The state is reclaiming power over tribal communities

Indigenous tribes constitute about 8% of India’s population–about 100 million people. Two superbly progressive pieces of legislation—the Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (1996)—established a framework for local self-governance in demarcated (or “scheduled”) areas. The FRA clarified further that these communities had the sole right to sell proceeds from forests.

This has been the subject of an ongoing tussle between Maharashtra’s Forest Department and the Union ministry of tribal affairs. A recent Business Standard report covered this episode, illustrating how the tribal affairs ministry agreed to hand over control of forest management to the state’s forest department, after having initially insisted that tribal communities had exclusive rights over trade in forest produce. This is yet another instance that highlights how the implementation of PESA and FRA have been fraught with challenges–many of them genuine and yet many others a consequence of bureaucratic and political inertia, incompetence and malice.

As a columnist in The Hindu wrote last year, the process of documenting tribal claims is not an easy one, involving democratically constituted gram sabhas (village assemblies) as per the provisions of the 73rd constitutional amendment on panchayati raj and PESA. This is compounded by the ongoing power struggle between the bureaucracy and tribal communities–one that the latter is likely to lose unless there is robust political intervention on their behalf. One of the manifestations of this has been a limited interpretation of the acts, with governments recognising only individual property and not community ownership of land. This is sometimes attributed to a lack of evidence on the ground for the stated joint ownership. But that is mostly an excuse. From physical land surveys to mobile apps that harness satellite technology, there are solutions easily available to the tribal departments if they wanted to recognise and register community land.

Not recognising common property resources that tribes collectively manage and live off is not only economic injustice, but also breaks the (in many senses, highly evolved) traditional order of tribal societies. The assault on tribal lifestyles and livelihoods has been incessant–and is not tied to the ideology of any particular political party in power. It is no secret that states with a large proportion of tribals would like to be free from central regulations that restrict them from exploiting the resource-rich catchments that lie within their territory. But the union government has also been doing its bit.

Last year, the Hindustan Times reported how the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had changed the law to throw open up to 40% of the country’s (ostensibly only degraded) forests to private sector management. First of all, ‘degraded’ forests are not as expendable as the MoEF makes them out to be. A former director of the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, argues that, “Even the most degraded natural forests have 50-100 species of trees per hectare. For their end products, industries would hardly plant one or two species.” Allowing the private sector to use these lands for monoculture could have a ruinous impact on the ecosystem. Further, as reported in the same column, those guidelines also stated that tribal communities could access forest produce in only 10-15% of the land proposed to be leased out to private players. If implemented, this would be in contravention of the FRA that (as mentioned above) recognised tribal communities as the owners and managers of their forests.

Finally, here are my thoughts on these instances of the state reclaiming its powers over tribal communities, and their lands:

  • The government has largely struggled to make local governance work in tribal areas. When funds are allocated for local bodies in tribal areas, they are often not accompanied by the requisite hand-holding and capacity building to utilise funds and execute projects. This has been the case even in states like Kerala that are considerably ahead of others when it comes to local governance. Without better infrastructure such as roads and markets, these communities will continue to struggle to make good use of their forest resources.
  • While the eventual outcome (for the moment) in Maharashtra is disheartening, it is encouraging that the ministry of tribal affairs seems to have campaigned quite hard to protect the rights of tribal communities. Irrespective of the current decision, it leaves behind a paper trail that can be used by officials and activists in future. This is yet another reminder that the ‘state’ is not a monolith, and understanding that enables us to work much better with the state.
  • As mentioned above, political support is key; and in this instance, the dice was loaded heavily against tribal communities. With that in mind, we must lament the fact that while the minister for tribal affairs is a member of the union cabinet, he, just like the minister of panchayati raj, and drinking water and sanitation (other departments that are mandated to address issues critical to social welfare), is a relative political lightweight. What are the chances they will win a political tussle with heavyweight cabinet colleagues like Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar?

Governance in tribal areas suffers from many of the same problems that panchayati raj suffers from, and then some. There is an understandable degree of natural friction between the “development” priorities of the state and the “development” priorities of tribal communities, with a third perspective of the “development” priorities of civil society that is working to improve tribal welfare. Between these competing priorities, the state remains the behemoth, with an ability to invoke its power of eminent domain – part of which it had ceded through PESA and FRA. If the state today is seen to be reclaiming those powers, one must be very vigilant and hold it to account on what it does next.

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This is my latest livemint column

Recap: Delhi’s #OddEven plan, in hindsight

Late last year, Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, announced a measure to tackle the severe air pollution crisis in the city. The proposal was to implement an odd-even plan for private cars on Delhi roads: cars with odd numbered registration plates would be allowed to ply on odd dates and those with even numbered registration plates allowed on the other days. There was an exemption list that included single women (or with children), public vehicles, medical emergencies, etc. This was to be piloted for a period of fifteen days, starting on 1st January 2016.

For a detailed account of how the city dealt with this rule, see here.  An excerpt:

During the odd-even period, the use of cars fells by 30 per cent while those car-pooling went up by a whopping 387.7 per cent, indicating the success of the government’s push towards that option. Delhiites using private auto-rickshaws went up by 156.3 per cent compared to the period before odd-even, while Metro use went up by 58.4 per cent.

On average, the respondents’ took 12 minutes less to commute from home to work during the odd-even period. Car and bus users reached their workplaces 13 and 14 minutes faster during the 15-day period

I will come to the outcomes of this pilot in just a moment. Outcomes aside, the Delhi government’s Odd-Even plan has yielded a rich bounty. It sets the template for citizen engagement with a public policy reform experiment: heightened awareness regarding the core issue, mass participation, intense public scrutiny, and a data-driven discourse. Let’s take these one-by-one.

Heightened awareness: From the Delhi High Court downwards, it is widely acknowledged that this government move has made pollution a talking point, and increased general awareness. Odd-Even has consistently trended on Twitter (the barometer of our times of how important a topic is) and has sparked numerous prime-time slanging matches. No doubt, there is also a haze of misinformation, but mostly, people are now hearing more about air pollution, how it affects their health, and what the various ways to deal with this problem are.

Mass participation: Largely as a result of the above, citizens in Delhi have demonstrated an overwhelming level of compliance with this experiment. I do not believe that just the fear of fines was sufficient to bring about this level of compliance. People have participated in solidarity with the scheme, partially out of their concern for the levels of air pollution, and also possibly, a curiosity to see if the experiment will yield any results. Either way, this experiment would have been a non-starter without this level of mass participation.

Intense public scrutiny: Just as much as commuters in Delhi have participated in the scheme, a wider population has actively dissected this experiment and have come out on both sides of the divide. This set of observers and analysts have highlighted implementation challenges, bringing out data on current and historical pollution levels, gathered and presented from multiple sources – government and non-government – this has been a public policy enthusiast’s dream come true. Heavy public participation, accompanied with this level of public scrutiny, makes for an ideal public policy reform experiment.

Data-driven: The resolution of the debate over the effectiveness of the Odd-Even plan has to rely on data, and what is available currently is not all robust, or scientifically well-informed. But in order to measure impact, hard data will have to be collected, and analysed, before a conclusion can be reached regarding the effectiveness of the scheme. One could also look at data on the numerous indirect and unintended benefits – decongestion is a prominent one, for example. To the quantitative data on pollution readings, one can add the qualitative data on people’s perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

The reality of policy experimentation

Resistance to public policy reform, and experimentation ranges from the gentle to vitriolic. Politically, one can argue both sides of the coin – either that this just a political gimmick, or that the success in implementing the experiment reveals how strong public support for Aam Aadmi Party and Arvind Kejriwal continues to be. Reactions to the Odd-Even policy also reflect entrenched positions, many of which are political and motivated, but importantly, not necessarily just so. This is important – a public policy reform will be subject to serious criticism, not just motivated by ‘interests’, but stemming from genuinely opposing ‘ideas’. Those initiating a reform must be prepared to ‘learn’ – trial, review, tweak, and trial again.

Evidence trickles in

Over the last fortnight, researchers Michael Greenstone, Santosh Harish and Anant Sudarshan were collecting hard data on how the pilot fared. They find that the Odd-Even plan reduced pollution by significant levels in Delhi. The headline: this study finds there was an 18% reduction in PM 2.5 due to the pilot during the hours that the rule was in effect. The effect size is truly staggering, and is quite unusual for studies that use such rigorous methodology to look at the impact of policy interventions.

Starting January 1, while absolute pollution levels increased both inside and outside Delhi (for atmospheric reasons, as noted by other commentators), the increase in fine particle levels in Delhi was significantly less than in the surrounding region. Overall, there was a 10-13 per cent relative decline in Delhi.

…Around 8 am, the gap between Delhi’s pollution and that in neighbouring regions begins to form and steadily increases until mid afternoon. As temperatures begin to fall, and pollution is less likely to disperse, this gap starts to close. We see another small gap emerge between 9-11 pm, which probably reflects the new limits on truck traffic in Delhi, which also came into force on January 1. Soon after midnight, the gap closes, and Delhi and neighbouring areas show similar pollution patterns until 8 am comes around again. When focusing just on the hours that the odd-even policy was in effect, our estimates suggest that particulates pollution declined by 18 per cent due to the pilot. 

The methodology and analysis is set out in greater detail here:

We compare the changes in PM 2.5 concentration levels before and after the program in Delhi monitors and outside Delhi in the NCR: Faridabad, Gurgaon and Noida. While the odd-even program was in place for commuters from these cities to Delhi, the odd-even program was not directly implemented there. If anything, the impact on the commuters makes our estimates lower bounds to the true impact.

In doing this, they addressed a glaring oversight that journalists were earlier making – of taking into account, what would have happened in the absence of this pilot and comparing that with Delhi. Using a counterfactual and a difference-in-difference approach, the researchers are able to conclude that the levels of pollution in Delhi were indeed lower during the fortnight that the Odd-Even plan was implemented. Thus, while debates raged in the mainstream media, social media, and street-corners over the success and failings of this scheme over the two weeks of implementation, with the last piece – hard data – coming in, we truly have a case worth studying! Delightfully, the study has also silenced those who had waded in on the backs of unfounded methods and faulty data.

What next?

What one needs to consider is also whether this arrangement is sustainable in the long-term? Perhaps not, as has been the experience in other cities, unless Delhi sees collective action at an unprecedented level (phasing out old cars, people agreeing not to buy second-hand cars, etc). But while you cannot change the weather, and it may be difficult to stop farmers from burning crop waste in the short-term, the success of Odd-Even presents a new and effective tool – an option that can be implemented to bring down peak air pollution, or neutralise at times when the weather is most unfavourable.

The Delhi government should remember though that without serious efforts to expand and improve public transport, and introducing measures such as congestion pricing, or other forms of pollution taxes, vehicular pollution will not be controlled. Governments or leaders who claim to have all the answers probably aren’t the ones who would be open to trial and learning. As the researchers say:

More generally speaking, governments need to accept that we don’t have all the answers to policy problems and adopt a culture of trying out new ideas, testing them carefully, and then deciding which ones to adopt at scale

So what next?

It is often said that we get the government we deserve. Citizens in Delhi have participated honestly in a worthwhile public policy experiment. While the final outcomes will be ascertained as more data is collected and analysed, it is clear that problems like pollution can only be tackled with a critical mass of people coming together; collective action that can look beyond personal inconvenience. So the biggest gain from the Odd-Even plan would be a willingness to participate in experiments in collective action – a citizenry that is aware, engaged, and willing to work together with its government to find solutions to its problems.

In return, what they deserve is a government that is committed to finding answers to difficult questions – in this case, a government that is willing to explore all possibilities to devise a set of interventions that can tackle the scourge of air pollution in Delhi. Here’s hoping we see many more of such ideas…and in the meantime, the Delhi government deserves a wide round of applause.

Genome study into Indian ancestry

From the abstract of this paper: “Genomic reconstruction of the history of extant populations of India reveals five distinct ancestral components and a complex structure” by Analabha Basua, Neeta Sarkar-Roya and Partha P. Majumdera (emphasis mine)

…A distinct ancestry of the populations of Andaman archipelago was identified and found to be coancestral to Oceanic populations. Analysis of ancestral haplotype blocks revealed that extant mainland populations (i) admixed widely irrespective of ancestry, although admixtures between populations was not always symmetric, and (ii) this practice was rapidly replaced by endogamy about 70 generations ago, among upper castes and Indo-European speakers predominantly. This estimated time coincides with the historical period of formulation and adoption of sociocultural norms restricting intermarriage in large social strata. A similar replacement observed among tribal populations was temporally less uniform

Delhi’s Odd-Even plan had a significant effect on pollution

Researchers Michael Greenstone, Santosh Harish and Anant Sudarshan have some news for us. Hard data that shows that the Odd-Even plan reduced pollution by significant levels in Delhi. The headline: this study finds there was an 18% reduction in PM 2.5 due to the pilot during the hours that the rule was in effect. The effect size is truly staggering, and is quite unusual for studies that use such rigorous methodology to look at the impact of policy interventions.

Starting January 1, while absolute pollution levels increased both inside and outside Delhi (for atmospheric reasons, as noted by other commentators), the increase in fine particle levels in Delhi was significantly less than in the surrounding region. Overall, there was a 10-13 per cent relative decline in Delhi.

Around 8 am, the gap between Delhi’s pollution and that in neighbouring regions begins to form and steadily increases until mid afternoon. As temperatures begin to fall, and pollution is less likely to disperse, this gap starts to close. We see another small gap emerge between 9-11 pm, which probably reflects the new limits on truck traffic in Delhi, which also came into force on January 1. Soon after midnight, the gap closes, and Delhi and neighbouring areas show similar pollution patterns until 8 am comes around again. When focusing just on the hours that the odd-even policy was in effect, our estimates suggest that particulates pollution declined by 18 per cent due to the pilot. 

As I said in my previous post, this pilot set a great template for citizen engagement with a public policy reform experiment: heightened awareness regarding the core issue, mass participation, intense public scrutiny, and a data-driven discourse. While debates have raged over the success of this scheme, the last piece – hard data – has now come in. It should be welcomed, and analysed further.

The methodology and analysis is set out in greater detail here:

We compare the changes in PM2.5 concentration levels before and after the program in Delhi monitors and outside Delhi in the NCR: Faridabad, Gurgaon and Noida .While the odd-even program was in place for commuters from these cities to Delhi, the odd-even program was not directly implemented there. If anything, the impact on the commuters makes our estimates lower bounds to the true impact.

In doing this, they addressed a glaring oversight that journalists were earlier making – of taking into account, what would have happened in the absence of this pilot and comparing that with Delhi. Using a counterfactual and a difference-in-difference approach, the researchers are able to conclude that the levels of pollution in Delhi were indeed lower during the fortnight that the Odd-Even plan was implemented.

What one needs to consider is also whether this arrangement is sustainable in the long-term? Perhaps not, as has been the experience in other cities, unless Delhi sees collective action at an unprecedented level (phasing out old cars, people agreeing not to buy second-hand cars, etc). But while you cannot change the weather, and it may be difficult to stop farmers from burning crop waste in the short-term, the success of Odd-Even presents a new and effective tool – an option that can be implemented to bring down peak air pollution, or neutralise at times when the weather is most unfavourable.

The Delhi government should remember though that without serious efforts to expand and improve public transport, and introducing measures such as congestion pricing, or other forms of pollution taxes, vehicular pollution will not be controlled. Governments or leaders who claim to have all the answers probably aren’t the ones who would be open to trial and learning. As the researchers say:

More generally speaking, governments need to accept that we don’t have all the answers to policy problems and adopt a culture of trying out new ideas, testing them carefully, and then deciding which ones to adopt at scale

So the biggest gain from the Odd-Even plan would be a willingness to participate in experiments in collective action – a citizenry that is aware, engaged, and willing to work together with its government to find solutions to its problems. Here’s hoping we see many more of such ideas…and in the meantime, the Delhi government deserves a wide round of applause.

Delhi’s Odd-Even plan as a public policy experiment

Outcomes aside, the Delhi government’s odd-even plan has yielded a rich bounty. It sets the template for citizen engagement with a public policy reform experiment: heightened awareness regarding the core issue, mass participation, intense public scrutiny, and a data-driven discourse. Let’s take these one by one.

Heightened awareness: From the Delhi high court downwards, it is widely acknowledged that this government move has made pollution a talking point and increased general awareness. Odd-even has consistently trended on Twitter (the barometer of our times of how important a topic is) and has sparked numerous prime-time slanging matches. No doubt there is also a haze of misinformation, but mostly, people are now hearing more about air pollution, how it affects their health, and what the various ways to deal with this problem are.

Mass participation: Largely as a result of the above, citizens in Delhi have demonstrated an overwhelming level of compliance with this experiment. I do not believe that just the fear of fines was sufficient to bring about this level of compliance. People have participated in solidarity with the scheme, partially out of their concern for the levels of air pollution, and also possibly, a curiosity to see if the experiment will yield any results. Either way, this experiment would have been a non-starter without this level of mass participation.

Intense public scrutiny: Just as much as commuters in Delhi have participated in the scheme, a wider population has actively dissected this experiment and come out on both sides of the divide. This set of observers and analysts has highlighted implementation challenges and brought out data on current and historical pollution levels gathered and presented from multiple sources—government and non-government. It has been a public policy enthusiast’s dream come true. Heavy public participation, accompanied with this level of public scrutiny, makes for an ideal public policy reform experiment.

Data-driven: The resolution of the debate over the effectiveness of the odd-even plan has to rely on data, and what is available currently is not all robust or scientifically well-informed. But in order to measure impact and arrive at a conclusion regarding the effectiveness of the scheme, such hard data will have to be collected and analysed. One could also look at data on the numerous indirect and unintended benefits—decongestion is a prominent one, for example. To the quantitative data on pollution readings, one can add the qualitative data on people’s perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

The reality of policy experimentation

Resistance to public policy reform and experimentation ranges from the gentle to vitriolic. Politically, one can argue both sides of the coin—either that this is yet another gimmick by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, or that the success in implementing the experiment reveals how strong public support for him continues to be. Reactions to the odd-even policy also reflect entrenched positions, many of which are political and motivated. But importantly, not all of them are so. Understanding this is crucial: a public policy reform will be subject to serious criticism not just motivated by ‘interests’, but stemming from genuinely opposing ideas as well. Those initiating a reform must be prepared to learn—trial, review, tweak, and trial again.

So what next?

It is often said that we get the government we deserve. Citizens in Delhi have participated honestly in a worthwhile public policy experiment. While the final outcomes will be ascertained once more data is collected and analysed, it is clear that problems like pollution can only be tackled with a critical mass of people coming together; collective action that can look beyond personal inconvenience. In return, what they deserve is a government that is committed to finding answers to difficult questions—in this case, a government that is willing to explore all possibilities to devise a set of interventions that can tackle the scourge of air pollution in Delhi.

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This is my latest Livemint column

India’s malaria nightmare

From a searing report by Ankita Rao and Vivek Nemana

The country’s revamped national malaria program is on par with the standard of global care. But its recordkeeping has few admirers. Last year the government recorded only 561 deaths due to malaria, while an independent estimate earlier in the decade shows that the real toll could be as high as 200,000 each year. The disease is especially prevalent among the poor and in India’s vast rural areas, where about two-thirds of the population lives but is served by just 20 percent of the country’s health care infrastructure

The staggering gap between official data and reality means that thousands of people die without an accurate diagnosis, according to a study by the British medical journal The Lancet. And the government is able to tout the malaria program’s success without a clear picture of how many people are dying. Malaria costs the country nearly $2 billion each year, and the impact of lost earnings and treatment bills falls disproportionately on rural, poor families. An extensive investigation by Al Jazeera America unearthed routine manipulation of malaria data, crippling shortages of essential supplies, chronic understaffing of hospitals and enduring dysfunction in World Bank–funded projects, which led to the Indian government’s returning millions of dollars in aid.

Many health officials privately acknowledge this systemwide failure but say they are helpless. In a review of hundreds of pages of program records, medical supply contracts and village health registers — as well as interviews with dozens of insiders — reporters found that the most serious failures often persist for years in plain sight.

A public health nightmare. Not just because people are dying from it, but also because it is a scourge that does not exist on paper.

What determines the size of the Indian state?

This is my latest livemint column

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I want to clarify right at the beginning that I am not making the value judgement that this question might imply to some readers. I do not think small is beautiful, and certainly not so in the context of a state. There are circumstances in which the state should expand—both in breadth (scope) and depth (reach). Equally, there are circumstances where the state should contract, ceding space to private action.

Private action itself should stand for a wide range of possibilities – an individual’s efforts, joint citizens’ action, or organized enterprises. It is also misleading to think of the state’s role as being essential in contexts where the problem is daunting in its scale and implication. Constructing roads may be an area where the state should expand its footprint; managing schools and colleges are probably not.

This column does not offer a conclusive answer to the question of what the ideal size of the Indian state is. Rather, it focuses on the determinants of size. The discussion over the size of the state subsumes an assessment of state capacity (or its fitness), in terms of both the classical definition of the ability of a government to administer its physical territory, as well as its ability to maximize welfare for its citizens. On both these aspects, therefore, we should be examining the Indian state, looking at decisions and events that influence its size.

In order to do so, I introduce three broad categories.

1. Coercive: These comprise areas where the state has the power to mandate and enforce compliance. Security and law and order are obvious examples, as are taxation, and some kinds of regulatory power, such as determining food safety standards, would fall under this category. For the state to excel in this category, it needs effective organizational powers.

2. Prescriptive: There are areas where the state has the power to prescribe remedies. It sets standards and is at times able to employ some of its regulatory powers to enforce compliance. Mostly though, the role of the state here is to encourage the adoption of idealized rules and norms. Managing education, by prescribing school standards and determining the curriculum, would be a suitable example.

3. Advisory: In this category are areas where the state’s power to influence real outcomes is limited and the role of the state is mostly advisory in nature, with little real power of enforcement. An easy example would be the efforts to inspire hygiene and cleanliness through a nation-wide mission to achieve sanitation. Innovation and flexibility are vital for a successful intervention.

Thus, these categories map quite closely to the definitions of power – the power to coerce, control the agenda and determine underlying norms – and therefore, could be understood as the categories of state power.

What does this categorization imply for how we understand the size of the state? For starters, in terms of the size the state needs to be to discharge its duties, the coercive state is quite inelastic, while, the prescriptive and advisory areas are highly elastic.

Given the broad characterization of the state’s powers in these categories, the levels of accountability expected of the state also vary. While the state is expected to maintain law and order at all costs, it is seldom realistically expected to be always successful in ensuring that no one urinates in the open in our cities. Also, the categories above do not necessarily reflect the order of priorities a country faces. For example, security of its territorial borders is a fundamental priority of a nation-state. However, the fact is that not only are there specialized institutions that handle this, but also that the good governance agenda suggests improving service delivery and creating more just inclusive societies are key to maximizing general welfare. This, however, does not necessarily involve an expansion of the state itself.

The way I see it, the second category comprises the largest and the most complex of challenges that the state faces, not in the least due to the conceptual mixture of a part-coercive and part-advisory nature of powers that the state enjoys over the areas in this category. Take public health and education, for instance. The state enjoys coercive regulatory power in some aspects of these public services, but is usually unable to enforce them to the satisfaction of its citizens. A combination of institutional handicaps and societal behaviour present a challenge that the state is usually unable to surmount.

Finally, this approach reveals the risk that the state might choose to focus on one category at the expense of another. This could be because it is difficult to simultaneously strengthen all institutions to intervene effectively in all three categories. The complexity of focusing on all three categories of issues may be better explained with an example of elections.

The Indian state is by and large able to enforce that every citizen has the right to cast a single vote; it is less successful in encouraging more people to vote; and even less so, in making people vote for the right considerations. The state may well decide that it is fulfilling its duty as long as it ensures that there is no fraudulent voting, thereby fulfilling its contract with its citizens. But having established mechanisms to maintain status quo in its coercive functions, the state should target the idealized goal of deepening democracy. This and enhanced levels of citizen-led deliberation are ideals that would lead to a truly fair election. Not achieving this would mean failing to meet the rising expectations of an enlightened citizenry.

In conclusion, I briefly introduce the role of local governments. Pursuing its goals in the advisory category requires an expansion of the state. Instead of increasing its physical presence and reach through bureaucratic expansion, it could opt for an enhanced role for citizens in these areas through genuinely participatory mechanisms. Local governments – that offer a democratic framework for organizing grassroots citizen action – represent an expansion of the state, but also a break from its conventional forms. This raises several interesting questions regarding the expansion of state, both in size and its fitness. A detailed exposition will have to be left for another column.