Adam Auerbach on Slum Residents Demanding Development

Shruti talks with Adam Auerbach about competition, creative problem-solving, and formalizing political activity in India’s urban slums.

In this episode, Shruti spoke with Adam Auerbach about his 2019 book, Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums. Auerbach is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University. His research interests include local governance, urban politics, and the political economy of development, with a regional focus in South Asia and particularly in India. Shruti also talked with Adam about the ethnic and social diversity of Indian slums, the lack of geographic mobility between those neighborhoods, political representation at the extremely local level, and much more.

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Hi, Adam. Welcome to the show.

ADAM AUERBACH: Hi, Shruti. So good to be here with you. Thank you.

Emergence of Slum Leaders

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to start right away with slum leaders, who are clearly the protagonists in demanding development within your overall story. These slum leaders, or as they are called, basti netas [slum leader in Hindi]—this is an informal title or designation. They don’t actually face formal elections or have formal terms. They don’t have rules that bind them, and they can actually just lose this basti neta title as easily as it is granted to them by the people.

But at the same time, even though none of this is formal, they are widely and popularly recognized as problem solvers, entrepreneurs, brokers, people who are focal members in the community, people who are important and recognized also by political parties. Can you tell us a little bit about who are these people, and more importantly, how does a regular slum resident become a slum leader?

AUERBACH: Thanks so much. Yes, these basti netas or slum leaders—these are absolutely fascinating and complex actors. As you suggested, they sit, really, at the center of the book’s theoretical framework. You mentioned a few things that I think are really important in defining these actors. First, their title is totally informal. These are not formally elected actors. They don’t have official positions that are sanctioned by the states. Their title is entirely informal. It hangs on the legitimacy and following of residents that they have in the communities.

Some things to remember about India’s slum leaders that I think really deviates from how they’re oftentimes treated in academic research, but also in terms of popular imaginations of the slum leader relying on gundagiri [thuggery] coercion or force—they’re quite different than that. First and foremost, as you mentioned, they are everyday residents. They move to the city with their families to carve out a better life for themselves in the city.

After having spent a few years now, engaging with these actors, serving over 600 of them, not once have I ever heard one of these basti netas, or slum leaders, saying, “I planned on moving to the city, moving to a slum settlement because I was aspiring to become a slum leader.” This is something that happens after the dust of squatting settles. When these communities are first emerging, informal authority very quickly is crystallized. Because they’re everyday residents, they’re deeply embedded in the social and political networks of the village.

But they possess some interesting qualities that differentiate them from your rank-and-file residents. First off, they tend to be better educated than your average residents. They’re much more likely to be literate. The average slum resident in my survey sample is educated for about five years. They have five years of formal schooling. For slum leaders, it’s much closer to nine years of formal education.

This is so crucial because doing netagiri, leadership activities, in these communities really hinges on your ability to write petitions, to go to this complex ecosystem of government departments, meeting with officials, navigating the states. So being well-educated is crucially important.

They also tend to be more likely than your average resident to have modest jobs within the municipal governments, even things like chowkidars, municipal guards, or working as clerks in the municipality. Again, they’re very modest jobs, even safai karamchaari, municipal sweepers, but this provides that formalized link to the state.

They also tend to be extremely charismatic and very bold. They don’t think twice about going and meeting with an official and speaking up on behalf of residents. That’s such an important trait. In my survey of everyday residents in the communities, only 12 percent of ordinary residents believe that “If I went by myself to an official, I would get their attention.” These feelings of “I won’t get an audience” further increases the importance of these slum leaders. People gravitate towards them because they have these qualities, and informal authority is really cemented afterwards.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is the reward mechanism for these people? I can imagine that there is some element of status because they’re recognized within the community. I can also imagine that some—maybe they didn’t start off as political aspirants, but once they become a basti neta, or a leader, and they interact with the formal political machinery of the major political parties, they join the rank and file and then get these positions—that might be one motivation.

Is there much of a pecuniary benefit on either side? In some of your case studies, you talk about how some of these slum leaders made a lot of money because they gathered large crowds for an election rally or something like that. One can clearly see why people in slums might elect a problem solver, but why do these problem solvers expend so many of their resources within the slum?

AUERBACH: That’s such an important question. If you’re able to show a strong capacity for problem-solving and you become a basti neta or a slum leader, this opens the door to getting lots of material benefits and social status. On an everyday basis, if you’re a slum leader in the settlements, and it’s a wider-acknowledged one, people in the community are coming to you, literally on an everyday basis.

You can oftentimes see this in the settlements. It would be at a chai stand or at the local pawnshop: The slum leader sitting, people coming to him or her, asking, “I need help to get a ration card, I need help to get a BPL card, I need an electricity connection, I need a water connection, I need a caste certificate, I need help getting my widow pension.”

All of these things that are oftentimes quite difficult to get—even if you’re eligible for—these slum leaders, who very much act as intermediaries, are in a position to get, but they charge for these activities. At first, I was curious—do people interpret this as a form of bhrashtaachaar or corruption?

It amazed me that when you spend time with the slum leaders themselves—and who am I to argue with this—they say, “If I have to go to the district collector’s office for five hours in the afternoon and I’m providing this service, why shouldn’t I be compensated for that?” For really successful slum leaders that have a large following—they’re getting these everyday rents, they’re getting these everyday fees from residents.

Because they’re so popular during elections, which are of course, much more episodic, they are given money explicitly by the party. As I mentioned in some of the case studies in the book, this amount of money can oftentimes dwarf months’ worth of income for some of their neighbors. That’s a significant source of money.

Once they fall into this position of slum leader, many—but not all—are absorbed within political parties. Aspirations to climb up the party hierarchy, to move from—of course, within Jaipur and Bhopal, we’re talking about the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]—moving up from a booth-level worker to the ward, and then the block, and the district, and the shehar [city in Hindi]—that comes with greater political and social influence.

Many of them aspire to someday get a ticket to fight in the municipal election on a party ticket. In addition to that, a great deal of social prestige can come from being a slum leader as well.

One last thing that I’ll mention in terms of why they do this—and I think this is important to mention—when you spend a lot of time with them, they were living with their families. They also want paved roads to walk on. They also want a school for their children. They want drainage. They’re living in the community, and they face the exact same vulnerabilities as everyone else in the community. Many of them will also articulate this as a reason for why they do netagiri or slum leadership.

That makes a lot of sense to me—these multifaceted reasons why you might want to do this. But as you mentioned, to be able to have access to all of these different types of benefits, you have to show that you can demonstrate efficacy and problem-solving. Otherwise, people will vote with their feet, and they’ll go to another resident who’s aspiring or already a slum leader. It’s this play of competition that I think is so crucial in spurring these actors to actually do things for their community.

Political Competition in Slums

RAJAGOPALAN: The most interesting part of this is the competition. The competition is really fierce, in a way that it may not be when we think of electoral competition, normally, because it is backed by a lot of political funding, and it’s also backed by major party platforms.

But in the case of slums, because it’s informal, there is constant competition, not just during the election, and any time the residents feel that someone is too big for their boots, or is using a lot of coercion, like Prem, in one of your case studies, right?


RAJAGOPALAN: They get ousted, and then someone who’s more educated—I believe Jagdish—someone who’s more educated, more polished, represents people better, just magically emerges as the new leader, and people just gravitate and make this person the new focal point.

Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of competition that goes on? When I think of electoral competition, we think along caste lines, linguistic lines and things, but in slums, these basti netas seem to transcend those sorts of typical fractionalized lines, and the competition is much more fierce and along different margins.

AUERBACH: This everyday competition among slum leaders—much of the political science literature would refer to them as brokers or intermediaries, but one thing that I hope readers will take away from the book is very much this—that looking beyond electoral and party competition during elections to this intensive everyday competition among these actors within settlements for a following because, again, everything with their title and what they get hinges on their ability to maintain and expand their following.

This really does manifest itself in many different ways, but on an everyday basis. As I discussed in the book, sometimes competition within the slum settlements manifests as an informal election. This is one of the things that I found most fascinating in some of my case studies, that perhaps because of experiences in the village, but now in the Kachi Basti, or the slum settlement in the city, they’re in this really socially novel context.

The average one of these communities is at most 35 or 40 years old. Most people in the settlements have not interacted with one another for very long at all. This is a new social and political environment in many different ways. Many communities find it to be most fair, in terms of choosing an adhyaksh or president for their slum settlements, to hold an informal election.

As I outlined in the case of Saraswati Basti in Jaipur, this included informal handmade ballots. They invited the police to oversee it. There was campaigning that went on. It can be these episodic moments of informal elections.

It can also be more deliberative community discussions, which was also very common, and it can also be the everyday decisions of individual residents over “Who am I going to go to seek help with a problem? Who will I follow if they ask me to go out to that rally or go to that protest?”

All of these things can create a very fluid dynamic between residents and the slum leaders and the distribution of support across slum leaders. These communities, like communities all over the world, in many ways, are like a rumor mill. It does not take long for it to travel that a slum leader failed to deliver on something, or they’re transgressing on residents.

There were several examples of a slum leader really getting out of control and using violence against residents. In some of the examples in my book, not only do they lose that status of being a slum leader, but they’re kicked out of their jati panchayat. They have their party position removed. This everyday competition—again, it can take place in elections or these everyday decisions, but it really fundamentally defines incentives to do things among the slum leaders themselves.

Ethnic Diversity and Division 

RAJAGOPALAN: I think this is also one of the major surprising results coming out of your work in the book—normally, one associates ethnic diversity as a disadvantage when it comes to solving collective-action problems, providing public goods, problem-solving at a social level. What I find super interesting is that in Indian slums, you find that ethnic diversity is positively related to this problem-solving. Of course, one part of it is the greater the ethnic diversity, the higher the density of the basti netas who are affiliated to various parties, and things like that.

Also, what is really going on here? Is it because, normally, this happens in larger slums and it’s not advantageous for anyone to narrowly appeal to their own jati, or their own language, or their own village? Or is there something else going on, which is—as you mentioned in the case of Saraswati Nagar in Jaipur—they mimic the policies of formal democracy through voting. They actually print out informal ballots and things, and they bring that to this informal setting. They try to mimic the same thing.

Is something like that going on? Or is it a combination of all of the above? What’s happening with ethnic diversity transcending, or rather, being able to transcend ethnic diversity while providing social cooperation and public goods?

AUERBACH: The first thing to really underscore here—and it had initially really surprised me when I was engaging these communities—is that India slum settlements are incredibly diverse, regardless of their population. In many ways, they mirror the diversity of India itself.

As I mentioned in the book, drawing on a Herfindahl index or a fractionalization score, if we talk about jati or subcaste, the fractionalization score is 0.8. If, in the average one of these 111 settlements that I surveyed for the book—in the average one—if you were to randomly pick two people from it based on my survey, there would be an 80 percent chance that they’d be of a different jati. That’s incredibly diverse.

In terms of the state of origin, people are migrating from different states, ending up in places like Jaipur and Bhopal to start a new life in the city. The fractionalization score is 0.28, which is also quite high. It’s even quite high for religion, which I find to be particularly interesting in the context of Jaipur and Bhopal even, which experienced really intense Hindu-Muslim riots in the early 1990s.

It’s broadly understood—and I think this is right—that generally, across the city, there’s considerable segregation between Hindus and Muslims. But when you look into the Kachi Basti specifically, into the squatter settlements in the two cities, there’s almost a 20 percent chance in the average settlements, that two randomly selected residents will be of a different religion, and overwhelmingly that’s Hindus and Muslims.

The vast majority of settlements in my sample have multiple religions represented, and you can see this when you’re doing fieldwork in the communities themselves. There will be masjids, there will be mandirs. So, these are extremely diverse places.

What I find in my case studies, in my historical work, is that when people first move to the city, caste is oftentimes one marker that’s understandable that might inform some degree of social cooperation in the community, but the vulnerabilities that residents in these communities face are so intense. They don’t have property rights over lands, so they face eviction. They’re settled on greenfield sites. So, there’s absolutely no public goods or services at the start.

Because of all these vulnerabilities in that initial phase in the history of the communities where informal leadership is really taking shape, caste is not particularly informative in the ways that people collectively act. As I tried to outline in much of the ethnographic portions of my book, people get together across caste lines on an everyday basis to petition the state for paved roads and electricity and water and schools. They turn and support slum leaders that are jatis in religions and come from different states other than their own.

In a recent publication with one of my co-authors, Tariq Thachil, in the American Journal of Political Science, after serving 629 slum leaders, we tried to get a sense of once they come into this position of slum leader, what shapes their downward responsiveness to the needs of residents? Because residents are turning to them on an everyday basis to get access to things, but they have limited time. They have limited political capital.

One of the fascinating things that we find, and what we argue in that paper, is that ethnicity, particularly along the lines of caste, does not inform responsiveness. That’s because these places are so diverse and because slum leaders have incentives to build as large of a following as possible. They explicitly ignore caste and reach out to jatis and people of different faiths equally.

But not to over-romanticize it, it’s not that caste in these communities is simply forgotten. There were certainly instances—and these too, I hope, come through in the book—instances of jativaad, of caste discrimination in these communities.

Most of the settlements are disproportionately Scheduled Castes, Dalits, but yes, you’ll find Brahmins and people all across the Hindu social hierarchy and Muslims of varying zat [linguistic variation of jati].

As I outlined in the book and in several of my case studies during my fieldwork, fights would break out over caste lines. Just to provide one example, in Gautam Basti in Bhopal, almost half of the community are Ambedkar Buddhists, former Dalits. About a quarter of the community is Brahmin. The Ambedkar Buddhists had jumped in the well in the basti to bathe—some of the children did. It erupted into this big thing along caste lines.

To be clear, it’s not that caste has gone away, but the compulsions of needing to get together in large groups to approach the state and get things done, and the importance of turning to somebody that is effective, transcends the importance of caste.

Interestingly, statistically speaking, in terms of an association, I find a positive association between ethnic diversity and public-goods provision. I think the mechanism through which this happens is that ethnic diversity tends to fragment leadership, particularly in the beginning stages of a settlement. There are simply more nodes of informal authority with which parties can then extend positions. It intensifies this competition among the slum leaders themselves.

RAJAGOPALAN: I didn’t mean that caste doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. Of course, there’s a lot of caste endogamy when it comes to marriage. They may not attend each other’s festivals or eat with each other or, as you said, use the same source of water.

But when it comes to demanding that the pothole be closed or that the state provides drainage and things like that, they are willing to set other differences aside and really get the job done, which is the romantic version of how democracy and collective action should work. It’s very heartening to see that it does work.

Collective Action and Public Goods

Now, coming to the question of public goods, I want to have a discussion with you both on clientelism, which is typically a lot of provisioning of private goods and entitlements, and in the case of slums, public goods. I think in slums, public goods are particularly important because they don’t exist at all.

As you said, these are Kachi Bastis. It’s not like they became formal settlements, and people overnight showed up in large numbers. It’s just that, over a period of time, there were more and more squatters in a particular place. Once you reach critical mass, it becomes difficult to evict them. Then politicians also see to their advantage not to evict them. In fact, a lot of the political patronage is to prevent eviction in exchange for votes and other kinds of support.

So, establishing that, it’s very clear that slums have few to none state-provisioned public goods or all the municipal services that we normally think of. Now, there are multiple ways of approaching this problem. One is to just provide public goods themselves.

My question to you is, it seems like a lot of the classic social-cooperation collective-action problems we normally think of have been overcome within these slums. They have managed to transcend caste or ethnic diversity to create certain public goods, or they managed to come together and elect a leader who they don’t share ethnicity with, and so on and so forth.

Why don’t we see a complete exit from the state, and these people just say, “You know what? We’re going to collectively provision nonstate public goods.” I know it happens to some extent. You talk about filling potholes, and getting drains dug, or getting drains covered, even having a small school or daycare for the basti students and children.

There is a little bit of that, but why don’t we just see this complete exit? Is it because the property right and title is so vulnerable that they can’t make investments? Is it because they’re poor? What is really going on there?

AUERBACH: There’s a lot of things. That’s a really fascinating question. To take the first part of the question on clientelism more generally, there’s a really interesting debate within the field of people doing comparative politics on politics in India of, is India actually a clientelistic polity? I actually deliberately avoid the use of “clientelism” in the book as much as possible, perhaps to circumvent that debate.

It’s clear that officials have a lot of discretion over who they respond to, what services they provide and when. It’s clear that that’s very politicized. The politicians oftentimes get involved and seek to exert their leverage over bureaucrats in a politicized way. It’s clear that there’s a lot of intermediation and that the state is largely dismissive towards the urban poor. This has a lot of the trappings of clientelism.

But what it doesn’t have—and I really did not find any evidence for—is a strong contingent relationship, that if I find out that you do not vote for me, you will not get A, B, or C. In part, it says a lot of about the secret ballot in India, although it was clear to me in some interviews with MLAs in particular, that they were quite clear, at the voting booth level, who is voting for who.

To get back to the point on public goods, once you pave that road, or once you extend that sewer line, it’s not going to skip over an individual house that may or may not have voted for somebody. It goes to a small collective.

To get to the second point of your question, collective action in the settlements is largely oriented towards the states, that residents see the state as the provider of most of the core public goods and services, that there is some internal provisioning of things. You mentioned some of them. Even things like dispute resolution, informal governance, governing informal property rights within the communities—I think these can all be seen as really important local public goods.

But when it comes to paving roads, to putting in sewer lines, water, people turn towards the states in these communities. Clearly, if they have not experienced it themselves within their ward, it could be half a kilometer away, there will be another Kachi Basti that has got a paved road, that has got a new naali [drain in Hindi], drainage, that did get a community bathroom.

This is one of the main things that really animated my motivation to dive into this subject in the first place—the incredible unevenness across these communities in their access to very basic public goods and services. A lot of the collective action really, is focused on the state.

Mobilizing Collective Action

RAJAGOPALAN: That happens, if I understand, through two mechanisms. One is through protest. In some of the larger bastis, where people are able to mobilize crowds better, there are protests. The other is through the official channels of writing petitions and going and requesting it, then making sure that you have a political connection who will call the municipal commissioner or the councilor who will come and make sure that the drain is repaired, or the pothole is closed or something like that.

How are those choices made? Because both of them are used. You do provide some evidence that in the larger bastis, there is more use of formal protests. When are people exercising protest versus just going through formal channels?

AUERBACH: That’s a super interesting question to consider. I really think it has a lot to do with the intensity of the problem that they’re facing, and how long they’ve gone without having any kind of responsiveness, and whether or not they have the capacity to engage in protest. It was clear that protests were happening in settlements that were better politically organized. They had these networks of party workers that could bring people out onto the street.

You would oftentimes see protests erupting, especially over eviction, when people were threatened with having their houses bulldozed, which was a real threat, particularly in the areas of Jaipur, for instance, that are on Forest Department lands. The Forest Department was getting quite active, during my fieldwork, in trying to evict settlements on their lands.

Other really intensive problems—in one of the case-study communities that’s right along a major highway in eastern Jaipur, a large handful of children had gotten hurt or even killed by the traffic, and they held a protest. In the dead heat of the Rajasthan summer, if the water trucks aren’t coming on time or the electricity line goes down—those are all reasons to potentially go out onto the street to protest.

But most of the everyday forms of claim-making are more of the petitioning style. Interestingly, it’s very common for the petition to be delivered by a group of residents because they want to demonstrate that they have lok shakti, they have people power.

Even that performative aspect of “Here’s 30 people. We’re going to the local waterworks office. We’re going to the Vidyut Bhavan, the electricity department. Just remember, there’s only 30 of us here now, but we’re representing this larger basti, and if you fail to respond, you are inviting the possibility of protest.”

RAJAGOPALAN: And/or not getting electoral support, right?

AUERBACH: Exactly.

RAJAGOPALAN: I really love that the women participate, especially when it comes to the matter of water. It’s the women who form the mandali, or the morcha. They go and petition officers and things like that, which is quite interesting to see in this particular informal kind of setting.

You explain this bi-directional relationship. One is how slum leaders are responsive to the problems of the slum residents, but slum leaders must also be responsive to the political parties because those are the people who are helping them get status and actually problem-solve and get things done, but at the same time, they need to provide some service to the political parties.

Here, I noticed that there’s this tension between the political competition that is motivating parties to attend to the needs of the slums versus incentivizing these political parties or political elites to go where their loyal vote bank is. Can you talk about how this slum leader intermediation resolves this tension? Which is also quite central to the demanding development aspect of the book.

AUERBACH: Absolutely. We’ve already discussed a lot of the horizontal competition among slum leaders, but if I can add one thing to that that’s relevant to this question. In the book, not only do I try to explore competition among slum leaders in a horizontal sense, but also what happens when that competition within a settlement, among slum leaders takes on a partisan color. There are many settlements—in fact, most of them in my sample—where some portion of the slum leaders are padadhikari [officer in Hindi], actually have positions within the BJP, but others in the same settlement will be party workers for the Congress.

What I outlined, and draw my qualitative work to show, is that there’s a lot of cross-cutting effects of having multi-party representation among the slum leaders within a particular settlement. In one sense, it intensifies competition in a way that can even further spur incentives to make sure that you’re performing for residents. Not only do you want to outperform that other slum leader because you don’t want him or her to take your following, but now you also don’t want them to take that electoral support that’s going to come along with that.

But at the same time, in my fieldwork, I found lots of instances where along party lines, even to the detriment of their shared neighborhood, party networks undermining the mobilizational efforts of the other party to make sure that they don’t get popular. Sometimes this would be through the rumor mill, like, “Oh, don’t bother going out and protesting with them. This is just for politics, it’s not going to help us get anything.” Sometimes it actually manifests in violence—stone-pelting the other group.

In other elements with having multiple parties represented among the slum leaders of a settlement is that politicians in Indian cities—as I’m sure politicians are elsewhere—are obsessed with claiming credit for the things that they do. You see this in an everyday way in the communities, that when this road is paved or this drain is put in, in many cases, they will literally put an iron sign in the ground—I have some pictures of this—saying, “I, such and such, of the BJP Party, or Congress Party, delivered this on this date.” Sometimes it will be plastered on water tanks.

So when there are networks within the community, political networks of different parties, this disincentivizes, in many cases, politicians to extend things to that settlement because it muddies the water. There’s going to be competing networks there that are going to seek to undermine news spreading that you are the patron that really did this.

This is, of course, important in India’s multi-tiered democracy, where everyone in the city will have their own ward council and MLA and MP. Oftentimes, these are different parties, the municipality will be of a certain party. All of this is happening.

Another point I’d like to make on the competition front is that these are very competitive places electorally. Just under 40 percent of the survey respondents among everyday residents said that over the last several elections, they’ve been voting for different parties. That’s likely, I think, to be an underestimate because social desirability bias, you might think for many, might lead them to say, “No, I’m a pucca supporter of this or that party.” But votes are really up for grabs.

This can also be seen, and I think, exemplified by, among the slum leaders in my sample, particularly those that I surveyed with Tariq Thachil, about one-fifth of the Muslim slum leaders were BJP Party workers. They had a position in the BJP. Around the same percentage of everyday residents who were Muslim said that they supported the BJP.

Clearly, at least in Jaipur and Bhopal, the idea of a pucca vote bank for one party, whether it be for religious or caste reasons or otherwise—that’s quite a rare thing. Most of the communities are electorally split, and their support is going back and forth over electoral periods.

This is potentially why, in the statistical results, I don’t find a lot of explanatory power with the intensity of elections at different levels because there are so many moving parts across these levels, and whether you’re a Congress or a BJP worker, because of this three-tiered setting, you usually have at least one outlet of someone to go to. The counselor will be of your party, or maybe it’s only going to be the MLA.

RAJAGOPALAN: What I find really interesting is, those of us who live in the first-world advantage, we’re not worried about all the basic public goods, like is there a toilet in my home, or is the garbage picked up, and things like that. In some sense, there’s almost a luxury element. We have the luxury of indulging our political and ethnic preferences.

When I read the case studies and this kind of fierce competition, it seemed to me that the people who’ve come to this basti—they don’t have the luxury of indulging their caste, religious, linguistic preferences. They’re living in such a vulnerable environment, which is shifting so quickly on a daily basis, that they just need to get things done, and they’re willing to go wherever that might be.

AUERBACH: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. I tried to unpack, in the book, why have these communities become so diverse. I think that you exactly just hit on it. When a low-income migrant moves into a city like Jaipur and Bhopal—across these two cities, there’s over 600 Kachi Bastis, but it’s not as though people are going to be shopping around and saying, “Well, I like this one better. This has more of my jati than this one.”

They’re overwhelmingly driven by, oftentimes, just knowing an individual in that one settlement who can help them get set up with a house, and can help them find a job in India’s enormous, informal economy in the city. Oftentimes, they have no idea who the other people living in the settlement are.

The focus of my book on squatter settlements—these settlements are along river beds, they’re along mountainsides, they’re along railroad tracks. These are scarce pieces of land, and when people find an area to set up their jhuggi, they’ll do so. I think part of the scarcity of land and the fact that people don’t have the luxury of shopping around to form homogeneous ethnic enclaves produces this incredible diversity that I try to document in the book.

Emergence of Urban Slums

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to talk a little bit about how these slums come about. You have some great historical detail that you’ve uncovered through your ethnographic work. It’s quite clear that they don’t appear overnight. It’s not like there’s this big migration movement, and people come from a village, and they just settle in this informal basti, and then they carry on.

How do these places come about? Why does a particular piece of land next to . . . Aside from the location advantage near a big city, why does it become a basti? What are the characteristics of that? And how much time does it take from the first set of squatters to it becoming somewhat systematized in that it’s quite clear that now the politicians are going to stop any kind of eviction process?

In fact, when the Forest Department or the Supreme Court or the high courts try and send these eviction notices, it’s the politicians who completely get in the way and stop it. What is the timeline of those sorts of things?

AUERBACH: Such a great question. I think this is one of the big things that differentiates the formation of squatter settlements in India and South Asia, more generally, and Sub-Saharan Africa from their counterparts in Latin America. I have yet to hear of a squatter settlement or slum settlement in India that formed through overnight land invasions, where you have 10,000 people that’s all organized beforehand, and they have relationships with the politician, and they move there, and overnight, there’s literally a settlement. This happens quite gradually, in these communities.

You can oftentimes trace this using Google Earth because you can go back in time. You’ll see these settlements filling out over the course of five, ten years. Of course, this is idiosyncratic to where they are in the city. How much space did they have to expand? I argue in the book that really generates a lot of the variation in population. How much space is there between the river bed and that factory? How much space is there between the mountain and that ravine? It happens quite gradually.

Oftentimes, politicians will get involved quite early on to defend these communities because they see them as growing vote banks that they can use to extract electoral supports. This became very transparent in the interviews that I was doing with politicians in the city. They would oftentimes point to areas of the middle-class neighborhoods and say, “Nobody’s going to vote there. The votes are going to come from the Kachi Bastis, and we seek to cultivate them.” That relationship between politicians and the squatter communities happens quite rapidly.

RAJAGOPALAN: In this sense, let’s say I’m a migrant who is choosing to leave unproductive agriculture or unproductive rural area and choose to go to the city. How does a new entrant actually come and join the settlement? Are there rents? Is there a broker involved?

I know that in the jhuggi jhopri colonies in Delhi, which are the ones I’m more familiar with, there’s a very clear system. A new entrant needs to come and pay a fair bit of money to be allowed access into the basti and then get all the protections that come therewith. How does it work in Jaipur and Bhopal, especially in some of the smaller bastis?

AUERBACH: Yes, it was interesting tracing that. Analytically, one of the fascinating things about these communities, again, is that they’re only 30 or 40 years old. In many cases, the people who initially moved there, and were the initial squatters, are still living there. They’re just the older generation within the communities. Most of the squatter settlements in Jaipur and Bhopal really emerged in the ’70s and ’80s.

In interviews with these early residents, many of them would tell stories of this small-scale boom mafia, land mafia—again, really, really small scale—that would charge 500 rupees, 1,000 rupees for this tiny little plot of land. They had no sanction to do that. This is overwhelmingly Sarkari, government lands, or private lands. There would be some sort of fee that would be charged to gain entrance into that.

A lot of the communities now are fully built, but there still is fluidity in who is coming in and out. There’s a sizable renter population of seasonal migrants that might come in, and they might just be there for six months and then move out.

Interacting with the slum leaders, these sort of informal land brokers, I think is quite common, at least in Jaipur and Bhopal, and tracing this back to the early experiences of migrants in the early ’70s and ’80s, which really was the heyday of the formation of these settlements, at least in Jaipur and Bhopal.

In the latter, especially after the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh, announced the Patta Act in 1984, that people in Kachi Bastis will be given either a one- or 30-year patta to stop eviction for a limited period of time. This actually incentivized well-income migrants to move to the city to take advantage of this. There was a huge boom in the population of Bhopal’s slum settlements immediately after that.

Voice and Exit and Loyalty

RAJAGOPALAN: Within these slums, especially given some of the seasonal nature and the renters, we’ve already talked so much about the voice and the loyalty element of engagement through political intermediaries. Do you see much exit? That is, people exiting one slum and going to another slum where they know that there is a paved road because, as you point out, there is a lot of variation in the public-goods provisioning between slums.

AUERBACH: Very little movement. This is something that really surprised me. I most closely followed this with the slum leaders themselves to be able to respond to question, is there some sort of endogeneity between where the slum leaders situate themselves and the levels of public goods?

As some of my colleagues at Duke University, Anirudh Krishna and Erik Wibbels and Emily Rains, documented in a lot of their work. In many cases, people are, using their term, “stuck in slums.” They typically will stay in the communities. The average resident in my sample had lived in the community for about 25 years. People tend to stay there.

It amazes me. Some of the residents have engineering degrees, law degrees, college degrees, but they’re in the Kachi Bastis still. Yes, very little movement from the Kachi Basti to more middle-class neighborhoods, and very little movement among the settlements themselves, in terms of shopping around. “This place has higher levels of public goods. I’m going to move there.”

In part, I’m assuming that that’s because of the dense social ties that people create within the settlement. We know from, of course, development economics, that people turn to these networks to help smooth their income, to overcome income shocks, which the urban poor are very vulnerable to. So to leave this settlement, especially one that you’ve been in for years, and just uproot yourself, removes that for you.

This actually is why some of the eviction and resettlement policies around, “Okay, we’re going to evict this jhopad pattior Kachi Basti or jhuggi jhopri, and we’re going to set you up in an apartment building on the outskirts of town.” One of the reasons why people are so loathe to participate in that is because it absolutely tears apart the social fabric of the community that’s so important to their livelihoods.

RAJAGOPALAN: One is, of course, the social fabric, and also the distance, right?

AUERBACH: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: The entire reason some of these form near or right in the center of these cities, on public lands, is the proximity because the people in these bastis—they’re not aliens, right? They’re the people who work as domestic help or work as chowkidaars, as you mentioned, safai karamchaari in some cases. It’s literally, the guy who’s manning the ATM at the mall is actually living in one of these, bastis or jhuggis or jhopris.

One thing I’m genuinely surprised by is, as there is upward economic mobility, there isn’t much upward geographical mobility. Is it because the housing supply in these cities is so fixed and so inelastic because of bad housing regulation? Is it the social ties? Is it that there might be upward mobility, but they don’t have the credit networks to actually be able to move to the next stage, which is far more expensive and needs a lot more financial stability? What is going on there?

AUERBACH: I think a lot of things. It is very expensive to actually formally buy a plot and live in one of these property, more middle-class neighborhoods in the city, although I should say that in both Jaipur and Bhopal—and I’m sure other cities in India—there’re these really interesting neighborhoods that are referred to as unauthorized colonies, that I think are sort of a step between a Kachi Basti and a property middle-class neighborhood.

Actually, a lot of the urbanization in these two cities, especially in the periphery, is in these unauthorized colonies where they’re not approved by the Development Authority. They oftentimes don’t have those property rights, in the same way that people in the Kachi Bastis don’t have property rights, but they tend to be higher income. The neighborhoods are planned. There will be pucca houses with cars parked out front, but oftentimes, they won’t have paved roads and cars.

I think that might be some sort of step up on the ladder, but yes, it’s very expensive, housing shortages. What you’ll see over time is that, even if people are staying in the community . . . In the book, I try to show some of these old black and white pictures of some of the settlements where it’s totally kutcha housing. They’re using sticks and tarp.

Over time, the quality of the houses slightly improves—not necessarily the size of them, but suddenly, there’s brick for some. There will be actually cement slab on the top, defining them as more pucca, upgrading within the settlement. But making that jump and move to the property middle-class neighborhood is a big jump.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s also why there is so much voice and loyalty, right? The exit is prohibitively costly or almost impossible. That’s why you have this very, very faithful and diligent intermediation that is working towards making these places and systems better. Because there’s nowhere else to go in one sense.

How do people among migrant communities find out about a basti? Is it through caste channels, linguistic channels? I know that when people come to the big megacities, there is a whole caste network. Sometimes in these jhuggis you will find about 20 different households from a village who’ve migrated—not at the same time, but one after the other. They learned of the opportunity, and they showed up there. How does that work in a smaller . . . they’re not megacities, but still very urban areas like Bhopal and Jaipur?

AUERBACH: I think very much that latter process that you just illuminated. Someone had a cousin or a friend that went to Jaipur and found some construction work and are living in Basti A or B, and they call that other person to come and join them and work in the city. Yes, it’s these smaller-scale networks, but within a neighborhood itself, these squatter settlements or slum settlements—they’re clearly not transplants of villages.

It’s sometimes little pockets of kinship groups or people that had come from the same village. I think that’s what oftentimes brings people into the city and into that particular community, yet they maintain this incredibly diverse social composition, regardless.

Are Indians Politically Underrepresented?

RAJAGOPALAN: One of the very interesting things—this comes from your ethnographic and the statistical work that you do through the survey work—is the number of representatives per slum. The number, I believe, is two per thousand. Two slum leaders per thousand. In some of the bigger slums, which have far greater political representation, it can be up to six per thousand.

What I found fascinating about that is, if we look at India’s formal political representation across the three tiers—as you mentioned, one is the parliamentary level, the union or federal government. Then there are the MLAs, who are at the state legislature, and then the ward councilors. Just roughly speaking, an MP represents anywhere between 1.8 million to 1.2 million people, depending on which state the MP is coming from. Similarly, MLAs are close to about half a million. Ward councilors are representing a few thousand people, sometimes tens of thousands of people.

What you point out is that the need to solve these problems, and the need for someone to be present, just full-time, solving these problems is so high in these bastis, that you actually need about six people for a thousand, which is extraordinary. One thing I was thinking about when I read your book is, does India have too few political representatives in ratio to the citizens across all tiers of its democracy?

AUERBACH: It’s such a fascinating question. As you just mentioned, there’s clearly a need for some kind of representation and problem-solving at a level below the ward. That varies in really interesting ways across cities that I noticed. Drawing on the 2011 census, the average population of a ward in Jaipur is about 35,000. In Bhopal, that drops about 10,000 people.

I noticed in trips to other cities though, like Pune and Nagpur, the wards are significantly smaller—less than 10,000 people. In some of my newer work on India’s small towns, in these little Nagar Palikas [municipality in Hindi], the constituency sizes are like 800 people.

It’s interesting that, despite the 74th constitutional amendment being uniformly applicable across these urban spaces, this devolution of political representation to the ward level, in terms of the sizes of constituencies, has been highly uneven. I would guess that there’s a tight link between the need for intermediaries and the size of these local constituencies.

In part here, I’m drawing on work in a paper that I’ve done with Gabby Kruks-Wisner, where she shows, in her work—we did our fieldwork at the exact same time—hers in rural Rajasthan, my own in Jaipur and Bhopal, of course. People are much more likely in her sample—similarly poor, but in rural areas—to go directly to their panchayats to ask for help.

As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of people in my sample do not believe that they can even approach these individuals, ward councilors. They’re much more likely to turn to a slum leader, who would then act as an intermediary. It very much likely might be because of the far greater distance between themselves and these elected representatives.

Another manifestation of this, I think, is it’s very common, across the Kachi Bastis, for them to have the Vikas Samitis [development associations]. This is one of the most fascinating organizational forms that I encountered during my fieldwork. Much of the literature on urban India, and especially on associational life, is focused and fixated on middle-class neighborhoods.

What became quite evident, as I started going from Kachi Basti to Kachi Basti is that most of these communities had created these Vikas Samitis, these development associations, these Mohalla Sudharan Samitis—Neighborhood Improvement Committees—where they have distinct positions. There’s a president and a vice president. They have their own letterhead they’re writing on.

In many ways, I think this informal governance that emerged in many of these communities was because so many of these needs are neighborhood-specific. But decentralization has really brought representation down to a level that still is significantly above that of the settlements. A fascinating question to consider—what the appropriate level of representation is. Clearly, some of this political activity and these informal leaders that I document in the book are a consequence of insufficiency of representation at the ward level.

Fiscal Federalism

RAJAGOPALAN: Another thing which comes out from this, especially the bottom-up process that you describe, is that, despite the 73rd and the 74th Amendments in India, which created the local level of government—73rd for Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in villages, and the 74th for urban local bodies in urban areas—one thing that didn’t quite work out as well is the fiscal federalism element, right?

India has always been remarkably centripetal in terms of its fiscal resources, even at the union and the state levels. Now, we see the same pattern emerging between the state and the local government levels, where most states are not willing to devolve funds. Most of the local governments—both PRIs and urban local bodies—don’t have the capacity yet to raise their own revenues, so there is definitely this major resource constraint.

What I find very interesting emerging from the bottom-up processes, the bottom-up political demands that you describe in your ethnographic work is, were these ward councilors actually equipped with the resources, with the money, with the ability to raise revenue, they might actually deliver on a lot of these public goods because the people are demanding them, and they are willing to vote you out, or they’re willing to shame you. They’re willing to replace you in a matter of weeks or months.

What do you think needs to be fixed? Is it just the fiscal federalism? Or are there other things going on in the formal setting, which just doesn’t help mimic this kind of slum intermediation?

AUERBACH: This is a really, really important question. Going back to a book written by James Manor on decentralization, through the 74th constitutional Amendment, clearly, there’s been political decentralization. There are elections every five years. There’s municipal councilors, there’s mayors. There’s been administrative de-concentration. There are commissioners and bureaucrats operating alongside these locally elected representatives, but fiscal devolution—that’s really where this has fallen short.

As you mentioned, municipalities like Jaipur and Bhopal, and certainly, these smaller Nagar Palikas that I had just mentioned, are overwhelmingly dependent on state and central fiscal transfers to do anything. Even with that, in many of these cities, the development authority—the Vikas Pradhikaran—just dwarfs the municipality in terms of the resources and technical expertise that they have at their disposal.

In some ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that the Nagar Nigam, the municipality, can’t do these things because they’re not being infused with the resources and staff to be able to carry it out. It’s an interesting thought experiment to think of a world in which municipalities are drawing on own-source revenue, and they’re taxing. Local taxation is absolutely abysmal. I think that reflects, in part, this negative feedback loop between expectations of what the state is going to deliver. “Why should I pay taxes then?”

There’s a new growing, vibrant literature in comparative politics. In fact, my colleague at American University, Adrienne LeBas, is working on a lot of this in the context of Lagos, Nigeria. How can you incentivize citizens to want to pay these local taxes when there aren’t expectations that this is going to come back in the form of something like a public good?

Actually, in drawing on another one of my colleagues, Malini Ranganathan, she has this really fascinating piece. It’s on citizenship and paying user fees. I think something that she hits on in this article is something that really resonates with a lot of my fieldwork, that a lot of people in these communities—they want to actually pay user fees. They would prefer formalization and the security that comes with that.

People cling to all types of different papers to dig in their heels in these communities. It could be a water bill or an electricity bill or your voter ID card. I think many people in the communities themselves would welcome that.

It really goes back to this fundamental thing around lack of formal property rights over the land, where the utilities . . . In many cases, the built space of these communities makes it quite difficult to extend these services in the first place, but I do think that there would be a demand there to pay user fees. Even with some of these local taxes and fees, if the local state can demonstrate that this is going to come back to you in some kind of public good, so there’s that circularity there, and that feedback loop—it’s a very difficult thing to break.

Institutional Constraints in Formalizing Slums

RAJAGOPALAN: The user fees, we even see in your slum situation. Of course, there is some broker fee which is given to the leaders to get their things done, to get a BPL card, or to get a caste certificate. But there’s also a user fee that is paid to cover the pothole or improve the drainage system and things like that.

One question I had was, why doesn’t a young enterprising MLA recognize that there’s this huge basti with a massive vote bank and say, “We’re going to regularize or formalize this land”? What is getting in the way of that? Is it the three-tier system? Is it the courts? Is it that public lands have such a complicated ownership system that it’s almost impossible to exit that and change that quickly, even with a stroke of a pen?

What is really going on? Because clearly, the political leaders are for the slum residents. It’s all the other formal processes which are constantly trying to push them away.

AUERBACH: There’s a lot of things going on there. Many of these communities are in the middle of really intense legal disputes over who actually owns the lands. Just in my mind, right now, I’m marching through different Kachi Bastis in eastern Jaipur, where I did a lot of my fieldwork. There’s confusion over, is this actually Forest Department land, or is this Jaipur Development Authority land?

Or maybe this belongs to that local hospital. Where exactly does that line start and end? Because the settlement straddles multiple sources of land. If it’s private land, oftentimes you’ll have multiple people coming out of the woodwork to say, “This is actually my land.” These things—when they get stuck in the courts, they drag on for a very long time, as you know.

Interestingly, having spent a lot of time with the ward councilors and the MLAs, it surprised me how frank they were in saying, “Look, we’ll give piped water. We’ll give sewers. We’ll give electricity.” Giving a land title, though, is something that they’re oftentimes loath to give because it snaps the dependency relationship. “If we give them property rights, they’re going to end up like those middle-class people and not vote.”

That’s the ultimate thing that generates a lot of this dependency, that if they get formalized property rights and public services flow into the settlements in a wholesale fashion, they’re going to stop coming out and voting. This continues that dependency relationship between politicians in the cities and the populations in the Kachi Bastis themselves.

RAJAGOPALAN: That is so fascinating, that it is the dependency that is driving the relationship, which I think, again, would change if we were more fiscally federal. Then, the ward councilors could switch to getting larger revenues, and therefore having a bigger budget, and therefore a larger influence, and so on and so forth. In the absence of that, they only rely on votes, and the only way to get them to turn out is this kind of dependence.

AUERBACH: Yes. Actually, what you just said reminded me of another part of your question. The ward councilors in Jaipur and Bhopal—they get these small little discretionary funds that they get to spend in their constituencies, but these are pennies compared to, certainly, what the MLAs and MPs get to spend in a discretionary way. Of course, pennies compared to the actual operating budgets of states over urban development programs.

During my fieldwork, they got somewhere between 30 and 50 lakhs in Jaipur, a little bit more in Bhopal. This is not a lot of money to be doing things across constituencies that are very diverse in terms of their class composition, that have lots of different problems. Multiple people are clamoring to get access to these resources. It’s really insufficient.

It is interesting to think, if they had more resources at hand, and because they’re so localized in the representation and so embedded within their wards, how would this change distributive politics?

RAJAGOPALAN: Just to mention, you said it’s 5 lakhs. It’s about $6,000, which is normally what they give to any particular basti. Having a 50-lakh budget over the term, it’s about $60,000, $70,000, which is really nothing when it comes to the kinds of public-goods problems that we need to solve.

AUERBACH: It’s not going to do much.

Deliberation and Development

RAJAGOPALAN: Another question I had when it came to this public-goods problem is, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Biju Rao, who’s written this wonderful book called Oral Democracy with Paromita Sanyal—talks about deliberation in the Panchayati Raj setting. One major difference between the urban local bodies through the 74th Amendment and the Panchayati Raj setting through the 73rd Amendment is the absence of the Gram Sabha.

Now, the Gram Sabha is purely a deliberative aspect of the local government, which is available in the rural areas, but there is no Gram Sabha or rather, in this case, Nagar Sabha, or Ward Sabha provision that is mandated under the 74th Amendment.

But your ethnographic research shows that there is massive amounts of deliberation. They’re literally printing their own informal ballots and having their own elections. They’re having lots of meetings on what is important, who is a good leader, what are the things that need to be tackled in order of priority, or how do we protest.

What would be a good model for a Ward Sabha or Nagar Sabha if one were to change the 74th Amendment to accommodate some of these things?

AUERBACH: Yes, really interesting question. Just on a side note—a huge fan of Biju. A lot of his work has been really influential on my own book, so it’s a real honor to follow him in your podcast series.

There’s really untapped associational deliberative energy that’s going on in the neighborhoods that are most in need of this sort of governance in public-goods provision. As he mentioned, and as I tried to document in the book, regular community meetings . . .

One of the most fascinating sources of data that I was able to collect is that many slum leaders obsessively document all of the petitions that they write to officials, but also the community meeting notes they have.

Many of them would literally hand me, in the course of our interviews, these stacks of books, sometimes going back to the 1980s. They were passed on to different slum leaders, documenting these deliberative moments that happened quite frequently over how should we allocate our efforts of collective action? Who should be the leader? Who should we be going to talk to for this? They actually kept quite careful documentation.

That’s all just to say that, given all the claim-making that goes on, all this petition writing, associational activity, and Vikas Samitis, it’d be wonderful if this was really harnessed in some more formalized sense.

That said, if it was organized at the ward level—now we’re dragging this above the level of the neighborhood, and now we’re suddenly bringing in neighborhoods of dramatically different class backgrounds. Levels of income inequality that, I would assume, you just don’t see in most villages.

When you look at satellite images across Indian cities, and when you map the squatter settlements where they are, they’re everywhere in the city, as you mentioned. There’ll be a pucca [legal/formal] middle-class neighborhood, and then there’ll be a Kachi Basti right next to it.

To incorporate all of these different neighborhoods in a common deliberative space at the ward level, I can imagine a lot of the class tensions that you otherwise hear through local gossip, and middle-class colonies complaining of “Oh, those Kachi Basti people—they’re bringing all this crime.” Things that I think are frankly just not true, but class-based discussions, and in that case, getting into the realm of caste discrimination.

RAJAGOPALAN: Also, the nature of the problem is different. Middle-class neighborhoods want more parking spots, and they want free parking on the street, even in New York City. The people in the bastis want the sewer line to be covered, and they want to make sure they have water, piped drinking water that is clean, and they don’t have to steal electricity or something like that.

It’s beyond the biases that might come out in the class wars that one sees. You’re absolutely right that the ward level might just be too high. There needs to be some kind of a deliberative space which is much lower than that, as is in the case of slums.

One last question on this before we move on to other things. You mentioned multiple times in the book that there are nonconcurrent elections in India. First, India has, of course, governance across three levels: the parliamentary, the state, and the local.

Unlike the United States, we don’t have concurrent elections. They’re nonconcurrent, and there’s also a lot of competition because, as you mentioned, there might be a particular party that is strong at the ward level, but a completely different party, like the Bharatiya Janata Party right now, which is strong at the parliamentary level.

Now, is this a good thing or a bad thing when it comes to public-goods allocations? The way I read your book was, this turned out to be quite favorable in the case of slum public-goods provisioning because that meant that it wasn’t episodic, that the powers that be did not just show up once a year or once in a few years. There’s always someone constantly trying to maneuver support for a particular election, and there’s a lot of activity.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of chaos in terms of the lack of coordination because everyone’s terms are different. You might have made these deep connections with a particular ward councilor. You might have gotten all the paperwork done, and now their term ended and the MLA is not on good terms with the next guy, or something like that. What is your view on these nonconcurrent elections across three levels?

AUERBACH: I think it cuts both ways, as you suggested. In one sense, there are more of these moments of elections that might be driving a greater degree of responsiveness at one of those levels. As I had pointed out earlier, the desire among politicians in the city to claim credit over delivered goods in this multi-tiered setting, in some cases, disincentivizes them from doing certain things because they’re afraid that the voters in that area may not come to know that I delivered A, B, or C.

In that sense, maybe that would be a mark of a negative effect of this. But a more positive one, too, that I hope I document in the book is that, it’s very rare, from the vantage point of a slum leader, to be in an environment in which you don’t have some co-partisan outlet to go to and to seek help from. It was very common in Jaipur and Bhopal for the ward councilor to be of one party, your MLA to be another party. Then, of course, you have the MP, the governments at each one of those levels being something distinct in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

This has actually switched since decentralization in the early 1990s. But for several electoral periods, mayors were directly elected, not indirectly elected through the ward council or the body of the council. So you’ll get a mayor that’s a different party than the majority party in the municipal corporation. Again, it provides all these different focal points of potential co-partisan connectivity to ask for things, which I think is important in considering these bottom-up claims that are so central to getting stuff in these communities.

RAJAGOPALAN: When I read the court cases and the legal documents, which is, at least specific to India, the judiciary just absolutely fails to see any of this activity. They completely de-recognize any local, informal political mobilization. It’s informal only to the extent that these people don’t have their names associated with ballots of the election information. They’re not informal in the sense that people are participating. They are the chosen leader.

This lack of recognition—it used to be the colonial state that failed to recognize tribal groups and that failed to recognize community groups. Now, the Indian state is just the extension of that. They just want this formal paperwork to be overwhelmingly large in terms of being recognized. Anything that comes bottom-up in the community just seems to be like, “Oh, we can completely ignore this.”

You see the division between the politicians and the bureaucracy on this. The IAS cadres and the judiciary are on one side, and they are really like the state. When you see the politicians, they are far more sympathetic because they understand the benefits of this mobilization.

AUERBACH: Yes, it’s extremely accurate. Government officials are certainly the targets of a lot of the claims of the slum dwellers themselves. But it’s telling that the residents of the communities and the leaders will oftentimes first turn to the politician to put pressure on the bureaucrat to do certain things. They see the politicians as more accessible and more in their world of political society that need to be tapped into to get the machinery of the states and its bureaucratic manifestation to actually deliver on things.

Intellectual Journey

RAJAGOPALAN: Adam, I wanted to switch a little bit and ask you some questions about your intellectual journey. First, what is it that led you to become a professor of political science?

AUERBACH: Oh, geez. That’s very intimately connected to why I ended up focusing on politics in India. I had a really inspiring undergraduate professor. I’m assuming that this is going to be a common story for a lot of professors who also focus on the politics of India. I very distinctly remember in undergrad—his name is Mike Maniates if you ever listen to the podcast. Seeing him up there, I very much was like, “This is what I want to do with my life.”

Then I studied abroad in India, in college. Not only that class, but if I really go far back, growing up in Central New Jersey, which has a large diaspora population—it must have been about a quarter of my middle school and high school were Indian Americans. A lot of my friends—growing up and going to their houses, interacting with them. I just got fascinated in the culture and the language.

I studied abroad in India. My junior year was the first time I’d ever left the United States—hadn’t even been to Canada at that point—just absolutely fell in love with learning Hindi, exploring India. I found it endlessly fascinating. Of course, now, developed a lot of deep, enduring friendships there and people that I love to continue to go back. Jaipur has really been, in some way, like a second home since that first trip way back in 2003.

I’m fascinated in politics and society, and I love reading and writing. Being a professor seemed like the best way to do all those things and keep going back to India.

RAJAGOPALAN: A lot of my students routinely talk about how doing fieldwork in India is really difficult because of the language or because of the conditions. It’s hard to do it if you don’t have family in India or if you’re not of Indian origin and have the support system.

What I find fascinating about your work is that you’ve actually spent months and years in India. You’ve learned the language. You probably speak a lot of the local dialect and colloquialisms better than I do. How does that work? It’s a very high fixed cost upfront for a scholar to invest in. How did you navigate that journey once you did have an interest in India?

AUERBACH: Part of it is I did my doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the political science department there. One of the many reasons why I loved it and was so lucky to have the committee that I did and to be in that department is they still really encourage intensive, sustained fieldwork, which is something that I think is sadly being less and less valued, at least in my discipline.

There is very much, “You’re going to go out for a year or more and do your fieldwork.” That really dovetailed nicely with what I want to do. There’s probably a reason why I self-selected into that department in the first place.

It’s such a privilege to be in India, interacting with everyone, from everyday residents up to politicians. I was told this was going to happen, but in writing the acknowledgments of the book, it’s humbling and emotional to reflect on the hundreds of people that gave you time and that you sat down and had chai with and namkeen over the course of several years. It’s just such an incredible privilege.

I also think I was lucky to have mentors, particularly in grad school, and have my own scholarly aspirations in reading work by people like Anirudh Krishna and Biju Rao and Lily Tsai, other people who really do this intensive qualitative work that really underpins their theories, and the work that they do that’s even quantitative. The foundation of it is this deep qualitative engagement. That’s something that I wanted to do, and that’s something that I hope I continue to do.


RAJAGOPALAN: A lot of the things that you discuss are counterintuitive in terms of how informality is not so informal, or how they overcome ethnic diversity, or how they just switch leaders so quickly. These are things which are very hard to quantify and the ethnographic work is so robust in this case.

I was having a chat with Biju Rao, as I mentioned, and we were talking about how, even now, in economics, the ethnographic work is supposed to support the quantitative work. That’s the main show and the ethnographic stuff is the cameo.

What I actually think is the reverse, which is the ethnographic work is what informs the questions. I read the introductory part of your book, and I feel like something similar happened with you. It’s the ethnography which helped you design your survey and implement the survey, and so on so forth. Is that accurate?

AUERBACH: Yes, absolutely. Early in grad school, I was lucky to do some pre-dissertation fieldwork and do something that’s sometimes disparagingly called “soaking and poking,” but I think it’s so important to really begin to understand, in a grounded way, how communities operate or how networks operate.

I spent the first 15 straight months of the fieldwork—which was really core to the book—engaging in ethnographic fieldwork, very much with the approach that we don’t know that much about these communities, how they operate, how people collectively act and make claims on the states, how leadership forms. There are all these questions that really needed to be descriptively hammered down before I felt like I could even consider doing something like a large-scale survey.

That almost year and a half really did provide the foundation for thinking about what is my theoretical framework. It very much inductively bubbled up from that fieldwork itself. Now, of course, I want to test it outside of the cases that I used to build it, and that’s really when the survey work came in. The ethnography itself was so crucial, and not just as a way to make it a little bit more interesting. It really, I think, is the heart of the book and the projects.

RAJAGOPALAN: How much of a difference do you see between Jaipur and Bhopal? Do you feel like you’re two different people there? On the face of it, of course, they are cities which are 2 and 3 million people. The pace of urbanization is very similar. They were both old monarchies. They have a big Hindu-Muslim population. They’ve been ruled by both Hindu and Muslim rulers.

There are a lot of these on-paper similarities, but people in Jaipur and Bhopalis consider themselves to be of completely different culture, different dialect, different colloquialism. Do you feel like you had to be two different people there while you were doing your ethnographic work? Or you found a lot of similarity and just felt at home?

AUERBACH: It’s such a fascinating question. I feel a little bit more at home in Jaipur. I’ve spent much more time there. That’s where I studied abroad. That’s where the American Institute of Indian Studies Hindi language program is that I did.

But my favorite city in India, and probably in the world, is Bhopal. I loved being in Bhopal. The Nawabi culture, the food, the Bada Talab that the Old City is surrounded by. It’s just a beautiful city, and there’s something about governance in Bhopal that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I’m very lucky to be on a dissertation committee of Bhanu Joshi up at Brown University who’s going to be looking into this further, so hopefully, he’ll be able to provide an answer to this. Bhopal is just very well planned in terms of the streets, in terms of trash collection. It feels different than Jaipur in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on. I love living in both cities, but I have to say, Bhopal really has stolen my heart in terms of cities to live in. There’s something just immensely special about Bhopal.

RAJAGOPALAN: My only interaction with Bhopal is with the Bhopal gas tragedy victims. I wrote a paper on that. It was a very law and economics kind of view, talking about how the design of the litigation system that was the Bhopal gas tragedy Act—they circumvented litigation by the litigants. They converted what was supposed to be a class-action lawsuit into a government lawsuit. Even today, 36-odd years after the gas leak, people haven’t been paid compensation. So, any view I have about Bhopal is completely mired in this.

AUERBACH: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: I know in some of your ethnographic work, some of the slum leaders were also brokers trying to get the compensation and making sure that the water was right or that the hospital actually gave them services and things like that. Did you come across many gas leak victims?

AUERBACH: Yes. The gas tragedy really looms large still over the city in many different ways. You can still go to the old Union Carbide site, and there’s a wall around it. You’re not actually allowed to physically go inside, but there’s graffiti and statues that are extremely powerful. But surrounding the factory itself—then and what continues to be—a lot of Kachi Bastis. Supposedly, the water in that area of the city is still polluted from this.

You’ll find people with birth defects or people that knew somebody that passed away in their immediate family or friends. It very powerfully marks social life in the city still, in the geography of the city. And trying to make claims and get compensation around this is still an ongoing fight for ordinary people in the city. Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: As you know, probably better than me, the geography of the Kachi Bastis around the Union Carbide site, and on that particular night, December 2nd-3rd, 1984, the way the wind blew, a lot of the fatalities and the victims were from the Kachi Bastis and the slums, as opposed to some of the posher parts of Bhopal.

AUERBACH: Yes, it swept in a southwest direction, right over those Kachi Bastis, right over part of the Old City, and then down into what is now part of the southern west part of the city. It really did disproportionately affect people in those sorts of settlements.

Writing Process

RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process? Because there are three parts to your book. One is just the ethnographic work. The second is all the survey data that you’ve collected, actually running the numbers, getting robust quantitative results. Then, of course, the act of writing papers and a dissertation, and then converting it to a book. These all seem like three completely different things, very different skills. What is your general writing process, and then more particularly, about writing this book?

AUERBACH: My general writing process has very much been disrupted lately. I’m a big coffee-shop writer, I love writing in coffee shops. I love white noise. I can’t work in silence by myself, and this is a habit that I certainly built in graduate school. I can’t imagine how much money I’ve spent over the last 10 years on coffee in coffee shops. I like to regularly write every day, but given the difficulties of the current situation, that particular arrangement has subsided for now.

In terms of turning the dissertation into the book, one thing that I found very helpful for me—and I think this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach—I put my dissertation down for almost two years. I thought about it a lot, but I did not immediately turn back to the dissertation. When starting up as a faculty member at American University, I had a spin-off article that I sought to get published, that ended up coming out in World Politics.

That’s really when I started planting a lot of the relationships with my co-authors that I found to be incredibly fun. I’ve been very lucky to work with incredible people and scholars. I already mentioned Tariq and Gabby, and Adam Ziegfeld, and Alison Post, and Rebecca Weitz-Shapiro. Just wonderful people to work with.

When I turned back to the dissertation and really started writing and converting it into the book, I think I benefited tremendously from having put it down for a while and turning to it with fresher eyes. I benefited from having a book workshop when I had a very, very rough draft done, where I got just really incisive comments, not only over the content but the voice. “In the book, this is going to be systematically different than your dissertation. You can assume that you have some degree of expertise on this now. Don’t be as defensive in your writing.”

Which was a hard thing to internalize and adapt and adopt in the writing itself, but I think taking that time off, then turning back to it after having done more collaborative work and some sole-authored articles that were spin-offs helped me get back into it. I think there would have been much more wheel-spinning if I had tried to jam it through early on.

RAJAGOPALAN: What are you working on right now? I know from a conversation we had before that you’re working on forest rights and a lot of the pattas that you talked about, which is the titles in these slum or informal environments. You’re also trying to look at that in the context of tribal communities and other communities in forest areas. Is that the next big project?

AUERBACH: There’re two very new projects that I’m really excited about, both of which are at a very nascent stage. I probably can’t talk about them at a great depth, largely because I haven’t been able to do a lot of the fieldwork that I want to do for them. Certainly, one of them is on the Forest Rights Act of 2006, having spent a lot of time with the Forest Department in Jaipur and Bhopal because many of the Kachi Bastis are on Forest Department lands. In Bhopal, there’s a lot of Adivasi, in particular Gond Adivasi residents of many of the Kachi Bastis.

This Forest Rights Act kept coming up in conversations, even though I was squarely within this city context. After more deeply reading into it and this really rich historical literature on imperial forestry, the really fascinating multidisciplinary literature on joint forest management, there seems to be a gap in the literature on really understanding something that’s much more contemporary, which is, first, why has there been so much variation across space and people being able to actually get these land titles in administrative forest areas?

When you look across India states, when you look across districts, blocks, villages, there’s quite a bit of unevenness in the ability of people within the forest areas—many of which are Adivasi, but many are not Adivasi, and that affects how easy this process is—but there’s a lot of variation in that that I think needs to be explained.

Many people in these forest areas were essentially rendered encroachers in the 1870s, 1880s, and the access to a land title for their household . . . This can also be claimed at the community level, at the village level. This is a fundamental change in formal property rights.

When you speak to people who are from these villages—remember I was speaking mostly to migrants to the city—but they see the Forest Department as a very predatory thing, even down to the local beat officer. One of the questions that I really have is, how has this transformation of property rights fundamentally changed state-society relations in these areas where that relationship has been especially fraught.

I had been hoping to spend part of the summer in Hoshangabad District, just south of Bhopal. Now, of course, traveling is probably not going to happen for a little while, but I am hoping that this will become a larger project.

The other, newer projects that I’m working on in collaboration with Tariq Thachil on these Nagar Palikas, these small towns that constitute this really important part of India’s urbanization story—they fall under the 74th constitutional amendment.

One of the things that we’re finding in our preliminary fieldwork in Rajasthan—we spent several weeks at this point going out to some of these Nagar Palikas. We’ve become really interested in the use of budgets, public spending. There seems to be a considerable amount of unevenness across towns, and just simply the percentage of the state and central fiscal transfers they get, that they’re actually spending in the town.

Part of our initial hunch is that this has something to do with variation in local state capacity, that when you go into these Nagar Palikas, there’s typically four or five, six people that are the face of the state in these little towns. When the junior engineer gets transferred away, when the local revenue officer or the executive officer, the chief bureaucrat of town—when these people move in and out of positions, everything comes grinding to a halt in the town.

Clearly, that’s happening unevenly across these little towns, too. Both of us are anticipating that these are very understudied places. Questions around local state capacity, public-goods provision, local governance, decentralization—I think this is a really ripe area for new empirical work, so this is something that we’re launching into.

RAJAGOPALAN: What are you reading right now, both in terms of these two projects and also maybe for pleasure?

AUERBACH: Most of my academic reading is revolving around the small-town research and the forest rights projects, in particular, a lot of that rich historical literature on imperial forestry. I’m really enjoying reading through that, including some of Ram Guha’s older work on this subject.

In terms of pleasure reading, I don’t get as much time for that as I would like. A lot of the nonacademic reading I’m doing is reading books to my two-and-a-half-year-old, so I’m well versed on the current cool books for that.

I did have a chance to recently finish Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King and just found it to be absolutely fascinating—these early figures like Franz Boas and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. I have this really enduring interest in anthropology even though I am not trained as an anthropologist. I took several anthropology courses in grad school. I went to a small liberal arts school for undergrad that did not have an anthropology major. I think, if they had, I would have gone in a very much different direction.

I just loved reading the book on these early figures and how their work and their thinking fundamentally reshaped concepts of sexuality and race and ethnicity, in the US context and globally.

RAJAGOPALAN: I can’t let you go without asking the most important question, which is, what are you binge-watching during the pandemic?

AUERBACH: Oh, God, a few different things. I finally was talked into getting Disney+, and I’m really enjoying The Mandalorian. I’m only four episodes in, but I really love it. I am a big fan of sci-fi and horror films, actually, too.

HBO has a couple of good series that fit into these two molds. The Raised by Wolves show on HBO—sort of a sci-fi series—really enjoyed that. I’m already done with that season. The Third Day—I’m not sure if you’ve seen that, but it’s a three-part series on HBO. It’s very much reminiscent of The Wicker Man. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

RAJAGOPALAN: I haven’t seen them.

AUERBACH: That’s old school, or at least the older version, but just mystery and intrigue and scary things on an island off the coast of the UK. All great shows.

Our Netflix account, between my partner and I, is all over the place. You’ll see, in terms of the recommendations, these children’s shows for our son, my partner who does not like horror and sci-fi, and then very scary movies for myself. All over the place, but those three shows, in particular, have made up a lot of my TV watching recently.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for doing this, Adam. This was such a pleasure to have a chance to speak with you.

AUERBACH: This was so wonderful. Thank you so much.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app