How rural India negotiates with the state

Gabrielle Kruks Wisner | Updated on: Jul 03, 2012


Policies that break traditional social barriers may encourage more villagers to demand public goods and services.

The size and reach of India’s developmental state has increased significantly in recent years, marked by a dizzying array of programmes intended to improve the lives and livelihoods of the rural citizens.

For instance, a plethora of welfare “schemes” related to health, education, infrastructure, food security, housing, employment and other sectors are regularly created (and re-created) by the State and Central Governments. Large programmes, such as the National Rural Health Mission, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (“Education for All” Campaign), and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, are funnelling unprecedented amounts of goods, services and money to rural India.

Access to the state

At the same time, however, India is often described as a “patronage democracy” in which the state plays a powerful role in the lives of its citizens but where officials have a great deal of discretionary control over the allocation of goods and services. High levels of corruption at all levels of government — highlighted in recent public outcry and media coverage — contribute to the sense that the state regularly fails to respond to the needs of many of its citizens. Under these conditions, a bleak picture emerges of a distant and inaccessible state.

And so the question emerges: who makes claims on the state in India? My research in rural Rajasthan, consisting of more than 400 interviews and a survey of over 2,000 households in 105 villages, takes up this question, investigating both whether and how citizens make demands for public goods and services. An understudied form of political participation, such claim-making represents one of the most local, day-to-day arenas in which citizens encounter the state. Given the bleak view of rural Indian citizen-state relations, we might expect to find a high level of disenchantment accompanied by low levels of claim-making. In fact, however, roughly three-quarters of those surveyed report that they do engage public officials to demand services.

These high levels of claim-making are, somewhat paradoxically, consistent with an uneven record of service delivery, where the discretionary behaviour of officials drives the seeking behaviour of citizens. Under these conditions, claim-making is an act driven by both need and hope. As the pool of public resources expands, and as knowledge of these resources grows through encounters with others who have successfully accessed them, people are increasingly likely to engage in claim-making out of the hope (however faint) that they too might benefit.

Claim-making is also rarely a straightforward or linear affair. Rather, people pursue diverse strategies, both direct and mediated. Village-level officials (panchayat members) are the first port of call for almost two-thirds, but this contact is accompanied by a wide range of strategies brokered through non-state actors and informal institutions, including individual “fixers,” caste leaders and elders, local associations, and a range of civil society organisations. In fact, more than one-half of the survey sample reports contacting a broker. Importantly, direct and mediated practices are very often combined.

Social networks

What accounts for this variation in patterns of claim-making and, by extension, in local citizen-state relationships? A large body of scholarly work, much of it developed in the West, predicts that more affluent groups of higher social standing are the most likely to engage the state. In India, however, the poor and lower castes participate vigorously in politics. Looking beyond the voting booth, the same patterns extend to citizen claim-making.

I suggest instead that both whether and how a person voices demands for services is contingent upon his or her social and professional networks, and the information and contacts to which he or she is exposed.

Through “weak” ties that extend beyond tightly knit groups in a person’s immediate community and locality, and through “bridging” ties that traverse barriers of caste, ethnicity, class or other social cleavages, a person is exposed to broader information and ideas about the state, as well as to a greater diversity of potential links to the state.

Stepping out

Take, for example, a woman in north India living under the purdah system, who rarely leaves her home or neighbourhood. She is unlikely to encounter public officials, approach brokers beyond her immediate family, or be exposed to narratives about the state, service delivery, or claim-making established through broader networks. In contrast, a woman who works outside of the home is more likely to interact with men and women from various backgrounds.

An individual who travels beyond the village for employment or education will meet an even greater diversity of actors. The broader a person’s exposure, the more likely he or she is to encounter officials or brokers creating channels of access to the state. I find, controlling for a wide range of village and individual-level attributes, that people embedded in more “cosmopolitan” networks that cut across caste and class and extend beyond the village are more likely to engage in claim-making, and do so through more diverse practices, than those embedded in more “parochial” networks. Exposure to different people and places is the product of changes in rural India that are, through a slow and uneven process, creating conditions for increased cross-caste engagement as well as more porous boundaries between the village and city.

Population growth and land scarcity — reflected in declining land-to-labour ratios – limit local agricultural jobs and thereby compel people to engage in new sectors that challenge caste-based norms of occupation or to seek employment beyond the village. At the same time, institutional interventions, such as the reservation of panchayat seats for women and members of the lower castes and tribes, enable traditionally marginalised groups to engage in multi-caste and mixed-gender settings.

These findings cast light on questions of democratic practice in rural India, helping to answer the question of why only some people demand services from the state. From a policy perspective, this suggests that interventions designed to foster cross-cutting exposure (such as the reservation of panchayat seats) may increase citizen-state engagement.

It also highlights the critical role of access to information in creating the conditions for an active citizenry — a theme captured by the Right to Information movement. At the same time, however, the study suggests that a darker view may also be true, revealing a democratic deficit where citizens are forced to make claims because of persistent state failure to deliver.

(The author is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on July 03, 2012
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