What is your educational background?
My first degree was in history, from the University of Delhi. Then I did a Masters in Social Work, which as a subject in India is closer to Development Studies. I then worked with international NGOs in India for several years, especially Care, where I spent my formative years, managing activities such as field operations and partnerships with other NGOs. Towards the end of my time at Care I was helping to design and implement research on their programmes, especially on how Care promoted and protected people’s rights.
In 2008 I got a scholarship to do a DPhil at Oxford University’s Department of International Development. I have been there ever since, finishing my DPhil in 2012, then a junior research fellowship, and since 2014 I have been an ESRC Future Research Leader award holder.
What led you to pursue academia after working in international development?
I was aching to understand development much more deeply. I was happy to be engaged in management, but wary of the uncritical stance that a lot of us took as development practitioners. I was doing my own independent research at Care, and had a publication in World Development [36(4) 2008], exploring what we meant by good governance and civil society.
Once in academia, the depth I was exposed to led me to want to explore more, especially the politics underpinning development interventions, on both the macro and micro levels. I encountered strands in literature that were very critical of development, conceptualising it as disastrous for communities, e.g. Arturo Escobar’s work, or James Ferguson’s work suggesting that development interventions depoliticised communities. While I was critical of interventions, I was also wary of these post-development literature critiques. Things can be better obviously, but, equally, things cannot all be bad. It depends, and what it depends on is what I wanted to research more.
How did you get involved with ESID?
I was struck by ESID’s focus on development from the point of view of state-society relationship and its recognition that what states do is shaped and impacted by what is going on in society. I was already working on MGNREGA for my doctoral research, and was curious to explore synergies with ESID after I finished my doctoral studies. I met ESID researchers Kunal Sen, Deepta Chopra and Subhasish Dey at a conference and was fascinated with ESID’s work on MGNREGA.
My doctoral research was on the politics of the poor – the politics of engaging with the state, and of what rights mean for poor people. My forthcoming book, The Politics of the Poor, Negotiating Democracy in Contemporary India (Cambridge University Press), looks at the negotiations that working classes in rural India undertake in order to access their rights and entitlements, as well as to assert their presence in rural and urban areas. That’s where my MGNREGA work comes in. ESID was supportive of my interest in MGNREGA, so that’s how we got together.
Which of your findings on MGNREGA have most surprised or excited you?
One of most important things about MGNREGA is how much it means to large numbers of rural poor people in India. This should be contextualised against work by other ESID researchers, which suggests that MGNREGA has faced many difficulties, in terms of implementation, a lack of political will, and payments often truncated or delayed. What I found interesting was that people continue to engage with MGNREGA and want to work with it, despite the delays, bureaucracy and corruption associated with it.
In rural India, my research found that despite having other alternatives, such as working for local farms and employers, when given a choice people would always choose to work on MGNREGA. I wondered why. At first glance it seemed this was because MGNREGA paid better – but there were delays and corruption to payment, whereas local employers always paid on time, often in kind, which for rural poor people is more important than higher pay. So why do people want to work on MGNREGA?
What I found is that MGNREGA gives people dignity. People spoke of MGNREGA as providing dignified work, working for the government, whereas farmers and local employers often discriminated on the basis of caste. The rural poor tend to be from lower castes or untouchables, while farmers are from middle castes, so agricultural work entails all kinds of discriminatory attitudes towards workers. MGNREGA is not bound up in discriminatory relationships. For the rural poor the MGNREGA programme is a very practical manifestation of their rights, which demonstrates that the state of India cares for them.
What seems to matter most is that MGNREGA is a programme that allows people to live in dignity in their villages without having to leave to find work in towns. MGNREGA has not stopped migration from the villages, but it has allowed people to choose where and when they go, to space out their movements more than was previously possible. They are no longer desperate to leave their villages to find work.
There is a great deal of discord around MGNREGA. Farmers don’t like the programme because it offers their labourers alternative opportunities, so it does not always promote a sense of community. But promoting egalitarian social relations and social justice often requires long-established community relations to be broken. Poor rural areas have seen popular movements for decades, but MGNREGA has weighed in on the side of the poor in their daily struggles. It has promoted a sense among the poor that the government cares for them and that they have more autonomy.
What do you see as the key challenges for development in India?
MGNREGA has been a very contentious programme. Discussions have polarised, with some commentators saying it distorts labour markets and creates a culture of dependency among the poor, while others have held it up as the greatest thing that has happened to the poor. Both views show what’s wrong with the development trajectory in India.
There’s a growing tendency to resort to social protection schemes to rectify problems, whereas proper investment in agriculture, including research, has been declining drastically. Social protection has been seen as a substitute for agricultural development, rather than as a complement. This needs to be fixed. I’m not saying social protection should be wound down or replaced, but it cannot be a substitute for investment in agriculture.
Over the last two decades, the Indian government has also been dismantling the universal public distribution system, which provided Indian households across the board with food grains at a subsidised price. Targeted, means-tested programmes have been introduced. This whittling down of the system has been disastrous. It has been accompanied by programmes like MGNREGA, which has been used as a substitute for subsidised food provision, whereas it should be a complement. Investment in agriculture and food provision should go hand-in-hand with public works programmes like MGNREGA. They haven’t and that’s problematic.
Research also shows a steady decline in industrial development over the last several decades and this need to be stopped. More investment is needed. There is much controversy around that at this stage. If India maintains its support to agricultural investment, things might move forward.
Far too often, caste discrimination is seen as a political thing, completely divorced from India’s development challenges. Some of my research is trying to uncover this aspect. The government has to put together a coherent policy framework that not only includes so-called lower castes and untouchables, but also ensures they are able to lead lives of dignity. The government has affirmative action programmes in place in the public sector, but perhaps it needs to extend these programmes to the private sector as well.
So my two main policy points would be: to have social protection alongside agricultural and industrial investment; and to battle discrimination and make sure there is affirmative action in place in both public and private sectors.
What progress has there been on the effects of the caste system?
There have been movements against caste across India over recent decades. It is no longer as engrained as it used to be, but has been displaced from rural areas to the cities. In rural areas the hierarchical element of caste relationships is being questioned. MGNREGA allows people to not work for their employers and to protest against caste-based discrimination. But in the cities, modern educated Indians are advertising for spouses within their own castes. The government has to not pretend that economic development will overcome the problem – that as we modernise caste discrimination will disappear. We need affirmative action programmes for people who are historically oppressed.
How you like to spend your spare time?
I like days out, looking at the sky, the river and fields, and not thinking about or doing anything. That’s what spare time means for me.
I love contrasts. Which is why I love both Oxford and Delhi. At first when I came to Oxford there were culture shocks – how quiet it was, people queuing, no cars honking, no shouting and screaming. But I’ve been here for eight years now and I absolutely love it. Now going to London feels traumatic!