Gaurav Mittal on Political Geographies and the Urban Transportation Crisis

Shruti Rajagopalan talks with Gaurav Mittal about how government interventions have worsened public transport systems in Indian cities

This episode is the third in a miniseries of weekly short episodes featuring young scholars entering the academic job market who discuss their latest research. In this episode, Shruti speaks with Dr. Gaurav Mittal about illegal and informal methods of transit, the role of courts and bureaucrats in transportation policy, failed government schemes to solve the transportation crisis and much more. Mittal is an associate faculty member at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. He obtained his Ph.D. in geography from the National University of Singapore. His research interests include urban governance, public transport and political geography.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and this is the 2021 job market series where I speak with young scholars entering the academic job market about their latest research on India. I spoke with Dr. Gaurav Mittal. Gaurav recently received a Ph.D. from the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in urban policy and governance from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India.

We discussed his job market paper titled “The State and the Production of Informalities in Urban Transport: Vikrams in Dehradun, India” published in Geoforum and his dissertation titled “Governing Transport, Ordering the City: Political Geographies of Everyday Mobilities in Dehradun and Shillong.” We talked about informal versus formal public transportation, the difference between illegality and informality, questions of sovereignty and state-subject relations, special interests in local transportation and much more.

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, Gaurav. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

GAURAV MITTAL: Thanks, Shruti, for having me on your podcast. It’s a pleasure to be here, actually.

RAJAGOPALAN: I am really excited about your research because I grew up in New Delhi. I have been part of the generation that has seen the urban explosion and also the urban transportation crisis worsen. I was the generation that was hugely impacted by the CNG decisions in Delhi, which destroyed the bus fleet and then completely changed the nature of how we think about public transport and private transport, and this kind of intermediate zone that the courts and the governments have pushed us into. I’m actually very, very excited, both from my personal experience and otherwise for this research.

In one of the papers that you sent me, which is talking about urban transportation in Dehradun, in Uttaranchal (Uttarakhand), you specifically looked at the urban transport provided by Vikrams. These are basically autos that carry seven to eight passengers. In some other cities, they call it phat-phats. They have lots of local names.

Technically, they’re not supposed to ply a fixed route; they’re supposed to work more like private transportation. But in the absence of better mass transit and public transit—in the form of public buses and so on—they in fact run a fixed route, right? That’s what has happened. Because of this, they’re either labeled illegal by the courts or they’re labeled informal by economists, who are thinking about this from a market and emergence point of view. But none of this quite describes what is going on. You have a very interesting approach to this problem. Can you walk us through what is going on in this landscape?

Informal and Illegal Transportation

MITTAL: Sure. Thanks. What is happening is that, generally, when you see the literature on urban transport, you would see that there is a positivist approach which most of the people apply to steady transport. For them, informal transport becomes a category. There is something that is called public transport, of course. Then there is a category of informal transport, which has actually been in the literature since 1990.

Of course, the informality literature itself came in the late ’80s, early ’90s after [Hernando] de Soto’s work, Keith Hart’s work in urban studies. In transport also, it almost came around the same time, and it created this category of informal transport. When I started my Ph.D. research, I just wanted to study transport. For me, I didn’t go by this categorization of public transport, informal transport.

If you look at the technical definitions of public transport, which many scholars have developed over a period of time, you will see that those are fairly straightforward definitions. They will talk about point-to-point service. They will talk about how the vehicle should take individual passengers rather than ply by booking. Then they will talk about mass capacity of vehicle through which they’re going to carry the passengers. I was like, “Okay, if this is their definition, then Vikrams in Dehradun are public transport.”

Now, when I reached the field, then I saw that this same transport was being categorized as informal transport. I was like, “What is this? What is informal transport?” Then I got into this literature on informal transport and how most of the transport in Global South is informal transport. That is one big thing which scholars talk about. They generally gave a commonplace understanding of informal transport as a spontaneous, self-regulating entrepreneurial aggregate.

In some sense, they say that this is the transport which runs in absence of state regulation. The other people who are plying transport, they’re entrepreneurs and they’re running in absence of state regulation. That is where my paper, my research comes in. It is not in violation of state regulations, but I think because of the state’s regulations or state’s decisions that the transport becomes informal.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not the nature of the transportation that is informal or ad hoc. It’s not that these people are not providing the valuable service. It’s because the government regulation has created such a mess when it comes to public transit, there is no other way to provide or cater to the demand other than act within the informal sector or in the shadow of this regulation.

MITTAL: Exactly, you’re right. That is the thing. It is not that these people make this transport informal by themselves. It is actually the government which makes the transport informal. That is what my paper talks about. As many people would know, informality has a big set of literature in our studies. There are scholars like Ananya Roy, Ayona Dutta, Gautam Bhan who have done really good work in the urban sector talking about informality. They have shown that to understand the urban life in Global South, it is important to understand that notion of informality.

One important distinction they make in their work is the distinction between informality and illegality. Ayona Datta has a really good book on it called “The Illegal City,” where she talks about how informal is not illegal; but at the same time, when we come to transport, the informal becomes illegal. It becomes something which is in violation of a law, which people have been operating by themselves.

My paper says that it is not. My paper shows how, and it traces the history Vikrams to 1970s. It shows how when the Vikrams were actually introduced, the state—the transport department—gave them a permit, which would not allow them to operate on fixed routes. Although, at the same time, the same officials who were giving them that permit were asking them to ply on specific routes, on fixed routes. That is where, let’s say, the canal of informality of Vikrams is. Since then, it just keeps growing. It just keeps growing because of different regulations.

The Role of the Courts

RAJAGOPALAN: I have looked at the other end of this problem, which is from the point of view of the constitutional courts and the supreme court and the high courts. They have interpreted and made the problem worse. They call these illegal. They’ve done this with buses in Delhi, they’ve done this with slums in Delhi, now the other parts of informal transport. They’re basically like a demolition machine. Anuj Bhuwania has written in detail about this from the constitutional perspective.

You’re absolutely right that there’s nothing ad hoc about them, except that they’re trapped in these definitions. If the government just understood how people actually use the transport and made the regulation according to it, there would be no problem. You are explicitly preventing, for no good reason, these Vikrams from plying on a fixed route and picking up people and dropping off people where they wish to be picked up and dropped off. Because you can’t give them the relevant permit, they become illegal or informal or something like that.

MITTAL: When you see that, of course a court will give the rulings based on the acts which are—in the case of transport, it is the Motor Vehicles Act, which is a central act. According to that, the court will give the rulings. This thing happened in the case of Vikrams also. Vikrams had been operating in the city since 1970s, and they were operating fairly all right until 2000, when the regional transport office—they introduced a new set of actors in transport in Dehradun, which were these private city buses.

These city buses had a different permit; these city buses had public transport permit. They were given permits to operate from, say, point A to point B and all that. And then once they had started operating, they saw that many—it’s not that they didn’t know it from before—but they will start operating first, and after that, they found that they were losing a lot of money because of Vikrams operating in the city and people preferring Vikrams over city buses. They filed a case against Vikrams in the court, for which they were able to secure the verdict that the operation of Vikrams is illegal.

Again, I think it is important here to understand that the court did not say Vikrams are illegal. The court said that the operation of Vikrams is illegal. That distinction, a lot of times, the transport studies scholars do not make or do not understand. With that, after that court ruling, the thing was that the operation of Vikrams should have stopped, because the court has ruled and now what to do. But the way the government controls transport, or many other things, is that there is increasingly this collapse of legislative and judiciary into executive. Executive is making decisions, executive is also fulfilling the decisions, and they are also passing the verdict.

With that, what happens is that the court verdict comes to the RTO. And when RTO is supposed to implement the verdict, they actually develop cold feet. They develop cold feet because it is they who actually propagated the Vikrams in the first place. It is they who have been benefiting from operations of Vikrams through various means, which I do not want to say explicitly, but everybody would understand.

With this, they cannot implement that decision, and now, because the executive has become so strong, so powerful, they find a way to go around that decision. They try to tweak the law. They try to tweak the rules of operation. They actually even try to give Vikrams the permits which will make them legal in their operation. At the same time, these Vikrams themselves have been used to operating in such a way that they also do not want to get into that perfectly legal definition of transport.

The whole scenario is such that everybody had been benefiting from this informality of operation. It is the state, it is the operators, and I will say it is also the passengers. Because if you go to Dehradun, people will say that they prefer to take Vikrams over city buses because Vikrams are faster, Vikrams do not stop at their stops for long, and Vikrams take only five or six passengers, which makes them very frequent. A lot of people take these kinds of vehicles. In some sense, everybody is benefiting from informality.

The Shadow State and Sovereignty

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s very difficult to reform the rules and make these more formal or more legal, because there are so many people who are interested in this existing, but not interested in giving it the formality. One thing that you described in your paper that I was fascinated by is that for the most part, you feel like, “Oh, these Vikrams drivers and owners, these poor people, who are stuck in the shadow of this informal law,” but on the other hand, they also benefit.

In the sense that when there is a central government mandate, for instance, which tries to bring in more public buses or public-private partnership buses, and they face a threat of competition from private buses, it is the Vikram owners and drivers who form a lobby to prevent private buses from entering the city. You see the opposite is also true. You see all these private bus operators, if and when they do manage to get a license to ply buses, they try and get the Vikrams outlawed.

It’s almost, in a sense, a kind of competition for a scarce resource, which is the permission to drive on a fixed route. And all this is playing out, and the people who are benefiting from it the most, in some sense, are the political operators because they can potentially extract rents from both parties, right?

MITTAL: Yes, absolutely right. There is tremendous work which has been done on shadow state. Jonathan Anjaria is one person who comes to my mind immediately for this kind of work. You see that this kind of shadow state always adjusts, and especially when there is any informal setting, informal market, there’ll be this shadow state which operates. The thing is that this shadow state cannot operate by itself if it is not propagated by the bureaucratic state. It is hand-in-glove kind of thing which happens when the bureaucratic state and shadow state benefit from each other, and that is why we are able to sustain, and they both—

RAJAGOPALAN: You have this situation where there is very bad regulation, which is not thought out well, plus you have weak state capacity, so you know they’re not going to actually enforce that regulation. And then whatever is the limited state capacity looks the other way and profits from the problem.

MITTAL: Yes, absolutely. The other thing my research does is that I problematize this particular understanding too. For that, I talk about how the state functions. In this, I actually rely on philosopher Agamben and his idea of sovereignty, which he actually takes from Carl Schmitt. Carl Schmitt says that a sovereign is he who decides an exception. Basically, the transport in Dehradun has been operating in a state of exception. How is that exception being created? The exception is being created by the sovereigns. Now, we have to understand who are these sovereigns.

General understanding in legal studies is that the constitution is sovereign. In India, constitution is sovereign. We have law, we have rule of law, everything should function through law. But when I go and check the transport in Dehradun, I do not see it functioning through law. Then I investigated further, and I checked how has it been functioning. There I relied on something which Judith Butler calls “petty sovereign.” These are the low and high-ranking bureaucrats who actually act like sovereigns in specific situations, in a specific space, in specific times. These sovereigns take the decisions which actually impact the operation of transport.

Again, I will go back into the history of Dehradun. In the 1970s when Vikrams were introduced in Dehradun, before that, the transport in Dehradun was provided by the horse-drawn carts, called tanga. They were the people who were regulated by Municipal Corporation of Dehradun. When Vikrams were introduced, there was a hearing in Regional Transport Authority where tanga owners—and you will be surprised to know that the lawyer who actually represented tanga owners in that authority meeting was the first Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Nityanand Swami.

He represented the tanga owners in the authority meeting, and they actually said, “We will go out of our livelihood if Vikrams are introduced.” The commissioner said, “It is inevitable that you are going to go out of the business. It’s better that you start applying for permits for Vikrams. If you apply for permits for Vikrams, we may think of giving you the priority over those permits.”

You see, it was not the commissioner’s place to say these things to tanga owners, right? He’s not the person who will judge what will stay, what will not stay. At that particular time, this commissioner takes that decision, and that decision impacts the public transport of Dehradun even 40 years after.

Exceptions and Discretion

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s interesting that you point out this whole larger idea. In one sense, we’re talking about very specific public transport in a small town in India. On the other hand, you’ve, I think, correctly traced the entire question of sovereignty and sovereign and state function. As you rightly point out, we have a lot of centralization in the executive, so that’s one thing that has gone on.

The other part of it is, there is a lot of delegated legislation. You have something like the Motor Vehicles Act, or you have any colonial or even modern law, but the law only spells out the bare bones. Then it says the power to make rules lies in such and such authority, and that authority is a petty sovereign, typically a bureaucrat with a massive amount of discretion. They are really the people running the show. Once in a while, you might get some relief from courts which can correct this centralization of power, but mostly, this is what is happening everywhere in India.

I mean, you’re just pointing it out to us in the case of the Motor Vehicles Act and these Vikrams and their informality. This is happening whether you look at unorganized sectors in garment factories; this is happening whether you look at kirana stores. This is happening in the case of housing and slums. This is happening in virtually every aspect of Indian life. We are basically being governed by petty bureaucrats with a massive amount of discretion.

MITTAL: True. I do not have much to add to it. You are absolutely right. I was just talking to a friend yesterday about the evictions which have been happening in Assam, right?


MITTAL: What is that? That is also bureaucrats actually acting in exception to the law, because people have a right to housing and there are court orders. We go back to 1980, Olga Tellis case, where we talk about people’s right to housing, and they should not be evicted without proper notices. There should be someplace for them to rehabilitate and all, but everything has been functioning in the exception to that law. There is—I don’t know. I have no words to—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it’s a country run by exceptions and discretion. I know what you mean. I feel a similar frustration. I recorded an episode last year; it was one of our early episodes in our podcast with Anuj Bhuwania. We were just—at some point, I think there was a level of hopelessness in our conversation. Because even though he has done so much work on this and I have read so much, we were in shock that this is the state of affairs, or rather in despair that this is the state of affairs of how we run as a country and just the enormous amount of discretion.

In his case, he was talking about the discretion in the hands of judges. In your case, you’re talking about the discretion in the hands of the petty bureaucrat or the municipal corporator or something like that. But it’s all—it comes down to the same way as we think about governance, and we are treating our citizens as subjects. We’re not treating our citizens as citizens, right?

MITTAL: Right.

Implications for Bad Urban Transport Policy

RAJAGOPALAN: I think it finally boils down to that. Now, I love having this broader conversation with you, but I also want to bring us back to urban transport and ask you about what are some of the implications of this complete mess in terms of a policy formulation. And therefore, the informality and illegality of Vikrams when it comes to congestion, when it comes to air pollution, when it comes to how we think about catering to the demand of a growing city. What are some of those implications, if you can walk us through that?

MITTAL: Yes, you’re right about this, but my take on it would also be slightly different. I would say that generally the whole idea of congestion, whole idea of pollution and all these things—this is very new, and this discourse is very middle-class driven.


MITTAL: With that, you see that in Dehradun, the Vikrams were banned in 1996. It was around the same time when CNG vehicles were being introduced in Delhi, and a lot of things were happening in supreme court. They were looking at how to tackle the problem of transport and congestion at that point of time. Vikrams were accused of polluting, Vikrams were accused of creating congestion in the city, and because of that, there was a supreme court ruling actually which banned the new permits for Vikrams in 1996.

If we see—rather than solving anything in Dehradun, it actually brought a new crisis in transport, because there were no buses operating in the Dehradun. 794 Vikrams were plying in the Dehradun at that point of time. The number of Vikrams were freezed at 794. In 2000, Dehradun becomes capital of Uttarakhand.

Actually, the influx of people started in late ’90s. If you see, Dehradun’s population, in last 20 years, it has more than tripled. When so many people come to a city to live and there are only 800 odd vehicles to cater to public transport, what will happen? A lot of people are—

RAJAGOPALAN: Private transport explodes, right?


RAJAGOPALAN: Everyone starts buying cars and two-wheelers, and you basically made the congestion problem worse, which is exactly what happened in Delhi. It’s like this problem is replicating city after city after city.

MITTAL: Yes. The thing is that whenever anything happens like this, public transport becomes the first victim. When I say public transport, I include “informal transport” also. They become the first victim for any drive which talks about encroachment, which talks about congestion, which talks about pollution, while a lot of private transport goes unchecked within this whole scene. That is why I’m not very keen on that line of thought.

RAJAGOPALAN: Well, I completely agree with you that just narrowly focusing on congestion and air pollution is a very middle-class and elite preoccupation, because we have other modes of transport. I’ve made that argument myself before, and we need to find cheap and accessible sources of transportation. Having said that, air pollution is a very big problem in India, especially in the northern part of India, right?


RAJAGOPALAN: We know that it reduces life and productive health. I wonder if there is a way to think about a broader policy conception where we move out of maybe five- to seven-passenger vehicles, and maybe it is 20-passenger vehicles, like a jitney or a tempo. Maybe it’s a larger bus for some routes. I think we do need to rethink this.

I agree with you that banning Vikrams is not the solution, but is the solution allowing and providing permits for more new kinds of transport? Should we remove the distinction between fixed routes versus just private routes? What is the way to think about this problem and solve it?

MITTAL: Sure, you are absolutely right that Vikrams are not sustainable in themselves. When they started operating in the city, it didn’t even have a population of 100,000. Now it is a 1-million-plus city. With that, of course, it becomes a bit problematic because if you have six-, seven-seater vehicles, how many vehicles will you have?

If you see the state’s interventions, in last 20 years also in Dehradun, you will see the same thing, that they will introduce a new set of vehicles and they will introduce buses. After buses, they actually introduced something—locally it is called Tata Magic. It is a microvan. It is a seven-, eight-seater microvan, and it is mostly on the routes which are not well connected. They introduced that. In last three, four years, they introduced e-rickshaws in Dehradun.

What we see is that whenever they reach a problem, whenever they see that a problem is growing and all that, a new set of vehicles suddenly come on the market. A new set of vehicles, and with it, it brings a new set of actors. This has been happening for the last three, four, five times. It didn’t solve the problem of transport, but just makes it more and more complex because the old set of actors do not go away; they just remain.

It reminds me of a work of Hannah Arendt. She talks about how we keep trying to solve the problem through the same means again and again. It’s the problem of natality which we have to think about. How to think of something new out of this system, and that is what we have not been thinking. For me, it is not the solution that, okay, Vikrams are not catering to the transport now, so we just introduce a new set of vehicles. Rather than that, I would actually suggest that why don’t you make Vikram owners party to the solution. Why don’t you start asking them how to think of the solution. And especially because, in Dehradun, the city buses are also failing.

When I visited the city last time in 2019, there were bus owners who were saying, “We want to surrender our permits, and we want to take the permits for smaller vehicles.” So, why is it happening like this? The government has to think about it, and then they have to talk about providing a solution.

RAJAGOPALAN: I very much agree with you, that it makes more sense that people who are closest to the demand end of things and who are actually catering to people’s needs are the ones who provide the feedback bottom-up on how to solve this transportation problem. On the other hand, I do see, as India grows as a country, and as economic activity increases, a greater role for buses and maybe jitneys and a lot of flexible kind of transportation.

Government Bus Schemes: Dehradun vs. Shillong

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to kind of loop back to the dissertation work that you have done specifically on buses. This is the big central government scheme that was introduced for urban transport and a number of cities, especially all these smart cities, which have taken up the government. They’ve brought in bus fleets. And you have specifically studied two hilly regions. One is Dehradun, and the other is Shillong in Meghalaya. These are both very important cities in that they house a large part of the population and economic activity within these states, so it’s a very important hub in one sense.

On the other hand, these are not your traditional huge metropolitan areas. They’re very interesting cities where you can experiment with some of these measures, so they’re small enough for that. You find that there is a vast difference between what happened in Dehradun and what happened in Shillong. In Dehradun, any central bus schemes that were brought in, eventually, they were never used for intracity transport. They just got diverted to intercity bus transport. Whereas in Shillong, they were actually used for intracity transport. But neither of these cities has a very happy ending. So, can you tell us what is going on when there are these external schemes that are introduced to try and bring in more bus transportation, but it simply doesn’t take, it just fails?

MITTAL: Thanks for asking this, because that is one thing that my research in Shillong actually makes my research complete. In Dehradun, I have been researching for the last nine years now. Dehradun was a city which I was more familiar with, but Shillong, I went only there in 2016. So it has been only three, four years that I have researched in Shillong. But it just gave me a different perspective. Something which I talk about in my thesis also, a parallax view, which is a term coined by Japanese philosopher Karatani.

From a distance, we can see that the outcome of JNNURM in Dehradun and Shillong was very different, and that is why the transport in Dehradun and Shillong is very different. In my thesis, I argue that it is essentially the same. What is happening in Shillong may look different, but it is exactly the same thing. What is happening in Dehradun is that the government is introducing a new set of actors without actually solving the problem of transport.

I will just give a brief history of transport in Shillong. There were public buses which were operating in the city since the 1940s. We see that it is one of the oldest cities with public bus service. That service had been pretty okay, let’s say, until the 1970s and ’80s, but then in the ’70s, Meghalaya state came into existence. Before that, it was the whole state of Assam, and Shillong was the capital of Assam. The whole of northeast was state of Assam, and Shillong was its capital under the British and after the British until 1970. But in 1970, it becomes capital of this small state called Meghalaya.

Meghalaya has a huge tribal population. They wanted the state because they used to think that their areas are controlled by Assamese and Bengali population, and they wanted to take the control back. When, in 1970, the state came into existence, the other thing which happened was that the city buses started going out of business. And that was because these were controlled by Bengali businessmen. And the local population, which is Khasi, they wanted control of transport and they started applying for permits. They started getting permits. They called it minibus.

You can see that the whole system of public transport was in some ways dismantled by the cultural politics of the city. Then comes the liberalization in 1990s. The taxis come in and people start driving taxis. Right now, there are almost 6,000 taxis in Shillong for a city of 300,000 population.

I have never heard of any other city which has that much density of public transport, or let’s say IPT [intermediate public transport]. These taxis, what will they do? How many people are going to book taxis? They start operating like Vikrams in Dehradun on fixed routes. The same story repeats. The officials let them operate on these routes and all that.

Then comes 2010, JJNURM comes. With JJNURM, they think of introducing these buses, the public transport buses, state-owned public transport buses in Shillong. By introducing these buses, they thought that they will actually transform the public transport of the city and people will start taking these buses. But what they didn’t think about is that it was the beast of taxi operators, which they had created over the years, and it would not go away so easily. Especially in a place like Shillong, it is a very close-knit community.

Shillong is comprised of many localities, which are called “shnongs” in the local language. Shnongs are a kind of village. If we translate it from Khasi to English, it will be called village, but it is not village; it is locality in some sense. The city had many shnongs, and these shnongs are controlled by the headmen, which are called “Rangba Shnongs.” These Rangba Shnongs are not elected people; they are selected among the people within the community.

Because it is a close-knit community, even the taxis do not operate routes-wise in Dehradun, they operate locality-wise. They will have locality-based taxi unions. The entry to taxi unions, you have to be someone from the locality. No outsider can actually operate a taxi in the locality. These Rangba Shnongs are very powerful because Shillong comes under sixth schedule of Indian constitutions. They have a higher degree of local self-governance.

When the commissioner of urban development department tries to introduce the buses in Shillong, he could not imagine that he will face this resistance. There are reports that when the buses were introduced, Rangba Shnongs issued the orders banning the operation of buses in the locality. And with banning the buses, these buses could not go to these localities.

The whole idea of introducing public transport in Shillong collapsed in some sense. The other thing which happens is that still they not have any capacity to operate these buses. What they do is that they give it to private businessmen to operate these buses. These private businessmen then give it to individual drivers and conductors who will operate these buses. If individual drivers and conductors are operating these buses, then what is the difference between a state-owned public transport and a shared taxi, which has been already there?

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. In fact, the shared taxi is even more flexible in that. So you can understand even the demand side is not going to particularly respond to these individually driven buses. This is really fascinating. I find that the more we try and centralize the problem and bring in all these union government schemes and these state government laws, the worse we make the problem. Because the fundamental issue of who are the local stakeholders and who are the interest groups that are really strong coalitions—we have not figured out who they are and how to break them down.

Pandemic Activities

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m just curious about—I know you’ve completed your Ph.D. In fact, in the job market series, I think yours is the only dissertation I have read completely. It was an absolute pleasure; it’s a fantastic work. But what else have you been up to during the pandemic?

MITTAL: Not much actually. Just trying to live day-by-day because—I’m right now in Singapore. Singapore had been pretty all right for the last year, but then the cases started rising last two weeks, three weeks in Singapore. We have been in and out of lockdowns. Currently, we are in a state where it is not called lockdown, but many things are closed. Work from home is preferred by default. Dining in the restaurants is restricted to two. With all the uncertainty, I’m trying to live day by day. I’m not thinking of much ahead.

RAJAGOPALAN: During the pandemic, suddenly mass transportation and public transportation doesn’t quite require much attention. It’s a problem that disappears into the background. I’m sure it’ll come back to the forefront as things open up.

MITTAL: No, actually, I think it should not go to the background. That is what is happening. I’ve just finished writing a paper on the effect of COVID-19 on taxi drivers in Shillong. And it has been pretty bad, because right now the taxi drivers—I talked about exceptions and all. I think it is the zenith of exception that now the state is saying that on which days taxis can operate, on which days taxis cannot operate—


MITTAL: —and all that. I think it should not go to the background.

RAJAGOPALAN: The most important question before we wrap this up, what have you been binge-watching?

MITTAL: I’m a very bad binge watcher.


Generally, if I start anything, then I do not do anything else before finishing it. I have stopped binge-watching. The last thing I watched was “The Chair” on Netflix.

RAJAGOPALAN: [chuckles] How did you find that?

MITTAL: I have my critiques of that. It was good, but as an academic, I think that it could be better.

RAJAGOPALAN: I agree, but it was almost too close to reality, some of it. I had the rest of my family laughing out loud, and I couldn’t quite laugh.

Thank you so much for doing this, Gaurav. This was such a pleasure, and I really enjoyed your dissertation. I must say that again, and I encourage everyone to read it, and I hope you turn it into a book and a larger research program.

MITTAL: Sure. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my work. Thank you very much for having me.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the coming weeks we will feature weekly short episodes with young scholars entering the academic job market discussing their latest research.

Also check out our new initiative commemorating 30 years of India’s market reforms at The 1991 Project is an effort to revive the discourse on growth-centered economic reforms in India by focusing on the economic ideas that drove them. In the coming months, we will publish essays, data visualizations, oral histories, podcasts and policy papers demystifying the Indian economy and the 1991 reforms. You can see all the content and subscribe to our newsletter for updates at

About Ideas of India

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