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Why does the Indian state, after more than 60 years of independence, allow such a large percentage of its population to be subjected to endemic hunger and malnutrition? Akhil Gupta, in his book Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India, answers this very timely question by engaging with and significantly advancing debates on governmentality and the state. Building on Foucault (1991) and Agamben (1998), he provocatively theorizes extreme poverty, as a direct form of killing, rather than as a situation in which the poor are simply “allowed to die.” The central thematic of the book is that despite the inclusion of the poor in development programs and in projects of national sovereignty in India, these killings happen, they are tolerated, and worse still they are normalized. Drawing on Herzfeld (1992), Gupta argues that the mechanism of tolerance is in fact indifference—indifference to systematically produced arbitrariness by state practices and policies. And the strength of the book lies in the careful illustration of the production (and tolerance) of this arbitrariness.

Gupta paints a vivid picture of a Weberian nightmare—a state whose everyday functioning is shot through with neither rationalization nor administrative logic, rather with contingency, guesswork, and “barely controlled chaos.” This arbitrariness is produced and reproduced despite noble intentions of state elites at the Center creating these programs, and despite the sincerity of those at the frontline administering these programs. Hence, this is neither a story of exclusion as a broader postliberalization project (e.g., Harvey's (1982) theory of “organized abandonment”) nor a story of uncaring (e.g., Fernandes's (2010) concept of “actively forgotten spaces”) by specific actors or levels of the state. It is also not simply about the state and its resources being pulled in multiple directions and stretched too thin (e.g., Bardhan's (1984) fragmented state), nor is it about a state with “… a strong head that is no longer reliably connected to its own limbs” (e.g., Pritchett's (2009) description of a “flailing” state). On the contrary, this is a story of structural violence, one where it is impossible to identify a single perpetrator or cause. And Gupta explores this idea of structural violence through three everyday practices: corruption, modes of literacy and writing, and governmental practices. By weaving together a seemingly disparate set of vignettes drawn from a year of fieldwork on state antipoverty programs in Uttar Pradesh, Gupta lays out the enactment of structural violence that is inextricably bound to the normalization of poverty by the Indian state.

Overall, there are three main contributions—theoretical, methodological, and empirical—that make this book original and the argument compelling. Theoretically, it goes beyond current theoretical formulations of state–poor relations in India, which continue to pit the engagement of the poor and historically disadvantaged against their wealthier, more educated counterparts—it is said the two exhibit significantly different ways of “being political” and engaging with the state (Chatterjee 2004). To borrow Harriss's (2005) phrase, the poor in India are typically left with politics of the “dirty river kind” and their principal means of exercising influence over decisions that affect their own lives is through local politics, rather than directly or through legal institutionalized channels. Dichotomies such as civil and political society, formal and informal institutions, legal and illegal practices are enmeshed in our understanding of state–society relations, which while useful as analytical tools have seldom been unpacked empirically. Gupta's ethnography takes a first step toward that and reveals instead that there are multiple axes of variation, disaggregation, and blurry boundaries between these dichotomies.

From a methodological standpoint, the book is a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature on ethnography of the state that goes beyond observations of state actors and institutions, and instead taps into routine encounters between them. By studying events, conversations, and most importantly writing practices—for example, state officials drafting a document or sending a note to a colleague—that are invisible from a nonethnographic vantage point, Gupta provides the reader privileged access to the processes, causes, and effects of broader political processes (Tilly 2006), thereby allowing for a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the Indian democracy in the postliberalization era.

Finally and most importantly, the book extracts from a mostly untapped source of empirical data—the rural poor's everyday lived experience of the state in India. So far the literature has focused on moments of crisis such as rehabilitations, evictions, or elections, which has led to the construction of two extreme narratives around the poor—one of their marginalization (exclusion) and one of their contestatory movements (their attempts at inclusion). The former paints a picture of passive citizens without rights, of mere spectators cut off from the global flows, or of noncitizens who are denied social services (Castells 2000). The latter, on the other hand, risks romanticizing the insurgent identity of the poor, by focusing on outstanding and “visible” moments of re-enfranchisement (Appadurai 2002; Hansen 2001). Very little has been captured of the more daily, sustained, and abiding forms of claim making in a manner akin to Scott's (1985) Weapons of the Weak. For Gupta, however, the everyday itself becomes a relevant site or platform on which the drama of claim-making by the rural poor are constantly played out. Some of the most compelling and powerful insights come from his observations of everyday corruption, which is where the poor are sometimes defeated by the procedures of bureaucracy, but on several occasions they are also able to “outperform” the state by employing multiple layers of state organizations and pitting them against each other successfully.

The book's theoretical sophistication and ethnographic depth leaves the reader with an image of a complex patchwork quilt that is the Indian bureaucracy, and yet it stops short of providing an analytical map to navigate this complexity. Taking a cue from similar work on state–poor relations in Latin America (Auyero 2001; Fox 1994; Gay 1991), the author might have taken the book a step further by first, analytically disaggregating the “poor” with as much care as he disaggregates the state—the category “poor” is far too homogenous to account for the multiple locations, interests, and varied access to power of different sections within it; and second, by providing an analytical framework or typology to explain why deaths of certain segments of the poor or deaths at certain critical junctures are not tolerated or normalized, thereby providing solid ground for a counterfactual. Recent events such as the passing of the Food Security Bill in the Lok Sabha or Bihar's midday meal controversy all hint at the fact that politicization of death and disease at the national or regional level can in fact play an enormous role in altering the narratives through which structural violence is normalized. And given that Gupta had the benefit of hindsight and published 20 years since his own fieldwork (and since liberalization), not articulating these junctures was indeed a missed opportunity.

On the whole, however, Red Tape does break new ground conceptually and empirically, and will appeal not only to students and scholars of anthropology, sociology, political science, and cultural studies conducting ethnographic studies of the postcolonial state but also to practitioners and policymakers interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts of development program. At the very least this book complicates and nuances our understanding of how the Indian state operates at the very grassroots, but at the most it lays bare some serious developmental challenges in postliberalization India and hints at two alarming possibilities—one, that developmental programs may be no more than an eyewash, meant to keep us believing that the state is doing its best and numb us to the possibility that death at such a large scale should constitute a scandal and two, like Sripal, one of his protagonists, the poor may eventually realize the shortcomings of the system and prefer to opt out of it than get embroiled in its arbitrary mess and myriad dysfunctionalities.

References

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