An important new book on technology, power and development

May 24, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Patching Development: Information Politics and Social Change in India by Rajesh Veeraraghavan is a wonderful and important book, a deep dive into the world’s largest social protection programme – India’s NREGA scheme – to explore the interaction between state reformers and citizen activists, as they work together, or sometimes against each other, to overcome the local politics of caste, capture, inertia and exclusion that attempt to block or corrupt a scheme that should (and sometimes does) benefit hundreds of millions of India’s poorest citizens.

Veeraraghavan does this through what he calls ‘an ethnography of the everyday practices of bureaucrats in Andhra Pradesh and the technologies they use to oversee NREGA’. What he found was an endless process of cat-and-mouse manoeuvring between bureaucrats at upper and lower levels, and citizen activists empowered by NREGA’s social audit process:

‘Upper-level bureaucrats used state action to neutralize the local power nexus in the villages with the support of civil society activists and NREGA workers….. The bureaucrats in charge of implementing NREGA in Andhra Pradesh realized that the actors in the local power system were actively involved in blocking initiatives and working around systems of governance. They needed to create a dynamic strategy that constantly countered such interference. If NREGA were to succeed, each aggression had to be met with an opposing action.’

The upper level do not have sufficient power to achieve this by edict – instead they must box clever, in a process Veeraraghavan christens as ‘patching’ – tweaks in technology, processes and documentation to wrongfoot the bad guys and get the money to the people who need it.

‘Patching in Andhra Pradesh is mostly focused on making small changes. The local system of power is hard to transform, not because of inertia but because of counter-strategies from powerful actors at the local last mile. Patching is about the fight over power at the last mile, the untidy realities and the back-and-forth struggles over how work relations are managed within the NREGA bureaucracy.’

If this all sounds a bit too abstract, here’s his account of a public social audit hearing organized by a local agricultural labourers’ union. Prior to the hearing, the author and a group of other activists had worked with the union and villagers to uncover a range of corrupt practices (eg claiming multiple days’ wages for dead workers):

‘The mukhiya, the president of the panchayat (village council), was the first to speak. “Everything is going well in this village,” he assured Kamesh (one of the event organizers). “All the work has been done, and everybody was paid.” At that point, JJSS activists read out the results from the most recent social audit, making clear the gross disparities between the NREGA’s records and the social audit results.

Kanchi raised his hand to speak: “My name is Kanchi, and I am from Boratola.”

Kamesh said to him, “The government records say that you worked on a project to move sand from Ram’s house to Krishna’s. Did you do so?”

“Yes, sir, I did work on that project.”

“The government records show that you worked for forty days and were paid Rs. 4,000. Is that correct?”

“No, sir, I have not been paid that much money. I only got Rs.1,000.”

Someone immediately shouted, “He is lying!”

Kanchi was livid. He pointed toward the mukhiya and said, “He is a crook. He and his cronies must have taken the rest of my money, all 3,000 rupees!”

The mukhiya rushed over, grabbed the microphone, and hit Kamesh on the head with the stand. An immediate uproar ensued, with workers running toward the mukhiya, shouting, “Hit him, hit him!” Suddenly sticks appeared and people were charging up to the mukhiya, who was whisked away to safety. Everybody was running and shouting and there was a minor scuffle between the mukhiya’s men and some of the workers. The activists clutched their documents defensively to keep them from being snatched away in the commotion.’

Back to patching:

‘The process of patching development has three features. First, patching is top down; the patch sender is at a higher level than (i.e., has jurisdiction over) the patch receiver. Second, patching is about fine-grained changes; patches are extremely specific and make focused alterations to policy. Third, patching is iterative; bureaucrats send many patches as new information about problems in the field reaches them. Patches are part of a continuous cycle of fine-grained changes to the implementation.’

This involves ‘a constant struggle at the last mile between social auditors, bureaucrats, and workers. Upper-level counterparts built new monitoring technologies and processes to address flaws discovered in the system, particularly seeking to hold lower-level bureaucrats accountable. Lower-level bureaucrats then resisted such increased monitoring, sabotaging or bypassing technologies. In turn, their upper-level counterparts built yet newer technologies and processes to deal with this resistance.’

If I have any criticism of the book, it is that the brilliant ‘thick description’ is followed by a rather thin set of ‘so whats’, but a couple stand out:

‘Upper-level bureaucrats must create mechanisms to ensure [against] sabotage at the local level. To do so, upper-level bureaucrats need to constantly innovate by embracing and adapting new technologies and evolving new processes to ensure that members of local political parties, local elites, and lower-level bureaucrats do not sabotage the delivery of programs at the last mile.

Civil society organizations [need] to develop a new form of politics that pays attention to the mundane minutiae of technology—drop-down boxes, links, reports, and other details in governmental platforms.’

I haven’t got space to do justice to the book – please do read it – but I hope this gives you a flavour. It seems to me that its big contributions include:

  • Distinguishing between different layers of the state, and how they work against each other
  • Placing the use of technology (audits, transparency etc) squarely in the realm of cat-and-mouse skirmishes between these branches of the state and other activists
  • Revealing the political dynamics and uncertain outcome of (cf guerrilla war) of such exchanges.
  • Showing that It is possible for a state government to learn and create participatory bureaucratic governance with civil society participation, but that it isn’t easy, or a one-time fix
  • Transparency and technology are better seen as a ‘flashlight’ than ‘sunlight’ (the usual cliché). A flashlight is only useful if the holder knows where to point it.

Excellent.

May 24, 2022
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Duncan Green
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