Red Tape – Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India
By Akhil Gupta
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2012
First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XVII Nos. 9&10 Sep-Oct, 2012. (Accessed online at http://www.biblio-india.org)
Why is the India story a paradox of high growth rates on the one hand and abysmal human development indicators on the other? The Indian welfare state, with its innumerable development programs, is supposed to have wiped poverty out, but somehow for the 65 years since its independence, chronic poverty has continued to mar its progress report. Anthropologist Akhil Gupta sets out to solve this puzzle in this academic tome which is the product of years of fieldwork conducted in the lower level bureaucracies of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s idea of biopolitics and Agamben’s work on the state of exception, Gupta theorises the inability of the bureaucratic apparatus to successfully realise the goals of ambitious development programs as a form of structural violence that allows the poor to die through indifference. This embedded violence results in the procedures of bureaucracy subverting its own best intentions, he says. The central argument of the thesis is that bureaucratic action repeatedly and systematically produces arbitrary outcomes in its provision of care. He develops his theoretical position by drawing upon insights from fieldwork experiences. For example, the author uses a rather typical case study of the manner in which bureaucrats use guesswork to determine the age of eligible beneficiaries to allocate pension for elderly people in a camp, which results in not all eligible poor persons receiving the benefits of the programme. Gupta points to the sheer contingency underlying the workings of a supposedly highly rationalised, bureaucratic state as Max Weber had originally theorised it to be.
Rethinking the state
The first most important contribution of this book is to thus challenge the theoretical assumption regarding the state as a single, cohesive apparatus which makes it difficult to understand the production of arbitrariness occurring vis-à-vis the poor. Gupta urges scholars and analysts to pay attention to the everyday practices of specific bureaucracies and to the dissemination and circulation of reified representations of the state in order to understand the nature of bureaucratic interventions in the lives of the poor and the effects of such policies and programs on their lives. He interrogates the mechanisms by which the poor experience the structural violence perpetrated by the state and he achieves this by focussing on the themes of corruption, inscription and governmentality. Deconstructing the idea of the state as a unified entity allows us to break out of the discursive and conceptual barrier that the constant invocation of the state erects. It helps one to focus attention instead on the varying modalities and techniques adopted by bureaucracies that enable social suffering. For Gupta the idea of a unitary state is an elite agenda and it is important to recognise that it is political leaders and economic elites who most benefit from representing the state as a purposive, unitary actor. The biopolitical agenda of such a state is then accomplished through the pursuit of classificatory processes such as the identification and classification of the poor into Below Poverty Line (BPL) for which statistical exercises are carried out. Gupta situates his analysis in the manner in which the poor encounter the state and how it differs from what hegemonic blocs represent the state to be. He goes on further to theorise corruption as a form of structural violence which disenfranchises and disempowers the poor by keeping essential goods and services out of reach for them.
Corruption as structural violence
Gupta employs the discourse of corruption as a means to re-examine what is meant by cultural constructs like state and civil society which have been heavily informed by Western scholarship. He overcomes the methodological challenge of studying a ubiquitous phenomenon such as corruption in a translocal, multileveled, pluricentred state by analysing textual representations of the state as presented in newspapers, which are cultural texts that allow us to understand the role played by the poor in representations of the relationship between the state and the poor. This makes up for the inability to cover wide ground through fieldwork methods. Gupta utilises the narratives of the state in vernacular papers which provide in-depth analyses of the state in all its multilayeredness. However, Gupta is aware of the challenge that such a cultural view of corruption brings with it, in that it reinforces stereotypes relating to Third World nation-states. Rather he situates his analysis in the practices of bureaucrats who represent the state, and shows how everyday practices shape what becomes constitutive of such categories as ‘corruption’, ‘the state’ and ‘bureaucracy’. Gupta analyses case studies of corruption in the land revenue department to show how poor people who want their land related documents to be processed at the lower level of bureaucracy have to maintain good social relations with the powerful persons in their village to ensure that work is done smoothly. The practice of bribe giving, Gupta observes, is not just an economic transaction but a cultural practice that requires a great deal of performative competence. Fighting corruption thus requires cultural capital on behalf of the villagers who are bearing the brunt of its consequences. Gupta uses case studies of how members of the Bharat Kisan Union, a powerful farmer’s collective, use tactics such as gherao which involves occupying a government office as part of protests to negotiate for access over local resources which maybe mediated through bureaucrats. Such a grounded view of corruption and the methods used by the poor to negotiate it helps scholars in re-examining grander, structural analyses of the phenomenon which are often based on typological categories and the use of legal definitional categories to define corruption. This approach makes it easier to reveal the inadequacy of analytical categories such as state, civil society and bureaucracy, which often blur the lived realities they seek to represent. Gupta is thus able to demonstrate the manner in which everyday corruption as practiced by lower-level bureaucrats converts the state into a site of violence though it is discursively constructed as a site of care. Institutional reform, according to Gupta, can be capture only if attention is paid to generating new narratives that alter the affective relations between the state and its poor citizens.
Literacy and the poor
The author, most importantly, turns attention to how the bureaucratic practice of writing affects the nature of citizen-state interaction. He shows how the insistence on writing in a context where the majority of the population is rural works as a means to help the powers-to-be to have a hold over the masses. However, Gupta is also quick to point to the complexity of the relationship between literacy and power since many subordinate social groups with a large, illiterate constituency have managed to capture political power through the power of the ballot. Gupta notes how the Weberian ideal-typical conception of bureaucracy is compromised by government inefficiency which results from the requirements of paperwork imposed by bureaucracies. Gupta sees the process of writing as routinised performances that have to be enacted before various kinds of bureaucracies and which create the state as it were. The poor, unfortunately, do not possess the cultural competence to engage in such performances that enable them to take advantage of the bureaucratic process. Gupta analyses the manner in which forms, files and registers form cultural repositories that reveal a great deal about how these then become constitutive of the state. He discovers strong continuities that exist between bureaucratic practices in the colonial era and now, such as the requirement of filling forms in triplicate. The practices of officials such as Kanungo and Patwari have functions which remain unchanged since the Mughal period, he notes. Such historically situated analysis allows readers to see how bureaucratic practices in India largely betray the language of modernity and reform that is articulated at political levels. Gupta finally draws a connection between writing and behaviour and the role played by education and literacy as forms of cultural and symbolic capital and how structural violence is closely connected to it. In the following chapters, Gupta challenges the notion that literacy necessarily leads to domination since the poor manage to employ tools such as class to ultimately gain power.
In the final chapter, the author arrives at the conclusion that biopolitics operates through everyday bureaucratic procedures in such a way that depoliticizes the killing of the poor. The author takes into account the impact that liberalisation is having o n Indian society to see how these altered circumstances affect bureaucratic practice and finds that the widening gap created by economic distance has created a wide gulf between the urban middle-class and the rural poor who cannot increasingly relate to one another. The pattern of growth and the inadequacy of government response to fill this gap only serve to deepen the crisis thus reinforcing structural violence against the poor, he concludes.
What is significant about this book is that it opens up a means to engage with bureaucratic practices which embody the structural inequalities and hierarchies of Indian society. Such an approach not only infuses flexibility in the analysis of discursive practices and its effects, but also paves the way for a new range of scholarship on how recently introduced methods of citizen-government engagement such as the Right to Information law and e-governance mechanisms hold the potential to alter the power equations between ruler and ruled.