Rajesh Veeraraghavan on Information Politics and Social Change

Shruti Rajagopalan and Rajesh Veeraraghavan talk about how development policy is like patching software code.

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Rajesh Veeraraghavan about his book, “Patching Development: Information Politics and Social Change in India.” They discuss the pros and cons of centralized welfare programs, why technology is not a cure-all, academia, Tamil comedy and much more. Veeraraghavan is an assistant professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He has a Ph.D. in information systems from the University of California, Berkeley, and he worked as a software developer at Microsoft for nearly a decade. His research interests include developing digital technology-enabled interventions to address inequality and critically examining the role of algorithms and technology and its potential harms for marginalized people.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan. Today my guest is Rajesh Veeraraghavan, an assistant professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University. We spoke about his book, “Patching Development: Information Politics and Social Change in India.”

We talked about patching governance systems akin to patching software, fiscal federalism and decentralization, social audits, whether technology can cure all, economic growth, academia, comedy and 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 mercatus.org/podcasts.

Hi, Rajesh. Welcome to the show.

RAJESH VEERARAGHAVAN: Thank you, Shruti. Finally get to see you and hear you.

‘Patching Development’

RAJAGOPALAN: I just read your book, “Patching Development.” You make this great analogy of patching development as something that you got from patching software. This is essentially bits of code designed to fix specific parts of a larger software system that is glitching or not working as originally planned or designed.

You use this analogy to place designing of governance problems, and the last-mile implementation problem in particular, with the NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] program in Andhra Pradesh. This is just to place the book in context. I want to take this analogy of patching development and patching software a little bit further. Patching, as you acknowledge, is top-down. It is fine-grained. It is iterative, especially in governance systems.

My question is more about open versus closed systems. In software, I imagine that for open systems, it’s much easier to patch because there is lots of trial and error, different people coming in, almost like a hive-mind nature to it. Now, with governance systems, the closest analogy I can find is monocentric versus polycentric systems. Monocentric systems are going to have not just glitchy design, but also more glitchy patching, so to speak. Is this a good way to think about overall governance problems in the analogy that you’ve pointed out so far?

VEERARAGHAVAN: It’s a very good question. Let me first start with the patching idea. You’re right that it originates from the software world and is well suited for an open-source environment, where what gets patched gets decided at different levels, and different people patch it or try to send the patch. Then there’s—even if it’s a Linux model, top-down model, somebody decides to patch it down. In that sense, even the open-source model, there’s a bureaucracy, there is team—one in some cases—that decides what gets patched because you don’t want forks. Even in an open system with a million different patches on the same system, it’s going to be hard.

There are other systems, even closed-source like the software system I’m using—Windows, for example—it’s closed-source. We might be having this call and then a Windows update might decide there’s a patch that needs to be installed. What I’m trying to say is, it’s not necessary that you need to have an open system—though there are advantages to it, that you can have patching going on.

So what I’m trying to do is two things. One is to describe what actually happened in Andhra, not so much to celebrate it or to critique it, but also to document it, understand it, describe it—plus the limitations, so to speak, that might come from the kind of question you were alluding to: Who decides to patch, and does it make sense to have a much more open system of governance that lets people fix these systems of problems?

I think we are not there yet. So the hope is that this metaphor or this theory lets you imagine different arrangements of power, where you can yield or you can give power, where you can actually have this patching being decided and issued at the local level. That’s definitely possible in the framework that I’m building. The empirical material that I gather, in this case, it’s solving a particular problem with a certain hierarchy and a local power system.

Centralized Design of the NREGA

RAJAGOPALAN: The example that you’ve chosen to set your inquiry in is NREGA, which is, of course, a central scheme but needs to be implemented at the local level because it’s an employment guarantee program. It is designed very much as a Union Government, highly centralized scheme, which looks at the country as a whole at the planning stage.

Having said that, it is very quickly apparent to everyone, both those who are designing and implementing, that this requires a vast amount of discretion. That is also where your patching metaphor starts kicking in. The discretion can be at multiple levels, but in this case, let’s just say the discretion is somewhere shared between upper-level bureaucrats, middle-level bureaucrats and then the absolute local-level bureaucrats and implementation partners.

Is this a fundamental problem that one just simply cannot get out of, that if you have a centralized program, you’re going to have to give vast amounts of discretion, which is going to lead to this kind of patching, which is iterative, granular, lots and lots of trial and error, so to speak, but within a linear system.

On the one hand, the only way to get out of it is to completely decentralize or federalize. Then the discretion gets taken away, so that’s the plus. On the other hand, you cannot have these big-idea schemes that actually touch large numbers of people across the country, whether it is vaccination, whether it is employment guarantee, whether it is midday meals or whatever it is, whichever scheme that’s in question. Is this just the fundamental problem?

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes. You’re right, the NREGA is a central program, and the design of it actually took decades of work starting from the Maharashtra EGS [employment guarantee scheme].

The program is a centralized program. It’s national, and it was supposed to be for the entire year. The first-mile problem could not be fully solved, and they compromised to 100 days of work for any willing rural citizen to work as a family. It’s not 100 days per person; it’s 100 days per family to work on public lands and on demand, meaning whenever they want work, it should be given. It’s a right. It’s a big difference between a project and a program, and a right-based program. It’s all in the spirit of how much rights are actually exercised.

The idea has been that it’s a right, that people can demand work, and they should be given within five kilometers, and with equal wage between men and women, and with a minimum wage that’s prescribed. And this is manual work. Largely they also specify the material amount that could be allowed, because the worry was that it’ll all go to the contractors and not the laborers who actually are benefiting from it. There’s two goals. One is to actually give employment. The other is to actually build useful assets in the village so that they can build the—there’s an environmental side to it, though it’s more in theory than practice.

That’s the whole game. The money is centrally given, guaranteed, and the money flows down to the states. Different states have different ways of implementing it. One key thing that was, again, in the design and picked up by Andhra was this idea of social audits, where you have—I should say, what is the work? The work is, building bunds  are clearing forest land and useful assets and maintenance of canals. And all of that, that’s decided at the local level, and people go and work as a team.

They have an attendance register which records work and people need to get paid. At some level, it’s a very simple thing. You have to work and you have to get paid. Sometimes I’m like, “Gosh, so much work, so much research has happened in this very simple design problem in some sense.” But all you’re doing is you’re allowing—the reason why they want to do this is because of self-targeting.

The idea is that people will self-select to go work on these public lands because otherwise the rich will take away the money. The idea is to create an incentive for people to work and build useful things. That’s one way of staving off corruption at the local level. And you need to get paid.

The constraint is how do you disburse money where these people do not have bank accounts and it’s not easy to send money to people for the work they’ve received? What structures do you need to create in place to ensure that they get paid and they get it on time? That’s the payment. That’s the design of the program.

You need to get work within five kilometers; men and women have to have equal wages. You need to have a shade, you need to have the type of work that should be allowed, is of a certain type. Those are all design choices that were thought through. Yes, it was centralized in the sense that it was specified as a code, as part of the policy that applies to all. There is no flexibility in some sense with those rules. You can’t pay men and women different wages.

In fact, that’s the norm in most other settings, even agricultural labor, for example, to get different wages. There are some things to say about the fact that these programs, NREGA particularly, have a lot of design in things that are going right. The money is actually decided at the federal level or the central level. Of course, we know the recent issues with that setup of throttling.

The idea is there’s a lot of flexibility given to the state. In fact, Sandeep [Sukhtankar] studies this and points out that there are multiple NREGAs. Every state has different outcomes. That’s because even though you have a lot of specifications about should you have a social audit unit—well, Andhra for the longest time was the only state that actually had a social audit unit. Now that’s changed. So the fact that you have things in the law doesn’t mean that they are practiced.

In that sense, I think there was a lot of flexibility in the system to allow subnational states to actually have control over the program. But your question is more about whether we can now magically move to a way where you don’t have this problem. Because by definition if you have a centralized program, you need patching and ways to deal with it.

There is another article where I spent time thinking about what is the central problem, which is centralization and decentralization. Information is one central way to think about it, in the sense that one of the reasons why centralization is bad is you don’t really know what’s happening at the local level. If you try to fix it, you’re going to find a lot of problems in the program.

Ideally, you want to decentralize power, and some states are doing a fantastic job at that in the sense that you can actually have a more equal study. Kerala comes to mind in terms of having certain preconditions, if you will, where you actually devolve financial power—not just control, but actually have a decision for them to figure out what kind of programs they should do. At least that’s the angle that the Andhra government has taken, and there’s debates we should have about this. In fact, some of the bureaucrats at the top in Andhra are Dalits, and they actually subscribe to an Ambedkar kind of vision of devolving local power in a certain way [by centralizing control].

They saw that villages are not places where you need to give power, and so they said, we have to attend to the fact that there are problems with free implementation, which is a way to reach out to the workers. So it’s decentralized in the sense of reaching out to the problems from how the workers see it, but you still retain control in terms of what projects get done, when they are done. That’s the dance they had, but it comes with the territory because that’s the local power structure. It’s constant cat-and-mouse patching.

Solving the Last-Mile Problem

RAJAGOPALAN: The funny thing is exactly what Ambedkar and others were trying to prevent—they thought of highly local, especially the village structure, as dens of parochialism and casteism. Exactly the problem they were trying to solve for by centralizing, you point out, still exists. Because at the end of the day, no matter how much you centralize, the last mile cannot be resolved, unless you actually get into the weeds and talk through the local power structures of what is happening between say the Reddys [upper-caste land owners] and the beneficiaries of the NREGA program.

Sometimes that there’s a group that skims off the top, typically, and there’s a group that’s preventing the skimming off the top. So there’s going to be some local issue at each point. To me, what was interesting about your book was you point out that no matter how much you centralize, at some point, you’ve got to solve that problem. And technology ain’t going to do it for you. [chuckles] It is still an institutional problem; it is still an incentive problem. Something else needs to be disentangled to make this ship run as it was designed.

VEERARAGHAVAN: I think there’s been recognition. Peter Evans talked about institutional monocropping and how to avoid it and have different arrangements, but I think what I’m trying to argue here is, that’s not enough. It’s not just you hit play once you’ve figured out a local context and then, oh, I’ve magically studied this in one time, in one game.

Whether it’s technology, whether it’s institutions, it needs to be—especially in an unequal setting. I thought one of the questions you were asking was, when is this going to end? When we have an equal society, when we actually have power, more people able to exert power at various levels seamlessly, then you would have a scenario where you don’t need to patch. Because that could be done at the local level, and we wouldn’t be here debating how, despite all these years, you’re still coming back to the same question of how do you solve this question of delivery?

I think I just want to add one more thing to this, which is lots of attention had been focused on political will. When do states decide to focus on the poor, or what does it take? Is it party competition, is it social movements? All of that. Economists focus a lot about how do you perfect the design? In fact, a lot of people on your show, for example, talked about, if there’s women elected at the local level, does it lead to better delivery, and how do you design these things? Should you have biometrics or not? Karthik [Muralidharan] studies that.

What I’m trying to shed light on—and not to necessarily support what Andhra did and the model—but to say that the last-mile problem of a local power system simply cannot be seen as corruption, and then looked at it that way, but actually try to look at the details of it.

There was just one last thing about—you’ve mentioned caste and other forms of NREGA workers—the difference between mates who have a little bit more power than workers, and so they were skimming off the other workers. It’s much more complicated than just somehow leaving it to the local level. Anyway, I’ll stop here.

Fiscal Federalism

RAJAGOPALAN: Now let me flip it for you. How would this patching mechanism work if the last mile were, in fact, the first mile? That is, if India was much more fiscally federal, the processes were bottom-up, there was a much tighter feedback loop between people who were voting and people who were paying taxes or user fees for various public goods and services.

VEERARAGHAVAN: What you’re saying is, in a Kerala-type system where 40% of money or X amount of money is parked at the local level, and they decide at the local level what projects to do. In Kerala it works, and in Andhra, it might work if given a chance. Maybe things are changing, as I see, but I don’t want to be seen as overly defending the Ambedkar vision that bureaucrats in Andhra had.

As an academic I’m trying to get out of it. But the way they would answer your question is, well, we see that if you read this book, for example, and conduct public meetings, even in the setup, in a gram sabha or a rachabanda, or any of these meetings I studied, people are speaking out more. Our friend Biju Rao has documented brilliantly how that works across states and articulates how the idea of speaking in these public spaces has changed, and I’ve seen it as well.

Ten years ago you could not have a banner that talks about celebrating Christmas. It would not be possible in a village town square, and now I have been told that, hey, watch this, it’s something important going on here. And I barely noticed it, and I realized that, oh, things are changing. People are speaking out, public spheres are opening up, but the Andhra bureaucrat would tell you that we’re still not there where that dream of yours, where you can flip it.

The worry would be contractor Raj. All the things that you’ve seen before in terms of the money getting taken away in different projects, I would think that the landless laborers—48% of the NREGA workers are Dalits and Adivasis, at least in 2014 or so.

There’s a big power asymmetry that exists. At least Andhra and other parts of the country are ready for that decentralization because that would need different social movements and decentralized collective action to continue on in order to be more egalitarian and more democratic in the full sense. The worry is whether they would the money, they will take it away and you won’t have equal wages, you won’t have work being granted. You would have NREGA money being used to subsidized farmers, private land work, all the things that the design of this NREGA program tried to solve.

They would basically tell you that we are not yet there where we could flip it because we are not ready. Some of it you can push back, saying, “You’re still holding power,” which is true. I point out how the first-mile problems are never gone. It’s just 100 days. They don’t reveal any of their documents, and I barely got to see any of it.

It’s slightly more complicated. I don’t think we’re there yet—at least that’s what they would say—to fully decentralize power. But that’s the direction we should go. There’s no reason to hold power at this level.

RAJAGOPALAN: For me, it’s not about “Is this going to work exactly as we designed?” but more of “Which system, through various processes of trial and error, is more likely to get it right eventually?” That’s the way I think about it. For me, fiscally federal systems, truly federal systems, are more often than not likely to get it right. One, because the scale is small, experimentation is easier.

You can get many different versions of the same thing. You can learn from one another. You can have voting with the feet. You can have so many other disciplining mechanisms to a given problem relative to centralized systems. The idea is not that the problem’s going to magically disappear, but more of—to use your patching metaphor—how quickly does the feedback loop work to get any system to the right place faster?

Discretion and Mission Drift

RAJAGOPALAN: One big problem we’ve been talking about is discretion. Discretion is absolutely necessary when we have these highly centralized schemes. Are you at all worried about mission drift and mission creep? Obviously, a centralized program looks different in each state, and it’s supposed to look different in each state. But some of it is because the local context is different, and some of it is because the discretion has just led to the program morphing into something completely different.

What is a way to think about that while you are looking at programs like NREGA, given that all the different stakeholders at the end of the day want the same thing? They want transparency and accountability.

VEERARAGHAVAN: The first question is, discretion at what level and by whom? Definitely at the subnational state, there’s full discretion. Yes, there is a bill of projects that’s allowed at the top, but then the different states interpret it. First of all, there’s a subnational discretion. The principal secretary of Andhra rural development decides a lot of things. There’s a lot of discretion. Not just the principal secretary, I meant the whole EGS [NREGA] head at that level. In Andhra, the discretion is hoarded at that level.

But one of the key elements of Andhra’s implementation was this idea of social audits, where the big problem in states is that opacity of—thanks to the British Secrecy Act, misused that and basically saying all the expenses or records or government documents are not opened up to anybody other than the bureaucrats at the local level.

It’s never been seen, and there’s been a struggle. Himanshu Jha and you talk about it. I’ll put a footnote correction to add his history of starting the story much earlier than the social movement story. The idea is that there has been a struggle to enact the right information, which allowed for the social audit to be inserted into this law, which allows for opening up these records, which is attendance registers and whatnot, in order to counter-examine the government records.

They have a social audit process, a team that goes to the village once every six months to examine these records—goes door to door, does a household survey covering every NREGA worker—it’s not even sampled—and then conducts a village meeting. In Andhra there’s something called mandals, which is half the block, let’s say, if you’re used to thinking about administrative blocks. They conduct another meeting, where they would have district bureaucrats come in and—essentially a way to neutralize power there.

Those decisions at the village level, at the mandal level, get escalated up and decided like a court where they say, okay, here is the auditor’s finding based on discussing with the workers. They said I come to you and say, “Shruti, did you work on NREGA? And how much did you get paid this last season? Did you work 20 days?” “No, actually, I worked 80 days.” “Did you get paid? The record says you got ₹1,600,” and you will say, “No, I only got ₹300.”

That’s the thing they want to note down and that they’re trying to do door-to-door, and have these meetings at two different levels to adjudicate publicly, where they can discuss these findings and then take a decision on how to reconcile this. Almost having a deterrence effect, in some sense, in terms of, well, this audit is happening—it’s objective from the outside. That puts pressure, a lot of gaze on these records. Now workers actually can know that, hey, I have a chance to see the workings of the state. And I use this metaphor, “writing the state” in some sense, where they can actually not just consume a record or see it, but actually the ability to change it. That’s the setup of the structure of what the Andhra implementation tried to do.

Can Technology Solutions Substitute for Governance Solutions?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. You’ve come in at two points in this. One is you’ve actually sat through the social audits in your fieldwork. So that’s part one of it. Part two of it is you’re also studying it in the larger context of technology, in particular this current obsession with digital governance. We’re going to have these biometric things, we’re going to have bank accounts, we’re going to digitally transfer cash. And then they almost make it seem as if then the need for these social audits and other mechanisms goes away. That’s the idea of the technology. Can you put that in perspective? Now where does this back-and-forth governance and social audit system fit in? Where does technology fit into the story?

VEERARAGHAVAN: My fieldwork was in three different phases. The first phase was definitely at the auditors. So I would shadow the auditors and try and do audits with them. That was more about getting information from the bottom, from the field. The second was the interaction between the bureaucrats, the higher-level and the lower-level bureaucrats. And that’s where the technology was used largely, to essentially monitor and keep track—this payment system was one aspect of it.

The control of the very, very small things—this is not news for any bureaucrat, but for me, it was really surprising the amount of attention to detail in terms of what columns should be read-only, how do you geotag, how do you know work is getting done? Geotag the work. Obviously, it’s not a one-time fix. And so the people who would say, okay, they would game that system by not even showing to the field, but sending the phones—so there’s a lot of dance.

Any tech evangelist should basically take note that if you really want to use tech, read the chapter [Chapter 3] to understand how much you have to stick into the game to play this. Because it’s not like—yes, I did biometrics, I do Aadhaar. I have nothing, in theory, against any of these systems. But it’s a very simple story, and it assumes that somehow the people at the other end are just waiting for some device to come and then magically solve it. They’re dealing with it, they’re coping with it and they sabotage it.

You need to step ahead. You need to patch these systems. And if you’re ready to do that and play that level of politics to the tech, then sure, tech is just a tool. But it’s not a magic pill at all. None of these systems are going to be. And so Andhra bureaucrats—to give them credit—they actually were not naïve. They’re not technology determinists at all. They were quite savvy. And then the third aspect of my fieldwork was that I actually try to go and spend time in two different contexts. One made it in the book, the other didn’t. It was an Adivasi and a Dalit village—a big village, but a Dalit habitation is where I— [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: You compared this in your world development paper.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes, I did. So on the tech question, yes, I think Andhra has some lessons to teach the world about using tech.

The question about should you use technology or not is a question that I didn’t ask, because I studied what they did. And the only answer to the broader question is, yes, if you want to use tech to solve a problem, be prepared to keep changing. And don’t go and proclaim that whatever your favorite tech system is, is going to fix things. Of course, I’m not against—there are studies that would point this out. In fact, I use it very well in my book to show how biometrics actually has an impact. That’s true, it has an impact, but that’s only one small part of the Andhra story.

Again, it goes back to the centralization question. They want to control who works on which land; they enforce it. You’ve studied legislative updates. Here they want to make sure that an upper-caste person works on Dalit land, because you’re only allowed to work in a public land or Dalit land. That they have to enforce it by saying, “I am going to stack the work and you can’t change it.” Software systems allow for those restrictions.

Again, if you read it, it’s a mess because it doesn’t solve problems. It creates new problems, and you have to keep changing it. Yes, it’s never-ending—so I wrote another paper, and it’s called “Cat and Mouse Game.” You have to keep changing it if you want to keep on top of it.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and there’s also that aspect of, if you think technology is going to solve the problem, then people are going to try and game it. It’s almost as if it invites the next-stage cat-and-mouse problem. If you’re going to say we’re going to geotag things, then people are going to just use the geotag to put it in place and not take the people themselves. If you say that we’re going to solve this using direct transfers to bank accounts, then they’re going to try and control fake bank accounts, opened in the names of these people. These people have never seen a bank account themselves, but apparently money has been deposited in it.

These things one keeps hearing, both in your book and outside, in all sorts of stories of governance questions in India. There seems to be this sense, especially with the current government, that some digital system transformation is going to solve your typical governance problems. To me, as an economist, I only see incentive problems. So I’m like, okay, the technology can’t fundamentally change the incentives. It can change costs and constraints. It can’t change the interests. So what can technology do and not do, within the larger setup of these governance problems?

The Technological Is Political

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes, it’s a very good question. It’s like law in India. Why do we think about laws? Are laws able to govern action on the ground? Yes and no. Yes, there are certain things that it helps; it puts a constraint on you. The best possible answer to the tech system, I imagine, is it puts constraints and increases the legibility or increases the transparency of payment systems if you want to keep records of it, so you can actually see what’s going on much more quickly, much more transparently.

There are benefits in using tech because it applies a certain constraint. There’s an immediacy to it, the fact that a lot of people are thinking about digitizing government records and whatnot. Well, what does it do? I feel like I’m fudging it at the beginning, so I fudge it digitally. So one could say, yes, you are not solving the incentive problem. The question is, technology does have politics also, like Twitter, for example. This is the classic STS trope (Science, Technology and Studies).

Maybe the design of the tech, in a particular way, does allow for a certain rhetoric to be echoed more because people want to see—it’s easy to express hate or anger in a very short, crisp thing, rather than a nuanced statement. My point is, technology constrains action, just like laws might. The tendency is—and I’m trying hard to make this point in the book—using technology, immediately, is not a technocratic move. You could use technology in a very political way.

One example—this is not about technology—but in a broader sense of technology, not digital technology, the attention to micro-details. For example, in Georgia, the recent law got passed where water bottles—if you’re waiting in a line to vote, water bottles should not be given to people standing in line. That’s a very silly rule. Why would you think about passing a law like that? Well, if you’re poor, if you’re standing in line, and for long periods of time, it is a disincentive. It goes to the incentive question. It’s basically saying, “Oh, God, I might as well just get out of the line, or I’m not going to get water.”

I think it puts the constraint on people. Use of tech needs to be seen, not to be dismissed as a technocratic move. It has to be seen in its political dimensions, and one needs to be much more careful. The cheap dismissal is this is a technocratic—no, it’s actually a very political move. I’m saying we need to worry a lot about how political the use of technology is. It’s a point that I’m hoping that I make.


VEERARAGHAVAN: I hope it’s convincing. I think the biggest thing is, let’s get the politics right, incentives right, and all the rest is just technocratic. I’m saying, you play politics in this very micro—what can be seen as technocratic—way. Where should you conduct meetings, what should you wear, should you be allowed to eat meat or not? These are all technical things, and you can see how it plays out in the book.

RAJAGOPALAN: There’s a great story in there about someone who’s from a Dalit caste who’s wearing a white shirt and is, in a very pointed way, sent to a particular field to work on a particular project, just so his white shirt will get soiled, because that’s the way to put someone in their place, given a particular power structure. It’s stunning that these things cannot be legislated and they cannot be solved through a governance system. It’s got to be figured out some other way.

VEERARAGHAVAN: You’re right. I didn’t believe him because I was shocked to see that level of malevolence in people to say, “I see a white shirt, I want to soil it by creating new work.” I was struck by how much caste—of course, we know class plays a role but caste plays a role in very, very, very powerful ways that actually impact the program.

RAJAGOPALAN: That level of politics—I completely agree with you that there is a politics to technology. But if we zoom out, the use of technology itself is political. If we look at something like what James C. Scott writes—“Seeing Like a State” is one of my favorite books. He talks about legibility as the central problem of statecraft. That’s his perspective. There’s this necessary simplification, systematization, miniaturization—you pick your word—that absolutely needs to happen at the very fundamental level of designing these systems and any kind of intervention that we bring in, especially at that top-down, highly centralized way.

I know what you mean. When you’re talking about the politics of technology in the book, you’re talking about this very micro—where it becomes political. The way we’re thinking about using technology, biometric cards or these QR codes for vaccination to allow entry or prevent entry—these things itself, by the very nature of their design, are political.

VEERARAGHAVAN: There is some naivete in people. You could give them the benefit of doubt. Some could say that, “Oh, there’s this new shiny object,” and then they want to somehow think that the problems are going to go away, and they’re clearly not. Any single gimmick that we’ve seen people try, the problems don’t seem to go away. Either you can fault them for being simple-minded, or maybe what you’re suggesting is, maybe they’re much more political in the sense that they know what they’re doing.

Then it’s possible that it is a distraction, and slogans like digital governance and whatnot are just distractions from the whole Aadhaar debate. I’m trying to be nondeterministic in that argument. I think more and more I’m convinced that it seems to be one of those demonetization things where it seems that the way they’re implementing it is not how you could have done it, you could have used it. It’s become a way to track people.

Initially, it [Aadhaar] was not there in my recent [field] trips, but they’re forcing it on NREGA too. It’s such a mess that I thought I’d spend some time trying to solve one problem for somebody saying, “I have some power on the outside, blah, blah, blah. I understand this technology, so let me figure out.” Because the person was denied their benefits because they didn’t have Aadhaar. I thought, “I’ll solve it.” I went up to the local NREGA office and said, “Hey, why is this person not getting?” Then they said, “Oh, it’s not linked, and go to the bank.”

I said, “Okay, let’s go to the bank.” It’s not easy. It’s all very crowded. You go to the bank, and then you go to the bank, and then by the time they get there and they figure out the problem, they realize, “This is something I actually don’t understand.” This is not even corruption; we’re talking about just details. They’re like, “This is not even matched, and you need to escalate it to the district level.” My point is, I have an advanced degree, understanding it. I’ve written code, and I know databases, I know how these things work.

The people there, it’s not even bad faith. They have no idea how these systems are built, and it’s built in different places. There are lots of unforced errors, if you will, where technologies could have created room for further centralization in a way that maybe, as you’re hinting, maybe it’s intended in ways that are actually damaging. Because you don’t need to have local power systems in play now for that to not work. You just need to have opacity and centralization that tech provides.

Many, many scholars have pointed this out, to say how it seems to be these systems of governance, recent governance have actually worsened the ability for citizens to make claims because you could bribe somebody. Talk about incentives, I can bribe you and say, “Hey, get this thing done.” Now, I don’t even know because they can’t get my work done. Because for that to happen, you need to have a different level of hierarchy, and they’re sitting somewhere else and farther removed. That definitely is a huge problem, and I think we should be much more careful of systems that people are building.

They don’t really understand where it is getting institutionalized, what the network connection takes, how do you escalate it. You’re right. You don’t really need to get into power and local policy. The technology, in and of itself, creates centralization, actually, in ways that is actually not serving the interests of the poor.

Technological Errors

RAJAGOPALAN: Also, what really annoys me about the current tech governance or digital governance debate in India is the way it is being marketed or sold is that all error is human, and once you move to these digital systems, there is no error. We’re going to remove all error; biometrics have very, very low error or something like that. That is simply not our everyday experience when we entangle with these tech governance systems.

I know people, including my own parents, for whom the KYC [Know Your Customer] has not worked when they have shown up at a particular place at a particular time. I know people for whom—manual laborers, their fingerprints have started, I don’t know what the right word is, but fading or maybe don’t match exactly. That’s just the nature of the work that they do. Every time they go back, the biometrics don’t match, and now suddenly that’s a really big problem.

The idea that just having tech means there is no error in the system itself is misleading. But I don’t know if this has been your experience working within Indian governance. That seems to be the way that this is sold, that humans are corrupt, computers are not. And the moment we make it digital cash, digital transfer, digital this, digital that, the problem is just going to magically be solved.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes. In the chapter on tech, I think one of the lessons that I want people to have is that it’s not—that’s why, when somebody read this and said, “It’s such a messy story. What are you trying to say? Well, is it fixed or not fixed?” Well, yes and no. Yes and no, because it depends on when you end the story.

It’s continuously happening. In some sense, it’s like a cat-and-mouse game, which basically means that they’re fixing things. It’s not a negative story, but it’s not a story of kumbaya where you magically—I’m never ending that story, and that’s why I picked only three. It’s a story that is clearly the opposite of the sense which you said that’s been given out to people, that it’s not error-prone. No, it’s fully error-prone.

Every single thing is complicated. It’s complicated both for tech, for the reasons we talked about in terms of corruption and power and asymmetry. And it’s also because people underestimate the precondition that is necessary in a vast country like India in order to have the infrastructural things in place before you actually roll out any system.

When we’re sitting up in Silicon Valley or any of these—even in Delhi or Hyderabad or wherever, in rooms—you think about these things in a very—you have a lot of assumptions about what is allowed, what’s possible. Every single one of them is actually not true. People don’t have network coverage, people are not literate to actually deal with the systems, and they don’t have an easy way to fix systems.

I think that we underestimate the amount of work that needs to be done. I think the Andhra story is actually a story of how to do tech right, because it is a messy story that needs a lot of constant attention. The question now is, are all the problems because of tech, and should we throw it out? I think that’s an open question whether—in fact, some people are arguing for it.

I am not ready to take that angle because I think there’s some benefits in the digitization of public records. It allows for a social audit process much more seamlessly. In Bihar, for example—where actually the origin of this book came from—the social audit was very hard to do because you have to manually copy. There are benefits from actually having digitized records that make audits more possible.

It’s not a return back to a state of paper, but it’s also not a system where tech magically fixes problems. Unfortunately, I think it’s a distraction. That’s why studying India is ground zero because that’s where, for better or worse, a lot of experimentation is happening in welfare and governance more broadly.

Can Tech Governance Be Imposed?

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to talk about one of the papers that you’ve written. You have this lovely paper, I believe with Yasodhar and Toyama, on why the relevant constraint is not technology but context, when we are talking about development and governance outcomes. This is your work about replacing PCs with mobile phones, and this is particularly in the context of using SMSs, messaging, as the information distribution mechanism system through mobile as opposed to PC in sugarcane cooperatives.

I have multiple questions about this particular paper. The paper is great, and the way you’ve designed it. What I interpreted or inferred from your paper is sort of a death knell for all top-down digital tech governance interventions. Because what you really need is very high degree of local cultural context and economic and social context to keep in mind what is the relevant technology that is going to work or not work. Sometimes it’s paper, sometimes it’s a computer, sometimes it’s a mobile phone and sometimes it’s something else. I’ll start with that question, but I have a few more questions because I really like what you did with this particular study.

VEERARAGHAVAN: I guess I’m dating myself. This was the first wave of what we call ICTD [information and communication technology development], or technology for development projects. In fact, I think it was probably one of the first or second, definitely the first. We claimed it as the first, at least, written paper on SMS gateways, of converting a PC system to an SMS system. We called it “Warana Unwired” because there was Warana Wired, which was the first big project by the government of India where they celebrated—they were experimenting with the digitization wave of trying to do governance and trying to use technology.

Ken Keniston, who was my adviser, and he was studying all these projects. And I went with him to spend some time in the cooperative. One thing that was very, very clear was these PC kiosks that were installed in many villages—in this case, 54 or something, trying to—you can pardon them at that. They wanted to solve the world’s problems by putting a PC in every village and said, “Okay, you can check whatever you want. You could check market prices.” That was the biggest thing, as if the frictions of the market can be saved by just information at the local level.

They didn’t think it through, but just had all this hype about what you can use technology for. They had created all these kiosks, networked it. I went there several years later. In fact, one good thing the cooperative managed to run is they actually started using it just for the internal cooperative functioning. If you’re a cooperative member, you can check—they wanted to know when and how much sugarcane is weighed, and they connected it up. It’s a neat app. How much the weight of the sugarcane was and how much you can get paid, and they tracked the fertilizer expenses and the cost of all of that.

It’s a very simple, nonsexy app. That was the only game in town. I go there, I’m like, “Why do you need all this infrastructure and all of these things for just running this one single app?” We tried to say that we can use it—it was a tech project at the time as an SMS gateway. We said, “Oh, if you’re using it for communication, you don’t really need to have PCs.” They were very, very broken PCs, and barely running. We did a pilot—I was at Microsoft Research then—to show if this is the app, you can use it with a phone and it’d be much more—you don’t have to even go to a kiosk.

This was many years ago, and SMSs were not that popular. It was a project to show that with an SMS system, you could basically transact all the things that you could do with what a computer does. You’re right. It is a case of how tech is useful and could be useful, and solves a very particular problem, very narrow problem. And it might not happen in the next set of villages because this is a cooperative that has taken over and uses it well. It’s a solution for a problem that they actually have, not the next set of villages.

I think your insight is correct, or at least I agree that it’s a local adaptation. And when there’s a problem, tech can be used and it reduces cost, gives more time for people. And it’s much more mobile because they don’t have to go to this kiosk. It is not solving the problem of “I’m going to check agriculture market prices, or I am going to find out my next government program that I need to get a job for.” You know what I mean? Like all these ideas that people had, it just doesn’t make sense.

Is Economic Growth the Answer?

RAJAGOPALAN: This is not in your paper more directly, but it feels like at each level of economic growth, the relevant technology will automatically be adopted. It doesn’t need to be forced upon people. As people get richer and they get cell phones, they’re more likely to start using those cell phones. If they first use the cell phones to just talk to their family members, they’re eventually going to start using it to figure out agricultural market prices, globally or locally, for sugarcane.

That doesn’t seem that surprising when one hears it, but it also feels like it’s an underappreciated insight in India. That if you really want technology to be adopted in a very large way, India needs to just get much richer, such that each person will see the value and be able to afford a certain kind of technology. Maybe one day instead of a PC in every kiosk, it’s the PC in every child’s room. That’s the current problem during the pandemic, that not enough children who are being homeschooled and stuck at home have the relevant technology. And they don’t have enough computers and enough mobile phones in poorer areas.

I know this seems very cynical, but also hopeful that the relevant tech solution is economic growth in one sense.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes. I think that’s true that you could say that tech can—mobile phones, nobody predicted it. Mobile phones happened. Their adoption, nobody expected this level of reach and use and missed calls and all sorts of innovations that you could not dream up. Everything was an accident. Everything was an innovation, was a hack, was a jugaad in some sense, and people started using things like this to cope with it.

I think we all want growth, and some people want to slow down growth too. The question is whether it rules out any kind of intentional action toward solving governance problems. NREGA, for example—going back to that program or any welfare programs—tries to deal with things where we are now and tries to cope with the existing inequality that exists that prevents . . .

NREGA actually creates more economic—which is surprising—economic bargaining power. Even in the limited sense, they implemented it, where they increased the bargaining power of these laborers who actually had a little bit extra money, which allowed for that freedom to compete at the local level.

What I’m trying to say is—maybe this is a philosophical distinction, and it’s above my pay grade for sure—is whether you get there by just focusing on growth. Or does it make sense to address the problems of today about schooling, about health, about employment, and do you need an actual intervention, imperfect though they may be? You know what I mean? In that sense, I think that is the question that—the broader fights happening about, should you let the pie increase for everybody and leave it at that?

RAJAGOPALAN: For me, I don’t see that as this huge conflicting tradeoff that people tend to pose it as: Should we have economic growth, or should we have better outcomes right away? To me, it feels like economic growth is better outcomes. They may not be equally distributed among all, but a bigger pie is better.

A bigger pie, at the very basic level—even if one believes in redistribution as the way out of this problem—a bigger pie is better because it generates more revenue to fund some of these schemes. At a very basic level if there’s no economic growth, there is nothing else. You can’t fund any of the other stuff. Now, the broader question of, is economic growth by itself enough? That’s a short-run versus long-run question, but without it, I don’t think anything else is possible.

There is a mobile phone revolution in India because India grew at 7% to 8% for about 25 years. Without that, even with the technology existing, it doesn’t matter. Think about something like the light bulb and electricity. This technology has existed for 140 years. There’s a patent. We know when the patent was created by Edison.

People still don’t have the ability to just flick a switch and get electricity when they want it in a lot of places in India and parts of the developing world. It’s not because we didn’t solve the tech problem. It’s because they’re not rich enough. We haven’t solved some other problems, institutional problems and incentive problems. As people get richer, they get access to electricity. Voilà. Who would’ve thunk?

There is less of a conflict between these ideas than is typically posed between the right and the left, is my sense of it. I think economic growth overall just does a lot of good things for a lot of people, and it’s the tide that lifts all boats. I think in the case of the mobile revolution, absolutely.

Now, coming to the specific intervention question, I agree with you. We saw during the pandemic that an economic stress, so demonetization, like a big economic stress which leads to loss of livelihood for a few weeks or a few months, people are going to start losing their mobile phones. In which case that’s a serious loss of access and inability to collect their benefits or to check their bank accounts or to check agricultural prices, or for their children to attend schools, and so on and so forth.

There is certainly room for short-run interventions at times of economic stress and need. But I don’t think a very poor country is going to have the ability to provide PC kiosks or mobile phones, as the case may be.

VEERARAGHAVAN: No, I think you’re right about the NREGA budget itself, coming back to the welfare schemes. If you’re a very poor country, even poorer than us, poorer than India, do we have 90% money from the central funds to go to the states to be able to do it? In that sense, you’re right that there needs to be certain level of money available for these programs to be in play. I focused my work and the book on asking a slightly different question about, the amount of money that goes to the poor in terms of actually reaching them is very [crosstalk]—

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it’s 15% of the rupee or something that actually reaches the beneficiary.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes, so people know it. The way I’m entering this debate is not to ask the question whether you should give that ₹100 or not. That’s a debate we should have, and people are having it. Whether you’re on the right or left, people are saying, “Well, it’s ineffective; it’s not reaching.”

What I am trying to say is, or at least take one excuse away, you can have programs that actually deliver if you focus on dealing with last-mile problems. You can still have that other debate, but I’m just saying, you don’t throw your hand away that easily by saying, “Well, it’s corruption.” I’m saying, “Hey, it needs intervention, it needs thought. You need to worry about these details.”

That’s why we’ve been sitting and talking about it. If it’s an easy solution or fix, we would be done. I’m picking this “successful” case, and I’m hesitant to say it is a success because it’s got its own problems. But at least definitely a positive case to say there are things that you could do at the implementation stage with things that we’ve talked about in terms of technology, even institutions.

I’m interested in seeing how some of the development economists who think about these questions—and some of them you’ve spoken to—react to this. How do you study, how do you do an RCT on—if the issue is so complex and if it’s so dynamic, how is it that can you study something that’s so localized and so particular that you can study it in a way that you can replicate it?

I’m basically saying, “Well, you need to patch.” Whether it’s tech or institutions or meetings or documents, it needs a dynamic play because the local power systems are not sitting around and waiting for you to put a biometric device and say, “Oh, now, oh God, why won’t you just come? Oh, the woman is now the sarpanch. Now we’re going to deal with the—” No, it’s much more complicated.

What would a critical response be to say that, hey, this is an important question that cannot be dismissed by the first-mile questions? It’s just details that people can figure out.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, in one sense, I’m on your side of this. What you’re trying to do and what the RCT people are trying to do are completely orthogonal. I see that in the following sense: The entire purpose of these randomized control trials is to abstract away from the relevant context and to segregate and study as if we were comparing apples to apples, except for this one intervention. That’s the entire point of it. They acknowledge that it can’t be generalized. That’s the most fundamental problem of these RCTs in these governance situations. That unlike medical or clinical trials, in governance situations there is a problem with the generalizability or external validity of a lot of these things.

I think you have led us to exactly what the problem is, which is this is not a one-shot game. It’s highly cultural and contextual, and it requires so many reiterations that you can never have a one-and-done system design. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a good response from the RCT folks, not because they don’t mean well or they’re not studying what you’re trying to study, but it almost seems like you’re looking at an elephant from completely different ends and feeling at completely different ends.

VEERARAGHAVAN: A friend of mine, [M.R] Sharan, who’s actually—we’re partnering with him to maybe do an RCT for a project. We’re having interesting discussions about—maybe at some point I was very much more religious about it, and now I’ve seen benefits in it. I think you’re right. I think that there are different ways of looking at it.

As I point out in the book, the first-mile problems are very critical. The questions that people are asking about when do the states get seen, when do the states see the poor, what does it take? In fact, there are a couple of chapters documenting the things that have happened [to get the context right]. I’m not focused on it in my empirical work, but it’s more context setting. I want to make sure that people feel—I’m not trying to say that everybody focuses on these problems.

One hundred days is really a cop-out. It’s a compromise. It’s not 365 days, as the original proposal was. In that sense, the window that was given had already factored those in. The programs as implemented—the transparency of it—was that the last-mile did not—there was no provision to examine the upper-level bureaucrats, what they were doing when the SEZs [Special Economic Zones] and any of that. That’s not part of this. It’s a very political window where you can only get to see certain things that were allowed. All those points are well taken in the sense that we should study those things.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I’m not collaborating with anyone on an RCT at the moment, so I can afford to be a little bit more critical. [laughs]

VEERARAGHAVAN: Well, you’ll have people on this show.


Writing Process

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m sure they’ll indulge me, if not for anything, just to have a fun debate. I want to talk to you a little bit about your background, which is integral to writing the book. You come from this computer science, information systems background, but you also along the way studied economics and governance and a fair bit of political science, if not formally, by osmosis and during your fieldwork. I just wanted to learn a little bit more about how this book came about and how this project came about, and then I’ll ask you about how you wrote the book.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes, so I have Ramana Maharshi [photo] here. Is it the “who am I” question? What is the political? It’s a very nonlinear path, to say the least, and as you pointed out, it’s very hard to place me. Yes, I do have a complicated background in terms of getting exposed to economics at an early age. I thought I would actually become an investment banker. I was working in Bombay in a merchant banking—oh, I’m sure now I’m showing my age clearly—investment banking firm at the stock exchange. And so I was going in a slightly different path.

I actually came for economics here and then did computer science later, and then worked at Microsoft as what’s nowadays a software developer. Then when I came to the U.S., then I started seeing India in a very different way. I started volunteering for this group called AID, Association for India’s Development, so that’s when I got politicized and began seeing the problems of India.

It’s very ironic that you grow up in India and see all this poverty around, but I was just focused on my track. Then you come to a different context and then the comparative sense. I was interested in these questions through meeting activists and people who are fighting the state and doing development as well as activism. Then I guess I went back to India again when Microsoft Research started a lab, which focused on technology for emerging markets. That’s when those projects came about, looking at cell phones and digital videos and whatnot.

Anything beyond social science was so far away for me, so I ended up in the information school, which is a wonderful perch because it allows misfits like me to do whatever they want to do. I had some fantastic advisers at the sociology department, so my formal training was in sociology in terms of my qualifying exam and my advisers.

That’s my training, but I think some of the political scientists now, or in the U.S.—at least in D.C.—clearly are leading the way in terms of asking the questions which are very relevant to my work. If you see the book and you ask, “Oh, where do you pick to work?”—because they’re the ones who are ahead in terms of thinking about India, thinking about the state. So I really built on that work. The influences are much broader than a straight discipline. Clearly, a crawler of sorts.

Your question was writing process, right?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, I know you know how to write code and lots of other cool things. But how do you actually write, in particular, this book?

VEERARAGHAVAN: Well, it’s a problem. I think one of my advisers at some point said, “Oh, you like a complexity and a way of expressing in writing, which is very dense.” Because I guess that’s how we write code in certain ways. Things that you take for granted need to be spelled out, and I’ve struggled with it. The one lesson I’ve learned over the years is my technique—and it changes at every stage. But the two broad things I do is, one, I take a recorder and then speak it out because it’s easier to speak it and then go transcribe it. Because it’s an empty page, it’s hard, at least for the initial—that’s one technique.

The second technique is to actually go to a board or put a white sheet down and then actually write it down. Somehow the tactile feeling of explaining to somebody or writing it down helps me. All to say that if I sit in front of a computer, nothing happens. I have to try all these different mechanisms to get words on air, so to speak, and then transcribe them or write them out. I’ve heard people on your show talk about it in much more eloquent ways than mine. Mine’s much more of a hard slog.

I wrote code for a long time, so writing continues to be hard. Those are my weapons, if you will, or tools that help me get beyond the blocks.

Existentialism and Binge-Watching

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, I have to ask you the most important question, which I’m very curious about. This is also a giveaway, just how much time I spend watching TV and distract myself in other ways. What have you been binge-watching during the pandemic?

VEERARAGHAVAN: I’m going to disappoint you and bore you by saying that the stuff that I’ve been listening to are good and random podcasts. I should think about whether I should say this or not, but maybe I’ll say it. The type of stuff that I’m actually—you can call it binge-watching, meaning there’s a pattern to it, or listening. I’m geeking out on the Western philosophical podcasts, as well as the discourses on Gita and other Buddhist texts.

RAJAGOPALAN: I can see how one project on NREGA can very quickly drive you into asking truly existential questions.


RAJAGOPALAN: That may be one outcome of the book.


VEERARAGHAVAN: No, that is true. I don’t know why, but I think it’s intellectually interesting. Academia, as you know, is a very rough place.


VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes. I think my adviser used to say that, “Hey, a Ph.D. program or a certain kind of Ph.D. program is an excuse to go and hang out in the communities that you want to learn from.” The license to—who’s going to give you license to go hang out in communities that it’s very hard to kind of access. So that process was fantastic. I don’t have to have existential angst.

The academic process, on the other hand, on a tenure-track situation is quite—not just tenure-track. Within academia generally, I see it slightly different because I’ve done other things. The economic incentives are slightly different for me. I think the academic game, people think a little bit too much.

The ego is overblown, I think, from both celebrating intellectual achievements, as well as facing constant rejections from journals and whatnot. I think that there’s a heightened sense of self-worth that exists in this game, and so you need some strategies to cope with that. Various people binge-watch as one way to kind of— maybe I should just do that. This actually worsens it in some sense. I think there’s a lot more suffering because of this attention.

You see it as it plays out. This whole controversy now—I am sure you’re following what’s recently happened in power situations. I study local power, and I see this in academia now—exact same thing, in people who are exerting their power. Over here, it is the same caste system over decades and years. I’m not personally affected by it. I had wonderful, wonderful advisers and mentors. But I think the structures in place are not healthy at all. Maybe that’s why I feel the need to do it.

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t take the whole thing very seriously, and I don’t think I take myself very seriously. And that is probably the reason I have kept my sanity through all of it.

VEERARAGHAVAN: That’s a gift. You should tell us how you do it. When I write to you, “Shruti, it’s a wonderful podcast”—which is sincerely true, and one learns a lot about the book and people in ways that affects you and that should affect you. If it doesn’t, then you have to tell me.

RAJAGOPALAN: Of course, it affects you. Everyone feels fantastic when you get a lovely, heartfelt compliment, and one feels terrible when the reviewer comments are awful. Having said that, I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I think sort of early stages of my Ph.D., I was terrible at what I was doing. I’m not sure I’m much better now, but at that point I was particularly terrible in articulating anything that I wanted to study.

I got a lot of criticism, and just to keep my sanity, I had to divorce how I feel about myself from how I am doing at work. And that has continued, whether it is a positive feedback or negative feedback. I am not particularly elated when things are amazing at work, and I am not particularly disappointed when things are going badly at work.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Sorry to interrupt you—that’s the outcome. That’s great. That’s the state that one wants to be. How did you get there?

RAJAGOPALAN: I’ve also been particularly fortunate. I’ve had really, really solid mentors. I have a very close set of friends who have nothing to do with my work. This in fact happened a couple of days ago. A close friend wanted to talk to me, and I was about to walk into a recording with Rukmini about her latest book. I said, “Hey, let me call you back in a few hours because I’m walking into a recording.” She said, “You started playing music again? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Most of the people who are close to me have no clue what I do. They certainly don’t read what I write. I spend a lot of time with dogs. It’s like the immediate surround sound has very little to do with how one is doing at work. That is rarely the topic of discussion.

I do have very, very close collaborators and friends that I work with, like people I work with who’ve become close friends. But again, when you have such close advisers and mentors and collaborators, you’ve gone past the point of them constantly judging you of how you’re doing—oh, now you’re doing okay; oh, now you’re doing terribly; oh, now you’re doing great. It’s usually coming from someone on the outside, and I care so little for those people, it doesn’t matter.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes, I think that’s wonderful. I always find one who says, “Oh, I’m in a different place than you.” I agree. A lot of my friends are not in academia because I had a life before academia in software. So a lot of my friends are there. I think that’s very helpful. One thing that you said, which I should take to heart, which is the wall about judgment and not letting it affect you. Except it’s consequential in some cases, as you recently see in how much angst that exists in people. I think at the end of the day, it’s a damn job. [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: The other thing is, I don’t meet too many people. I live in a fairly happy cocoon of books and binge-watching. [crosstalk] That, I think, is another good way to go.

VEERARAGHAVAN: What’s your binge-watching thing? Maybe I should copy your binge-watching? [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: I watch a lot of everything. I watch also shockingly bad television. I don’t even know if I should say it out loud because it might be a bad influence on anyone who’s listening, but I’m capable of watching a lot of bad things. [crosstalk]

VEERARAGHAVAN: Come on, you’ve got to give me something.

RAJAGOPALAN: Okay, so let me break it down. I do listen to some podcasts, the usual suspects. I’m not very good at listening to audiobooks and policy podcasts. I just prefer to read a transcript.

I have recently assembled a fantastic record collection, so I have been listening to vinyl, and I have been listening to a lot of classical music on vinyl. Every day, my husband and I pick one really nice record that each one of us wants to listen to, and then we will listen to that. Today we were listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach. I listen to a lot of music. I am deeply embarrassed to say that I recently watched the “Sex in the City” reboot or whatever. It was terrible. This is not a recommendation, but just to be transparent, that’s the most recent thing I’ve binge-watched.

What about you? What’s the most recent thing you’ve binge-watched?

VEERARAGHAVAN: I don’t have a TV at home. As I’ve told you, I don’t have a TV. I have everything— [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s why you have a book.


VEERARAGHAVAN: No, I do have my Tamil things I watch. I watch a lot of cricket. Watching clips of West Indies playing always lights me up. I reminisce the stuff that I actually heard in a radio form before; now I actually see them. That wonderfully takes me out of the current milieu. Cricket and comedy are the two different sets of things that I kind of enjoy.

RAJAGOPALAN: Anything in comedy you would recommend?

VEERARAGHAVAN: You know the Tamil comedy, right? It’s at that level. It’s not very sophisticated.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, it’s surprisingly sharp. [crosstalk] I had a recent conversation with Arvind Elangovan and he was talking about how he watches a lot of Vadivelu.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Oh, yes, Vadivelu is really—I think I agree with the characterization about how—I think the phrase that he uses is to speak truth to power. I’m not sure whether he speaks truth to power or whether that’s a game. I’m slightly cynical of these people, but it’s wonderful in terms of the ability to speak directly. I don’t know the other languages, but I think Tamil definitely is much more— [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s very sharp. It cuts through all—how do I say this? It cuts through all sorts of power, caste, class, gender. It has that ability to do that, yes. Vadivelu is something you’d recommend. Anything else?

VEERARAGHAVAN: Even Senthil, Goundamani. There’s a trope of one guy gets beaten up and physical stuff. If you want some class, Nagesh is wonderful. It’s slightly older, but so the kind of stuff that—again, see, it’s also a cultural thing. If you didn’t grow up in a certain milieu, you might not—I was trying to play it with my kids. They’re like, [mimics indifference]. It’s not clear whether it’s going to translate across—I think some of these things are very particular, going back to our earlier discussion. It’s very context-specific. [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: You had to be fluent with the language. I don’t know if young Indian American kids have that kind of level of fluency with regional languages in India that they can follow the comedy. The comedy is so quick and the words are so specific.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes. The problem is like, “Wait, wait, tell me, tell me what’s going on.” I’m like, “No, no, please shut up.” [laughs]

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, but fluency in Tamil is one of the blessings of my life. I thank my grandparents for it. Crazy Mohan used to come to Delhi and do all these shows in Tamil Sangam. I got into Crazy Mohan relatively young, and then as an adult started following up on, “Oh, he wrote these screenplays, and he wrote the dialogues for these movies and so on,” and just fell in love with him. He was my gateway drug to Tamil comedy.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Oh, yes. You can’t stop laughing. It makes you laugh. [laughs] You have to be ready for the next one. [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh my God, until you have stitches in your stomach because it’s fun.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Yes. For people listening, please check them out, and I think it’s a wonderful— [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Now even I’m dating myself, Rajesh. I have Crazy Mohan tapes that were digitized by a family member.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Wonderful. Digitization has its value, there you go.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for doing this. This was such a pleasure.

VEERARAGHAVAN: Likewise, Shruti. Thank you so much for taking the time and reading the book. I think you’re probably the first person to read the book and engage. It’s wonderful and gratifying. Thank you.

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 next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Lant Pritchett about, well, everything.

Also check out our new initiative commemorating 30 years of India’s market reforms at https://the1991project.com/.

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 the1991project.com.

About Ideas of India

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