State failure is all-pervasive – Reading ‘Despite the State’ (2021) by M. Rajshekhar

It was only this week that I got down to reading this 2021 book. The balcony of a house on the Kenyan coast in Watamu provided the perfect setting.  

the only bright picture you will see here

‘Despite the State’ was not an easy read. None of the six Indian states Rajshekhar travelled to was working for the people. And he captures state failure in each of these settings in great detail. The political parties that ruled these states were busy expanding the web of patronage with the single-minded aim of perpetuating their grip on power. People, democracy, rights, and development – all seem like an after-thought.

Nominally, the states are each run by a different political party. But if you looked at the patterns of exploitation, it would quickly be obvious that it is irrelevant what the ideological persuasions of a political party are, or indeed what social cause they claimed to espouse when they initially came to power. In every state, Rajshekhar finds political elites whose rule is characterised by four features – extractive practices, clientelism, all-encompassing dominance and centralisation. It also does not matter where these political parties stand vis-à-vis the ruling party in New Delhi, and what stands out is the seeming absence of any meaningful political competition. Power may change hands, but that hardly seems to make a difference.

The common themes that emerge between the different narratives are one of narrowly controlled political parties that enjoy power without accountability, the resultant corruption, and widespread disenfranchisement of citizens. The worst affected are those who depend on the state for basic services – schooling, health, employment, etc. But the knock-on effects of this mis-governance go much further. The steady plunder of groundwater and the suffocating air pollution will spare no one. I kept looking for solutions, for answers, but Rajshekhar doesn’t even attempt to give hope, focused as he is on explaining the mechanics of all-pervasive state failure – some of which we see and lots more that we fail to register.   

I have an example of this blind-spot from my time in Odisha. I am reminded of the doubts I had about the work I was doing in 2005 as a fresh development professional in Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj in the year 2005. We were working with rural communities to support them in the construction of water and sanitation facilities. As stunning as the landscape was, with winding roads over sprawling hills and forests, my abiding memory of villages in Keonjhar was the fine red dust that covered everything – from the streets to shrubs to roof-tops. These came from the mines, we were told. A never-ending convoy of trucks occupied most of the road and even on motorbikes, passing them was slow and hazardous. Although we were working right in the middle of them, we paid little attention to mines and mining companies. Nothing much anyway, beyond the occasional contributions made by mining companies to some of the development projects we were implementing there. Rajshekhar shines a light on exactly how rapacious the mining industry there was and the role of the state in worsening (as opposed to improving) the outcomes for everyone involved. This nexus should have been a much larger issue for us on the ground, but somehow it wasn’t! What does this say about development work in general?

The book describes the different ways in which the ruling political party in Punjab, Odisha and Tamil Nadu took control of business networks, capturing the entire value/supply chain. I witnessed this up-close with micro-credit. In state after state, the supply of micro-credit was used by ruling political parties as an instrument of patronage through government-promoted self-help groups and public banks. A massive network of (mostly) women’s groups and ever-expanding cycles of credit took root over a couple of decades starting in the 1980s, with the enthusiastic support of NGOs (who acted as last-mile enablers, spreading awareness and helping people get enrolled). Where governments started losing control (with the growth of modern microfinance institutions or MFIs), states often turned against them by openly encouraging people (customers) to default on their loans.

The state failures described in the book covers a wide spectrum. I know India’s public schooling and health systems are failing, but I did not expect the chapter on Tamil Nadu to be the one focused on it. At a superficial level, Tamil Nadu is an ideal developmental state with impressive human development indicators to match its thriving industrial sector. Odisha is supposed to be on a positive trajectory and holds lessons for other states in vital areas such as ‘disaster preparedness’, but it is instructive to read about the contours of the state’s resource curse (beyond the news stories on indigenous tribes protesting against mining conglomerates) that has long kept it one of India’s poorest states.

The title of the book – Despite the State – can seem somewhat misleading when you take into account the fact that in many instances, the state was actively making the lives of people harder. And as the state grower larger, with greater finances and better technology, its reach has expanded, affecting our lives like never before. Getting by, despite the state, is getting harder. Add to this the rampant virus of communalism and millions of disenchanted youth with no productive economic opportunities, and we seem to have the perfect storm.

Our democracy has reached a stage where the political class rules supreme and extend a firm grip over every other strata of society. Political developments of the day only buttress this point – legislatures everywhere are being rendered irrelevant, law enforcement and judiciary are increasingly serving a political agenda, and civil society – where inconvenient – is being choked. As I read on, I kept wondering what the role of media could be amidst this democratic degradation. Would a more vigilant media highlight these issues and be able to rally the public mood against such blatant misrule and corruption?

2 Replies to “State failure is all-pervasive – Reading ‘Despite the State’ (2021) by M. Rajshekhar”

  1. Sorry for leaving a reply like this here, but may I contact you over email? I would have got in touch with you on twitter but I do not have an account on that platform. My email id is deysourit@gmail.com

    Like

  2. It is a really eye opening book! Your reflections on it are thought provoking Suvojit! And I didn’t know you were in keonjhar!!

    Way I make sense of it is that the wider context in which we are located and the structural part of the dynamics together with the joy of doing something impactful – even if small- is the challenge for the development sector.
    The hope for me was in the title. That life continues in India despite the state! Your article made me think about what it means for the future!

    Liked by 1 person

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