Claiming the state

  • Fall 2011
Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner

Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT. Her interests include state-society relations, local governance, and public service delivery in developing countries, with a regional focus on South Asia.

By Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner
November 1, 2011

AROUND THE GLOBE, people depend on the state to provide a vast range services: clean drinking water, healthcare, schools, roads, and—for many of the poorest—cash transfers, food rations, and other welfare services. In many less developed countries, however, service delivery is marked by uncertainty and resource constraints. Under these conditions, so-called 'public' services are rarely equally available to all; rather, access to services is a matter of "who can extract them from the political system."1 It is widely acknowledged that not all citizens have equal access to the state. In fact, academics and the popular media often portray developing country states as distant entities, plagued by cronyism and corruption, beyond the reach of common citizens. Closer examination reveals, however, that many citizens do make claims on the state, pursuing diverse strategies—direct and indirect—in their efforts to secure public services. Why do some people, but not others, engage the state? What accounts for the different strategies through which citizens seek to secure public services?

My research examines the conditions under which citizens—set apart by class, ethnicity, caste, or gender—demand essential public services, and the claim-making practices through which citizens articulate their interests and demands. My fieldwork in rural India reveals striking variation in both the incidence and channels of claim-making, ranging from those who do not engage the state at all, to direct strategies involving face-to-face petitioning of officials, to mediated strategies brokered through non-state actors and informal institutions. Variation in whether and how people make claims on the state cannot be adequately explained by formal institutional or administrative differences or by socioeconomic features such as class, caste, or gender. Rather, I find that differences in claim-making are largely a function of the degree to which an individual engages in networks that cross local social and geographical boundaries. Movement across such boundaries—which I refer to associo-spatial mobility—exposes individuals to contacts and information that foster different levels and kinds of participation.



India is a compelling context in which to examine questions of citizen access to the state and its resources. India is both the world's largest democracy and home to some of the deepest and most persistent poverty globally. At the same time, India boasts a large public welfare apparatus accounting for more than one-third of national expenditure. And yet, access to publicly-provided goods and services remains highly uneven both across and within India's states and regions.2

My study examines citizen-state relations in rural India—home to 70% of the country's population. Specifically, I examine claim-making practices in Rajasthan, a large, diverse, and relatively poor state in northwest India, that is home to 68 million people and close to 400 different castes and tribes. My study draws on eighteen months of fieldwork, including more than 400 interviews and an original survey of 2,210 households across 105 villages and four districts in Rajasthan. Because the villages are all located in the same state, I am able to hold constant many features of formal administration and governance, focusing instead on the micro-level determinants of claim-making. The four districts represent the primary linguistic, cultural, and geographical regions of the state, which vary in terms of per capita income, human development status, caste composition, and colonial history.



My fieldwork reveals high rates of claim-making through diverse practices. In contrast to common portrayals of a passive rural citizenry and impenetrable state,3 I found that a majority of those interviewed report contacting officials in an attempt to access services. Almost two-thirds report directly approaching village-level officials, higher-level block or district administrators, or elected politicians at the state or national levels. Over half report turning to mediators, including individuals acting as fixers (social and political entrepreneurs who serve as go-betweens), neighborhood, village, or caste associations, inter-caste bodies, or non-governmental organizations. Channels of claim-making are not mutually exclusive, and a majority report engaging in more than one kind of practice.

How are we to explain variation in the incidence and practice of claim-making? Some scholars have argued that people in more developed localities are better equipped to make effective demands on their governments.4 Yet, my fieldwork reveals that claim-making in Rajasthan varies both across and within localities with differing levels of wealth, per capita income, and literacy. Other scholars, particularly in the West, have emphasized individual-level attributes and the material or social resources that foster or inhibit political participation; richer people, as well as those with higher social standing, are expected to be the most active participants and claimants.5 India, however, appears to buck this trend, as poor and lower caste populations participate at high rates nationally.6 In fact, evidence from my fieldwork in Rajasthan reveals that neither wealth nor caste is an adequate predictor of claim-making activity. Simply knowing where someone is positioned within the local social structure is not adequate to predict whether or how a person will engage the state.



What, then, accounts for variation in claim-making among people living in the same places, under the same formal institutional frameworks, and within the same social groupings? I argue that whether and how an individual navigates his or her local environment to make claims on the state is contingent upon the degree to which he or she is embedded in networks that cut across local social and geographical boundaries. People with greater socio-spatial mobility, who traverse barriers of class, caste, neighborhood or village, come into increased contact with officials and mediators, and are exposed to information and ideas about the state, its programs, and resources. I find that more "mobile" people are more likely to engage in claim-making, and do so through a greater range of practices, than those with more circumscribed mobility.

Two ideal types serve to illustrate the potential variation in socio-spatial mobility. At one end of the spectrum lies the parochial villager who does not move beyond his or her neighborhood and interacts with people of a common class and caste background. For example, a woman who lives under the purdah (veil) system very rarely leaves her home and neighborhood and interacts primarily with her family or with other women from the same caste community. At the other extreme is thevillage cosmopolitan7 who moves fluidly across different spaces in the village and beyond, encountering diverse groups of people. For example, a woman who works outside of the home is more likely to interact with men and women from different castes, classes, and backgrounds. An individual who moves beyond the village in pursuit of employment or education will meet an even greater diversity of organizations and actors.

Socio-spatial mobility influences claim-making in two ways. First, increased mobility exposes an individual to broad networks that put him or her into contact with an increased number of officials and non-state brokers. The more a person moves about beyond his or her immediate locality, the greater the number of potential linkages to the state (direct or mediated) he or she will encounter. Second, mobility exposes a person to broader sources of information, increasing his or her knowledge of the state, its resources and programs. In sum, socio-spatial mobility exposes individuals to new contacts (expanding opportunities for claim-making), as well as to ideas about how to engage the state (expanding political knowledge and skill for claim-making).

My fieldwork confirmed this theory. I measure mobility across caste, neighborhood, and village lines—capturing movement across some of the primary social and geographical cleavages at the local level. First, I find that those who report working with people from different castes are more likely to make claims, and do so through a greater diversity of channels, than those who primarily work with people from their own caste community. Second, those who regularly socialize with people from different neighborhoods, and who therefore move across caste and class lines, are more likely to engage in claim-making including both direct and mediated practices. Third, I find that people who migrate beyond the village (for work or education) are more likely to engage in direct claim-making upon their return than people who do not leave the village. Those who spend periods of time outside the village are also less likely to pursue parochial forms of mediation—for example through caste associations.



Whether and how people make claims on the state matters for local distribution (who gets what from the state) and for the quality of local democratic practice (who participates, and how). Claim-making is under-studied relative to other forms of political activity, but merits attention as one of the most quotidian forms of participation, and the primary site of citizen-state engagement at the local level. In concrete terms, claim-making may mean the difference between whether or not a water pump is repaired, a road is paved, an absent teacher is held to account, rations are obtained, and so on. The ability to extract services from the state—particularly in resource scarce environments—is an essential element of citizenship practice, in which citizens assert their rights vis à vis agents of the state. The practices through which claims are made—whether direct or mediated—reflect different patterns of state-society relations, including different channels of access, lines of accountability, and degrees of distance between citizen and state. The study of claim-making reveals that the interface of state and society looks quite different to different people at the local level, and calls our attention to the need for a deeper understanding of how ordinary people navigate the state in their efforts to secure essential services.



1 Banerjee. A. V. (2004). "Who is Getting the Public Goods in India? Some Evidence and Some Speculation," in K. Basu (Ed.), India's Emerging Economy: Performance and Prospects in the 1990s and Beyond. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 13.

2 Dreze, J., & Sen, A. (1995). India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity. New York: Oxford University Press.

3 The Indian state is regularly portrayed as distant and out of reach to the common citizen. In this view, a lack of citizen engagement is considered the norm, especially among the poor. Rural citizens, in particular, are portrayed as "docile" or as having given up hope of government service. See, for example, Moore, B. (1966), Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World: Beacon Press, on the docility of the Indian peasant. More recent scholars emphasize the distance between citizen and state. See Krishna, A. (2011), "Gaining Access to Public Services and the Democratic State in India: Institutions in the Middle," in Studies in Comparative International Development 46, 98-117; and Fuller, C. J., & Harriss, J. (2000). For an Anthropology of the Modern Indian State. In C. J. Fuller & V. Benei (Eds.), The Everyday State and Society in Modern India. New Delhi: Social Science Press. 

4 Lipset, S. M. (1959). Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. American Political Science Review, 53(1), 69-105; and Przeworski, A., & Limongi, F. (1997). Modernization: Theories and Facts. World Politics, 49(2), 155-183.

5 Milbrath, L., & Goel, M. L. (1977). Political Participation: How and why do people get involved in politics? Chicago: Rand McNally; and Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L., & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ Press.

6 Yadav, Y. (2000). Understanding the Second Democratic Upsurge: Trends of Bahujan Participation in Electoral Politics in the 1990s. Transforming India: Social and Political Dynamics of Democracy. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

7 In developing the concept of the village cosmopolitan, I draw on Gidwani and Sivaramakrishnan's notion of "rural cosmopolitanism," which they define as "participation in multiple cultural worlds." See Gidwani, V., & Sivaramakrishnan, K. (2003). Circular migration and rural cosmopolitanism in India. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 37(1-2), 339.