass half full story is a story of active citizenship, right? Sort of where you might least respect it, expect it in some of the most kind of rural isolated peripheral communities. You see this active engagement of the state, this active demand making, and this I think is you could interpret those as a sign of a robust local democracy in particular because of the centrality of the elected garam panchayat and how much more deeply institutionalized. The panchayat has become over the last 15 to 20 years in this sort of central role that it's playing in local politics and citizens lives at the village level. But the glass half empty story is exactly as you stated, Milan, right? People are struggling on this everyday basis to make these demands for basic rights and basic entitlements. So a much better equilibrium would be one where you don't have to engage in claim making and demand making where you turn on the tap and clean drinking water comes out and when you go to the school and the school teacher's there and so I, you know, I think it points the conclusion in my study points in two directions, one, active, vibrant local citizenship practice to a very uneven and discretionary set of behaviors by local governing bodies and by the state more broadly. And so for me, this, I sort of think it's, a sub-optimal equilibrium, right? It's good to see active, engaged citizenry and it's sub-optimal because they're struggling to, to claim these really basic entitlements.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (36:01):
And for me, the long-term question is, how does this play out over time? Right? do you see citizens over time saying, well, we tried and tried and we claimed and claimed and we demanded and demanded and not much is changing. And so I'm going to opt for something else. I'm going to seek alternatives, I'm going to exit, I'm going to become more acquiescent. Right. Or is there a more virtuous cycle of demand making, claim making, small gains feeding into more political activity and more active citizenship in the long run. And I think that's an untold story. It's sort of an unfinished story that we need to keep watching.
Milan Vaishnav (36:31):
So last question for both of you before we wrap up and we'll start with you. What's the thing that you're working on now, now that the book is out, that burden has been lifted, that weight has gone? What is the thing you're working on that you're the most excited about?
Adam Auerbach (36:43):
Yeah, it's been exciting thinking about sort of new new projects to launch and see now that the book is out, I'm one of those projects. We'll be looking at local state capacity in India's small towns almost half of India's urbanization story is in these towns of under 100,000 people. That of course are very different in lots of different dimensions from the urban spaces that are most commonly studied. Your Delhis and your Mumbbais. So, you know, one of these next projects will be looking at public spending and governance in India, small towns.
Adam Auerbach (37:10):
I've also become very interested in the Forest Rights Act in India. There's incredible sort of unevenness across India states and districts and villages in the success of both individual households and villages and being able to secure a land title through the Indian Forest Rights Act. So I'm fascinated, it's to sort of delve deeper and do more exploratory work to understand how does this redefine the relationship between sort of Adivasi communities in particular tribal communities. Uand what is the face of the local state in these areas, which is overwhelmingly the forest department and the beat officer.
Milan Vaishnav (37:45):
What about you Gabi? What are you working on that keeps you going every day?
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (37:49):
So I'm working on two new projects that are in odd ways because they're very, very different. They're kind of odd bedfellows, but they're both extensions of the book project and in different ways. So one is a project on citizen-police relations. And this is an extension of the book because in a sense the book looks at the developmental arm of the state. It looks at welfare provision. It looks at the sort of slightly warmer, slightly fuzzier cuddlier face of the state. And so I was intrigued to see what patterns of citizen state engagement and relations look like when you're dealing with a more repressive and coercive, but also very essential, arm of the state when it comes to public security. So that's one strand of research that I'm engaged in now. The other, which is a little bit more of a direct extension of the book project related to claim making is studying a national network of citizen journalists who are in a sense extremely savvy, high capacity claim makers.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (38:43):
This is a network of national journalists who are armed with smartphones and tablets and are going around kind of documenting deficiencies in local service provision and then trying to use that video footage to do two things. One is to, to try to mobilize community members and in collective action to make demands to make claims around welfare provision. And infrastructure in the communities. And the second is to to sort of hold officials' and bureaucrats' feet to the fire and, and, and try to sort of use this footage to galvanize action on the part of local bureaucrats. And so I'm really interested in this and sort of watching the sort of,uyou can say almost the supply chain sort of between how officials are responding to these journalists and how also communities are responding and when and why it provokes citizen action but also bureaucratic action
Milan Vaishnav (39:32):
My guests on the show this week are Adam Auerbach and Gabi Kruks-Wisner. They are the authors of two new books on India. Adam's new book is called "Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India's Urban Slums." Gabi's new book is called "Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India." If you're not following the work of Adam and Gabi, you're missing out on some of the best political science that's being done anywhere on India. Thank you guys so much for coming on the show.
Adam Auerbach (39:56):
Thanks so much for having us, Milan.
Gabi Kruks-Wisner (39:57):
Grand Tamasha is a coproduction of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website, GrandTamasha.com. Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.