Aliz Tóth on State-Society Bargaining over Land Acquisition in India

Shruti Rajagopalan speaks with Aliz Tóth about the conflicts arising from eminent domain and the factors that contribute to those conflicts

This episode is the third installment of a series in which Shruti speaks with doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars about their research as they enter the job market and the world of academia. In this episode, Shruti talks with Aliz Tóth about her job market paper, “My Way and the Highway: Embedded Bureaucrats and Bargaining over Land for Infrastructure.” They discuss the lack of trust between landowners and the state, the role of bureaucrats and politicians in land acquisition for infrastructure projects, differences between private- and public-sector projects, and much more. Tóth is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University. Her research examines states’ problem of acquiring valuable land from landowners to build public goods. In particular, her dissertation project investigates why large-scale infrastructure projects face social opposition in India and whether the state can enforce bargains with landowners.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This is the 2022 job market series, where I speak with young scholars entering the academic job market about their latest research. I spoke with Aliz Tóth, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University. We discussed her job market paper titled “My Way and the Highway: Embedded Bureaucrats and Bargaining over Land for Infrastructure.” We talked about the nature of conflict caused by eminent domain in India, the question of inadequate compensation, credible commitment, broken land markets and the role of bureaucrats in mitigating such conflict in India.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hi, Aliz, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for doing this. This is a pleasure.

ALIZ TÓTH: Hi, Shruti. Thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited.

A Two-Sided Commitment Problem

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m very excited because you’re working on what has been one of my favorite themes, eminent domain and land acquisition. Of course, you look at a very, very specific question: protests and conflicts that follow a particular acquisition decision in India, especially for these large infrastructure projects and transportation projects and so on.

The way you model the question is basically a one-shot game where the bargain between the citizens and the state, or in this case the people who are acquiring and from whom the land is acquired, that bargain has collapsed, right?

TÓTH: Right.

RAJAGOPALAN: You show this in the form of a credible commitment problem, where the landowners—technically, when eminent domain is used—need to give up their land. There are some mechanisms through which they can challenge it, but once it goes through, they receive the compensation that is prescribed by law. When they want to extract more resources than that from the state, the go-to move is to protest, stall the project and extract higher amounts of compensation or something else in return. It could be jobs; it could be resettlement.

Why is it that you modeled the problem in this very specific way? What is it telling us about what’s going on in India? And, more generally, how do we think about this in the larger arc of land acquisition?

TÓTH: The reason why I chose to focus on commitment problems is that much of the literature on how the state extracts any type of resource from citizens has been about state capacity. This literature is really rooted in Western European state building and how taxes are extracted from citizens, which is a very different process.

It’s a process where year on year, the ruler extracts taxes from citizens, and citizens expect some sort of services in exchange. In modern democracies, we can think about it as a repeated interaction where both citizens and the state have the opportunity to build a reputation for trustworthiness. I always pay my taxes. The government provides education, roads, lights, et cetera.

But land acquisition is really different because most of the time you only get your land acquired once. In this case, there is no opportunity for building this reputation for trustworthiness. On the one hand, landowners cannot really trust that the state will deliver on any sort of promise providing jobs or public goods once you have given up your land. Because once landowners give up the land, their bargaining power is gone.

The state, on the other hand, cannot really trust that landowners will not come back and demand more compensation and more resources because protest is relatively cheap, landowners value their land very highly and protest is quite effective. If you just block the road and you’re not letting in government officials or machinery from private-sector companies, it can really hold up projects.

That’s why I decided to shift the focus away from state capacity—which in this case doesn’t really explain this variation and the different responses that landowners have to land acquisition, even within the same state, even within the same district—but rather focus on this two-sided commitment problem between the state and landowners.

Insufficient Compensation?

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m an economist. The way I think about the problem is, sure, there’s a credible commitment problem and the bargain has failed, but it seems to be a question of inadequate compensation, right? Because at the end of the day, yes, protests are cheaper than the alternative, which is litigation and other mechanisms, but protests are still costly. And some of the protests that you talk about have gone on for months and years, just on one project, right?

It’s not cheap in the sense of life and livelihood. If compensation is increased, then the incentive to protest goes down. Is this entire failure of holding the bargain really hinging on the fact that compensation is just not adequate in India when we think about these kinds of projects?

TÓTH: I think you’re right that compensation is the issue. When you ask landowners, “Why are you protesting?” they will say, “I’m protesting because compensation is not enough. Land is my livelihood, land is my employment. You cannot just give me X amount of money and expect me to be happy.”

I think the reason why compensation does not explain the whole story is that, if that was the case, then we would expect after 2013, when the new land acquisition act mandated two to four times the market price, which was really a big hike of what was provided before that, protests would just go down completely.

That’s not what happens. Really, what we see is these claims continue. I think this is why it really comes down to commitment problems. Landowners cannot commit that “I’m not going to come back and demand more.” Bureaucrats can say, “This is what is provided in the law. This is how much we’re supposed to give.” That doesn’t prevent, I think, claims, especially when the market price—it’s not really a scientific way, how it is determined. I think that allows landowners to keep coming back and press this claim.

Determining the Value of Land

RAJAGOPALAN: I think you’ve zeroed in on something really important. One is, technically there isn’t market price when we’re talking about eminent domain, right? The fact that this couldn’t be a simple sale is the reason that the state stepped in to acquire the land in the first place. Therefore, whatever is the compensation is never going to quite make that individual whole on their subjective value of the land. I think you’ve zeroed in on a much broader philosophical question about eminent domain in the first place.

I think your other point is also well appreciated. In India, we have really messed up the market for land. Because there are so many restrictions on sale of agricultural land, that market is hugely fragmented and depressed. There’s also all this other regulatory stuff like stamp duty and registration. To bypass those issues, typically, landowners tend to show that the land is worth a lot less in sale transactions, even if you increase that 2X, 3X, right—so there’s that problem.

Then the third is, I think, a broader story of structural transformation, which is, the land’s market price is conditional upon a particular kind of use. Now, if you’re converting this area from an agricultural area to an industrial area, or to a mining area, or putting in an electrical or nuclear plant there, then the inherent price of that land has to be thought of for the new land use—whereas all the market price calculations are based on past land use.

There is this huge gap between the two different kinds of land use because the market price completely changes because we’ve bifurcated the market. I can appreciate why, conditional upon that breakdown of various regulatory and institutional problems, it becomes a question of protest and conflict and a bargaining failure.

TÓTH: Yes, absolutely. I think the best way someone has explained this to me was—I was talking to an activist—is that, imagine that someone came to you and said they’re willing to pay $1 million for your Ph.D., and in return, you have to go and fish in the Arctic. Now, I’m not a very avid fisher, so obviously, I wouldn’t do too well.

I think that’s exactly the sort of dilemma that landowners face, that they are given a lump sum payment in exchange for what amounts to their employment and livelihood. In India, all of this economic growth has not been accompanied by a growth in jobs, which means that really, the backup plan for a lot of people in terms of employment is land. And the primary occupation for a lot of people is their land, which really makes the process of land acquisition that much more conflictual.

Underlying Assumptions

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, so you highlighted at the very beginning that you’re not thinking about this from the point of view of state capacity and building on that literature specifically. There is a fundamental assumption in the paper and the larger project: that these infrastructure or energy projects or transportation projects are actually worth doing. That is, the state needs to actually execute them. Therefore, the rest of your paper talks about what is a good way of mitigating the protests so as to allow these projects to continue. Is that a fair way to think about that assumption before we move forward with the rest of the paper?

TÓTH: Yes, I think that’s true. There is a conversation to be had, I think, about are all of these projects necessary and they’re worthwhile to have? I generally think it’s good to have highways. It’s important to expand energy in India for urbanization and so on.

RAJAGOPALAN: The reason I wanted the clarification is now conditional upon the fact that we are saying, let’s assume in good faith that the state had a valuable project. There was a collective action problem, so they had to use eminent domain to come and acquire the land. And now all these conflicts and protests are actually stalling the project, so we need to find a way forward.

Now, given that that is the baseline assumption, what are the mechanisms? Given that compensation is not on the table, given that judicial pendency is so crazy, that litigation is not exactly an easy way out, what are the other mechanisms at play through which this knot can be untangled? You talk specifically about bureaucrats, but before we get into bureaucrats, I just want to know more generally how to think about how do we solve the problem to move forward.

TÓTH: I think that is a big question, and in this paper specifically, I focus on one mechanism that lowers conflict, and that is bureaucrats’ social networks or bureaucrats’ embeddedness in local politics and local society. But there are, I think, many different policy solutions.

If you’re interested in this commitment problem, for example, you could imagine one way to try to get rid of this conflict is to allow landowners to commit. You allow landowners to commit by, for example, giving them a stake in the project. That means that landowners are invested in the project, which allows them to commit. And then you remove this whole issue that they’re going to come back and try to block the project.

Another policy solution that a lot of people have proposed exactly on this state capacity line is, for example, increasing the capacity of the state to determine the market price. That could enable the state to provide compensation, at least in those cases where really price is an issue, land is an economic asset. And that happens often in peri-urban areas. It wouldn’t solve all the conflict, but at least for landowners for whom land is really just one of their economic assets, it could be a viable solution.

I go through all of these different solutions in the larger book project. But the paper that we are talking about today focuses on intermediaries, and one type of intermediary, which is embedded bureaucrats.

The Role of Bureaucrats

RAJAGOPALAN: What is the role that a bureaucrat plays in this matrix, where we’re talking about landowners who are also voters, potentially taxpayers, citizens and so on? We have politicians in the mix. We often have private players because the infrastructure project can either be built by a private party, or sometimes it is for a private party, as we see in the case of, say, the bauxite plant of Vedanta that got nixed.

So much of India’s eminent domain since the 1894 land acquisition allows the state to take land and give to private players. There’s a private-player involvement. And then there is a bureaucrat, who’s typically a Union Government-level bureaucrat, who’s embedded in that particular local politics. So can you just explain this matrix to us? How does this entire thing work?

TÓTH: Let’s start with how a project gets proposed. Projects are often proposed by the government or by the private sector, but it is state governments and state politicians that approve them. They have that formal role in the process of building an infrastructure project. And we are talking about members of legislative assemblies here—for short, MLAs—and they are really coming from these smaller state-level districts that are usually very competitive, and they approve projects.

Then the project gets passed on to, often, an IS officer, an Indian administrative service officer, who is often the head of the local district administration. Or they can also be part of these national public companies like the National Highways Authority of India. They have lots of roles in the land acquisition process. They will be the ones who will determine where land acquisition will happen. They will survey the land. They will determine the compensation for the land. They will be the ones who will negotiate with landowners.

If anybody has any objections to land acquisition, they will be the ones appointing the social and environmental impact assessment team, which really means that they not only have a lot of responsibility, they also have a fair amount of discretion in the process, which gives them this combination of lots of power in the process. And then of course, landowners are often at the receiving end of this process. They’re the ones who are notified by a government officer about their land being taken.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is the difference between an embedded versus a not-embedded bureaucrat? Is it just a question of returning to the original cadre that was assigned when they first joined the service, or is it more sophisticated than that?

TÓTH: That is how I operationalize it in the paper, but the concept is more sophisticated than that. One way to define embedded bureaucrats is that these are bureaucrats who have social ties, social relationships that structure their decision-making within the state. Other people have looked at it in different ways. They have considered village officials who have spent a lot of time in one place or district officials who have ethnic ties to a certain place.

I focus on IAS [Indian Administrative Service] officers who serve in the same state that they are from, which I think does reflect similar qualities. So they’re more likely to have social relationships, social networks in that state. They’re more likely to have their family and friends within the same state, and I think that does impact how they operate.

Cooperation with Politicians

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. And so, now, how do these bureaucrats actually come and remove the frictions from this process?

TÓTH: What I suggest is that the main way embeddedness facilitates removing these obstacles from land acquisition is by allowing for cooperation between an embedded bureaucrat and a politician. I suggest in the paper that politicians have incentives to push through these projects when they’re in government, because obviously creating a new highway looks so great for them electorally, but these things can take a long time. They might not be in office by the time it’s finished.

So the main way that these infrastructure projects are good for politicians is that they provide a source of illicit funding for campaigns, often. But regardless, politicians have incentives to push through these projects, and they would like bureaucrats to take action and try to remove protests and other types of negotiations.

Bureaucrats, on the other hand, often prefer limited action. They have often very few resources; they are stretched thin. They also have to maintain their relationships with the local community for other types of projects that they might be working on. If they come down too heavy handed, it may also reflect bad on the government. Bureaucrats are often small “c” conservative. They prefer to take baby steps instead of big leaps.

However, I think when politicians can better monitor and informally sanction these bureaucrats, then it can really motivate bureaucrats to take action. And because embedded bureaucrats have these preexisting social relationships, they often share the same networks with politicians, which really allow politicians to look in on bureaucrats, to check in on them, to monitor them and to prevent what we call bureaucratic shirking. That’s just bureaucrats not taking decisive action.

Embeddedness really allows for cooperation between bureaucrats and politicians. When you go to the field and ask people, “Okay, this is really abstract. How does this really happen?” What they will tell you is that politicians can play an informal role in these negotiations as well. They will often come in and try to become the figurehead of these protest movements. That tends to co-opt the movement.

And then when the movement is a bit weakened, then bureaucrats can really come in and suggest, if you’re a landowner and your land is being taken away, it’s really much better for you to take the compensation now. You don’t want to go to court. That can be really costly. You just want to take the money now. This combination of co-optation of protests and coercion on the bureaucratic side really works to dissipate these protest movements.

Effects of Better Information

RAJAGOPALAN: The way you have described the role of the bureaucrat and the cooperation with the politician is one of smoothening out the bargaining process. Could there be another parallel mechanism at play, which is because these bureaucrats are embedded, they just have a higher level of local knowledge? They actually know where to place the project. They know how to acquire the land. They know who are the stakeholders and so on. Is this more of an information story, or is it more of a cooperation and bargaining story, is the way I would ask the question.

TÓTH: That’s one thing I play with in the paper. I look at whether this is really driven by embedded bureaucrats having better information. I think one way that could matter is that bureaucrats just know where to place these projects. I know in this village landowners are going to resist, so I’m going to move the project to another village. Or I know that this and this landowner are going to resist, so I’m going to remove them from the boundaries of the project. That’s very strategically excluding some landowners.

The way I test this, whether this is at play, is that I split projects into movable and immovable projects. I think of an immovable project as, for example, highways that need to connect. It would be harder to move around highways. And movable projects are, for example, manufacturing facilities that do not have those types of constraints. Then I look at the impact of embedded bureaucrats in the case of movable and immovable projects. I really do not find a difference there. That suggests to me that embedded bureaucrats’ impact is not being driven by strategically placing projects.

Now, this doesn’t mean that their whole impact is not driven by their better information capacity. I also test it in other ways. For example, I try to see whether landowners who are connected to bureaucrats receive better compensation. This would suggest that they have higher assets or they tend to be less poor. That would suggest that there is something going on with how certain incentives are given out, and embedded bureaucrats just know better who to target for these incentives.

But I actually find the opposite. Landowners who are connected to bureaucrats, in general, tend to be poorer. Once infrastructure projects are announced—they also tend to have fewer assets, and they’re more likely to report harassment in their village, which suggests if anything is going on, then embedded bureaucrats know how to target coercion better to landowners who are more likely to be sensitive to it. I find weaker evidence for that mechanism, but there is some suggestive evidence that it is there.

Using Coercion

RAJAGOPALAN: When it comes to the coercion, which is the other really important piece of the puzzle, are bureaucrats more likely to use coercion as an instrument relative to politicians because they are not going to be standing for elections and they don’t need the votes? This is a permanent bureaucracy. They’re not fired based on protests and things like that, nor is their salary (determined by a pay commission).

Is that what is going on? Or is it, again, an information story, which is an embedded bureaucrat is more likely to understand what instrument of coercion is likely to work in that particular place? Or is it an interaction of these two?

TÓTH: Oh, that’s very interesting. I haven’t really thought about that type of instrument of coercion. I would like to get much better, more granular data on that. I think what’s going on is that what the data do suggest is that embedded bureaucrats are more likely to use some type of coercion than nonembedded ones. I think that is because they just have this better cooperation with politicians, so they are less likely to face political backlash for using coercion.

On the voters’ side, unfortunately, I think voters are somewhat trapped in this situation because you would think that because India is a democratic country, once you use coercion, it’s bad for you electorally. The issue is that the common wisdom in India is that all political parties, when they’re in government, they really like land acquisition and they really like infrastructure projects. Once they are out of power and they’re in opposition, then they tend to be against it. In that way, that does suggest there isn’t that much competition on this issue, and that is bad for voters.

The other issue, of course, democratically is that it’s not all voters who will experience this coercion. Landowners who are losing their land will experience this coercion, but a lot of other landowners are benefiting from these infrastructure projects. If there is a new highway and they’re high—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, the value of the land goes up.

TÓTH: —the value of the land goes up. I think that is why we are not seeing a bigger backlash electorally for using coercion, because there is not enough competition on it and there are a lot of voters who actually benefit from land acquisition.

Private-Sector vs. Public-Sector Projects

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you see the protests fundamentally change when it’s eminent domain for the benefit of a private party versus a state project? Because there is a greater opportunity to extract from a private party because that is a profit-making company with a residual claimant. Whereas when it comes to the state, they basically stick the bill to the taxpayer even when it comes to delays on a project. What is a good way to model that and think about that?

TÓTH: I think that solves the problem for the state with embedded bureaucrats because if you think about embedded bureaucrats, there are two things that could be going on. These bureaucrats could be so embedded in the communities that they serve that they actually ignore central state directives, and they’re fully committed to citizens. It’s also possible that they can also use their skills, their knowledge about local communities to work for the state. But the state’s problem is how do you motivate these bureaucrats to work for you and not for the citizens?

I argue in the paper that this happens when the state can provide these rent-seeking opportunities for embedded bureaucrats. These tend to be around private-sector projects. What you see is that embedded bureaucrats focus on reducing conflict around private-sector projects and not around public-sector projects. Coercion also tends to be more common around private-sector projects. Trust in the government tends to go down around private-sector projects, whereas in the case of public-sector projects, it actually increases. You really do see that split.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. That split—to me it seems natural that both there’s more opportunistic behavior on the part of landowners, but also more opportunistic behavior on the part of all the other stakeholders: bureaucrats, politicians, people in opposition. Pretty much all the incentives change when it’s a private versus a public project.

Do you see a fundamental change in the nature of protests and conflict when the landowners or the stakeholders have a bigger voice? In particular, I’m asking about tribal areas and forest areas which require extra permissions before a project is approved, and also greater number of permissions within the community.

TÓTH: Right. That’s actually a focus of one of my other papers in the dissertation project. I was interested in how this commitment problem that landowners face is shaped by their collective action capacity, and particularly how it is shaped by the Panchayats Extension Act to scheduled areas, the PESA Act. What I argue in that paper is that we should really see this commitment problem worsening in these areas because PESA gives a legal control over land to landowners, but it also creates Gram Sabhas, which are these forums for coordinating collective action.

What I show in the paper is that landowners’ collective action capacity increases in PESA areas. They are more likely to attend meetings, most probably Gram Sabhas. They’re also more likely to have connections to civil society. This worsens their commitment problem toward the state, that they’re not going to protest and extract more resources, which means that once infrastructure projects are announced, there is actually more likely to be conflict in these areas.

Now, I don’t make a judgment in the paper about whether this is good or bad, because what you could imagine is that these are obviously areas that have historically been marginalized and faced a lot of displacement. It’s possible that this increased conflict is actually allowing people to negotiate better terms of compensation or resettlement for themselves.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely, but there’s another way to think about it. For instance, the reason eminent domain comes in is that there was a failure of collective action in the first place. There was a failure, you can call it a market failure or a state failure, in assembling large land parcels and pushing through an infrastructure project.

Now, if the PESA Act and the Gram Sabha are genuinely helping solve the collective action problem, then you should see non-eminent-domain-related infrastructure projects in the same area. That’s another way that you can test for this and model this potentially. I don’t know if you look at that at all, but that’s another way to think about the question, right?

TÓTH: Right. Actually, my expectation was that PESA would lower conflict because what it allows people to do is to reject land acquisition that they do not want. Now, I think on the ground, this is not how it actually works often in practice. We often see that Gram Panchayats or the Gram Pradhans are often very much in favor of these projects because, again, they get to benefit from them electorally or from bribes, whereas landowners tend to be more against them.

I think that’s why these institutions are not really working as they’re supposed to. But at the same time, it does suggest that they allow people to resist land acquisition that they do not want. I will say that I do not look at this in my paper, but there is another paper by a collection of people at Stanford who look at the impact of PESA on deforestation. They show that in PESA areas, after the creation of Gram Sabhas, deforestation does go down. Putting the two together suggests that people are protecting their lands not through the institutional channels, but through these protests and collective action.

Underlying Market Failure?

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, when you think about these big infrastructure projects, one is the failure of bargaining. The other is a failure of collective action, which is people couldn’t come together and build the road by themselves in the first place. Is there also fundamentally a market failure? That is, the way the Indian land market functions, it doesn’t allow scale. It doesn’t allow easy, low-transaction-cost assembly of large tracks of land, privately or through eminent domain. What else is going on in the background that the bargaining failure becomes the point of focus? It seems to me lots of other things are failing, that this is the problem that we can actually view.

TÓTH: I think you’re right that there is this market failure in the background. Because Indian land is so fragmented, there are so many stakeholders, it becomes very difficult for either the government or for a private actor to come in and try to acquire land. Land acquisition issues are notorious for the holdout problem, where if you’re the last person holding out, you can really ratchet up the price and extract some rents. I think that’s true.

Although I will say that I’m not sure exactly how, for example, just allowing the market to operate would solve the issue because you could think, “Okay, let’s just not have the government acquire land. Let’s just allow companies to come and try to acquire land on their own.” Of course, then all of these forces would switch on, and we would see that they are unable to acquire land.

On the other hand, I do think that part of the reason why we see so much conflict with eminent domain is that maybe it’s a little bit too easy now to acquire land through this mechanism.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it has always been too easy.

TÓTH: It leads to, I think, what I would call frivolous taking. Maybe we do not need this manufacturing facility, or even if we need a manufacturing facility, why can’t the private actor for a relatively small amount of land acquire it itself? It will be more expensive, but that might make landowners better off, and maybe they’re also more likely to just negotiate with the private actor in good faith than with the government.

What I’ve seen is that in some countries, for example in Germany, eminent domain is very tightly circumscribed. The government makes it very easy to take land, but it’s very heavily regulated for what you can take land. I think maybe that could be a good movement for India as well. Make it easier to acquire land, but make it very specific for what purposes you can acquire land. Right now, “public purpose” is just way too broad because anything under the sun can be described as a public-purpose project.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’m working on a broader project on eminent domain, and the root cause seems to be that it is unclear what public and private purpose is in India. Some of this is a colonial legacy, but some of it is also more recent legacy, which has to do with the fact that India started out as a socialist state with central planning.

Now, unlike West Germany or modern-day Germany, in the ’50s and ’60s, India owned bakeries and hotels. India owned all kinds of infrastructure projects and energy projects, but it was also acquiring sick textile mills and banks. We have eminent domain cases where, because the government runs the HMT watch factory, suddenly we need to acquire land for the housing project of the employees of that watch factory.

When the state was involved so heavily in all sectors, it was unclear what the role of the state is, and in a sense, all purpose is public purpose. And you also show this in your own research, that post liberalization, as the state has receded, a lot of these traditional government projects are now private projects, but they were historically always done through eminent domain. And now there’s this mega confusion over, “Hang on. Why is it that we are taking from Peter and giving to Paul? Why does the state need to be involved in this transaction?”

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of the broader historical and political economy question of what is the role of the state in India, and why is it that eminent domain is both a very heavy hand, very low in compensation but also such a broad set of questions for which land or property can be acquired?

More Questions About Eminent Domain

RAJAGOPALAN: I know you’re working on a book project on this, so can you walk us through what are the other questions you’re looking at, other than the failure of the bargaining problem and the embedded bureaucrats coming in to fix it?

TÓTH: The book project actually looks at two big questions. The first is why is there conflict, and how can the state lower conflict? I argue the same thing in the book as in this paper, that conflict is the result of commitment problems. But I look at it not only from landowners’ perspective but also from the state’s perspective.

The first chapter of the book investigates how PESA and this worsening commitment problem for landowners changes conflict dynamics. Then a second chapter looks at, can we lower the state’s commitment problem at least? I argue that maybe we can do that by making land holdings more legible both to the state and to people by digitizing land records. This chapter of the book tries to evaluate the land record digitization program in India.

I don’t have results from this chapter, unfortunately, yet. But what I’m intending to do is to see whether this land record digitization program allowed people to press their claims on the state better because now they have more secure rights. Now, the state knowing that people have more secure rights, it should limit the state’s attempt to undercompensate people, for example. I’m hoping to see whether this can lead to less conflict around land acquisition and more public goods provision.

The book project also incorporates other data sources that I’ve been pulling on, for example, a lot of qualitative data and interviews I collected when I was in India. I’m also working on fielding a representative survey of North Indian landowners to see their attitudes to land acquisition and their experiences with land acquisition. And the goal is also to try to evaluate these competing possible sources of conflict from the landowners’ perspective.

One thing we haven’t really talked about, of course, is that another alternative theory to the commitment problems is that this is really about the market price and the difficulty of pricing land. Is it possible that the state and landowners just cannot really communicate about how much they are pricing land, and that’s causing this bargaining failure? Hopefully, the survey can provide some answers to that question from the landowners’ perspective.

Pandemic Activities

RAJAGOPALAN: You’ve spent a large chunk of your graduate career through the pandemic, and presumably going back and forth to India. What does normal feel like now, and what have the pandemic years been like for a scholar who works on India?

TÓTH: Right. The pandemic was actually a big challenge to the dissertation in that I wasn’t really able to go to the field and collect data. I think the dissertation looks quite different and the book looks quite different from what it might have looked like.

I think it’s also provided an opportunity for me to sit down, synthesize my thoughts and analyze data before I went to the field. When I could go to the field, actually this February, it was a lot more focused and less hectic about trying to figure out what the dissertation is really going to be about.

Beyond the research and the dissertation, I think I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms during the pandemic. One was just really getting into running and trail running. That’s really nice about living in California, being close to nature.

RAJAGOPALAN: And all year long, you have great weather.

TÓTH: Yes. Yes, yes. That’s true. I’m also a very avid baker and cook. I’ve been cooking a lot and baking a lot.

RAJAGOPALAN: Same. Are you obsessed with all the baking shows like “The Great British Bake Off”?

TÓTH: Of course, of course.

RAJAGOPALAN: Is that what you were binge-watching? Because I feel like that’s all I did through the pandemic. I was binge-watching cooking and baking shows.

TÓTH: Unfortunately, I think I was finished with most of the seasons of “The Great British Bake Off” by the time the pandemic hit. Yes, watching Netflix was also a big part of it, getting through things.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I think we all have a very similar story. But this was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for doing this.

TÓTH: Yes, thank you so much.

RAJAGOPALAN: I look forward to reading all the other stuff you’re working on.

TÓTH: Yes. I hope we can continue the conversation about eminent domain.

About Ideas of India

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