My dissertation investigates the impact of institutional change in the field of poverty alleviation. In rural India, political entrepreneurs have traditionally attempted to distort policy implementation for political gain, but the introduction of new incentives, such as is the case under the Right to Work Act passed in 2005, upsets these strategies. Formal incentives, such as the emphasis on a demand for benefits, interact with informal practices such as caste hierarchy, clientelism, to generate policy outcomes that depart from official expectations. Using public data on poverty alleviation spending, I find a correlation between spending and poverty, but qualitative data collected during 15 months of field work in a rural district of North India leads me to conclude that the demand for benefits – a new institutional mechanism – remains politically articulated. I argue that this articulation is done through the interaction between local elected officials and bureaucrats who are both tasked with mediating the demands made by citizens on the state. Political leadership structures at the village level determine levels of cooperation and clientelism at the village level ultimately depends on the ability of local elected officials to collect rents for the bureaucracy through the extraction of a surplus from policy beneficiaries. Informal norms, escaping state sanction, drive the interactions between citizens as beneficiaries, local elected officials and bureaucrats. The informality of political party structures means clientelism remains endogenous to political competition at the village level.
This manuscript summarizes the findings of my dissertation field work. In the paper, I examine the variation in policy outcomes at the district level in rural India, such as employment generation levels. Rather than being a reflection of social needs, I argue the demand for work is articulated by local elected officials to meet the demands for rents made by bureaucrats tasked with policy implementation.
Manuscripts under review and working papers
In this study, I argue that the new institutional incentives for poverty alleviation that have emerged in India with the promotion of local democracy and rights-based policies are inimical to party-based patronage strategies. Because the ties between party elites and local brokers remain selective and informal, clientelism under a policy such as NREGS remains endogenous to political competition within village communities in rural India.
‘Poverty Alleviation and Informal Institutions: are Rights–based Policies Worth the Trouble?’ 2017 (in preparation).
This paper reviews the rights-based legislation in India since the enactment of the Right to Work and Right to Information legislation, looking at policy outcomes in comparative perspective across Indian states. Rights-based policies are often perceived as reinforcing policies seeking to empower communities through decentralization. Decentralization is often perceived as a powerful poverty reduction tool, but the evidence is mixed, especially where a democratic deficit persists.
‘Redistricting and Distributive Politics: expectations of political support and clientelism in the Gram Panchayats of Uttar Pradesh,’ 2017 (in preparation).
Much recent work on local democracy and local politics in rural India has looked at the impact of quotas on policy outcomes and distributive politics. This paper considers institutional incentives such as redistricting at the local level, which usually happens ahead of local elections (Panchayati Raj). Are local elected officials able to anticipate redistricting by systematically rewarding their partisans where redistricting does not happen? The paper uses data on public spending under NREGS to evaluate these claims.
I am developing a book manuscript that builds on the insights of the dissertation, specifically the interaction between formal and informal norms. The book project seeks to address a gap in the study of the local state in rural India. The book will begin with an overview of public policy reform and present evidence of the distortions that affect policy implementation, but will also put these distortions in the broader context of democratic deepening in India over the last two decades and specifically since the Constitutional amendments of 1993. The book will reconsider the argument that decentralization benefits the poor by putting policy implementation in perspective and emphasizing the different political opportunity structures that evolve at the state level in India from both a common institutional framework and different party systems and political party structures at the local level. Over the last two decades, public policy reform in India has attempted to ‘avoid’ politics by creating institutional incentives that theoretically left political parties outside of policy implementation. Yet, political interference has occasionally distorted implementation in a way that benefitted the poor.