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Book reviews

Of Violence, Paper and Neoliberalism: Bureaucracy and the Everyday State in South Asia

Bérénice Girard
Bibliographical reference

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 384 pages.

Mathur, Nayanika. 2016. Paper Tiger. Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press. 203 pages.

Qureshi, Ayaz. 2018. Aids in Pakistan. Bureaucracy, Public Goods and NGOs. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan. 217 pages.

Full text

1At the peak of the second wave of Covid-19 in India, in early May 2021, Yamini Aiyar (2021), the director of the Centre for Policy Research (New Delhi), published an interesting opinion piece in the Hindustan Times. People were desperately looking for hospital beds and oxygen and, for Yamini Aiyar, this was proof that India was no longer the “flailing” state described by Lant Pritchett (2009), but rather a “failed” state. This was a political failure at the Centre and State levels, accompanied by “botched-up and confused” policies drafted by the elite corps of the Indian bureaucracy, the Indian Administrative Service (Aiyar 2021). In a reversal of Pritchett’s analysis, which opposed the efficient higher levels of the Indian administration to the supposedly incompetent subalterns, she held that the lower levels of the administration had on that occasion proven “far more resilient” (Ibid).

  • 1 Akhil Gupta is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Nayanika Mat (...)
  • 2 Launched in the mid-2000s, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is one of the most ambitious (...)
  • 3 By this term, the author refers to the diverse and numerous writing practices of the bureaucracy.
  • 4 Ayaz Qureshi is senior lecturer in Medical Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

2The apparent systematic underperformance of the Indian bureaucracy and its obsession with procedures and paper have been denounced in a wide diversity of documents, ranging from academic papers to grey literature and even novels. While the Covid pandemic shed a horrifying light on these shortcomings, the present essay reviews three books of anthropology, published over the last decade, on the bureaucracy in South Asia. It will show how these books deconstruct common explanations for the so-called underperformance of South Asian states and how they renew our understanding of bureaucratic proceduralism and the impact of neoliberalism on the inner functioning of the state. The review deals more specifically with Akhil Gupta’s Red Tape (2012) and Paper Tiger published by Nayanika Mathur in 2016.1 The former focuses on the implementation of development and welfare programs for the rural poor in Uttar Pradesh, while the second analyses the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)2 in a mountainous district of Uttarakhand. Following a long introductory section, in which the author presents his theoretical framework, Gupta’s book is divided into three parts, each related to a modality through which state violence is exercised on the poor: corruption, inscription3 and governmentality. Mathur’s book starts by discussing the remoteness of the district where the study was conducted, before turning to different aspects of the implementation of NREGA. In a final chapter, she speaks about the panic that took over the town of Gopeshwar as a big cat started attacking and killing residents. I also examine Ayaz Qureshi’s Aids in Pakistan (2018), which explores the implementation of HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Pakistan.4 After giving an overview of the history of the epidemic in the country, and describing the intervention of international financial institutions, Qureshi turns to the impact of the neoliberal funding regimes on the state bureaucracy and on civil society involved in Pakistan’s response to HIV/AIDS.

  • 5 Such as Laura Bear’s Navigating Austerity (2015) and Matthew Hull’s Government of Paper (2012), whi (...)

3This review does not pretend to be exhaustive, and several important publications which have deepened our understanding of the inner functioning of South Asian bureaucracies in the last ten years have been left out.5 Similarly, I have set aside some very interesting theoretical developments presented by the authors in their books to focus on four themes, which correspond to the successive sections of this essay. The first section underlines the importance of studying the everyday state, while the second discusses the Indian and Pakistani states’ apparent underperformance in implementing welfare/development/health programs targeting the poor or marginalized sections of society. It makes the case for moving beyond the usual explanations such as incompetence or corruption. A third section deals with the Indian and Pakistani states’ obsession with paper and procedures. It presents its drivers and consequences for the functioning and performance of the state. Finally, I delve into what has often been seen as the main engine of change in bureaucracies in recent decades, namely neoliberal reforms, and their impact on the everyday state and on state employees’ professional and personal lives. I conclude by highlighting some of the topics of research that remain to be explored in the study of South Asian bureaucracies.

Of the importance of studying the everyday state

  • 6 The Hindi term "Sarkar" can be translated by “State” or “Government.” It can also be used to addres (...)

4In a wonderful section of her book, Nayanika Mathur describes the intimate and ubiquitous nature of sarkar6 and sarkari things in India. “One recognizes something as sarkari through the deeply immersive and intimate fact of living within the territory of India and being forced to deal with Sarkar. Sarkari can, thus, be the taste of a potato cutlet on a train; the physical touch of a fading form; the phraseology of public announcements blaring out from a loudspeaker; or the very sight of an Ambassador car or a towel draped onto the back of a large swivel chair. Sarkari can refer to governmental practices such as demanding everything be set out on paper in a particular format, or asking for ridiculous details, or making multiple copies of the same document, or finding meaning in a stamp/signature” (Mathur 2016:25). This diversity of meanings and the intimacy that they express bear testimony to the overwhelming presence and importance of the state in the daily lives of the citizens and residents of India and more generally of South Asia, to the extent that one could talk of a “pervasive, sometimes subtle bureaucratization of daily life” (Gupta 2012:32).

5In this context, looking at the everyday and repetitive practices of bureaucracies can serve several purposes. It first helps us understand how the state is silently “recognized and reproduced” (Sharma and Gupta 2006:13). As Mathur (2017:1804) underlines, it is indeed the “banal bureaucratic everyday that produces Sarkar in the first place.” Moreover, the routine practices of bureaucrats have “important signifying functions” as it is during daily encounters and interactions with officials that people shape their understanding and perception of the state (Gupta 2012:58).

6Second, looking at everyday practices enables us to “deconstruct overly coherent forms of the bureaucracy-idea” (Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan 2019:9). As Akhil Gupta forcefully advocates, the state is not a monolithic institution, and all three books are filled with detailed ethnographic accounts of the diversity of agendas and of the inner tensions that run through the daily functioning of the state. Thus, by looking at day-to-day practices of state agents, one may better understand the fragmentation and chaos of bureaucratic work. As Gupta puts it, “an ethnographic focus, perhaps more than any other approach, makes evident that the materiality and solidity of the state dissolve under scrutiny” (Gupta 2012:45). He defends this, arguing that it also serves a political purpose, as “reifying the state is an important means of rule and of obtaining consent for rule” (Gupta 2012:54–55).

7Finally, it is important to look at bureaucrats and state employees not only as sources of information and clogs in a powerful machine, but as actors, whose day-to-day activities, practices and emotions are central to policy making and implementation. By focusing on the work of bureaucrats, we can further understand the rationality of their practices, which might appear at first as “absurd” or “arbitrary” (Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan 2019:1). This perspective enables us to redress the “stereotype of bureaucrats as devoid of emotions” (Qureshi 2018:109). As Fuller and Harriss put it (2001:15), “the ‘faceless bureaucrats’ actually do have faces.” Fassin et al. (2013:18) also invite us to pay attention to the people who make the state, underlining that “it is not only the state that dictates policies to agents, but also agents who make state policies.”

8It is, however, not difficult to list a number of obstacles that the ethnographer, willing to embark on a study of the bureaucracy, might encounter, such as arduous access to the organization and its inner workings, lack of legitimacy, etc. It is therefore noteworthy that the three books under review are based on extensive and impressive fieldwork. Gupta’s book is based on a year-long ethnography conducted in the early 1990s in two administrative offices in the Mandi subdistrict. Qureshi’s analysis is grounded on a rich ethnography, conducted over more than a year, mostly at the Pakistani National Aids Control Program (NACP). Mathur’s analysis is based on a ten-month ethnography during which she immersed herself in the daily activities of the cell charged with implementing NREGA in the town of Gopeshwar. In the last two cases, the authors became involved in day-to-day state activities, ranging from small tasks such as translation and letter typing (Mathur 2016:26) to writing and editing activity reports or being an official observer for a World Bank mission (Qureshi 2018:18).

9The authors do not share the exact same empirical foci. Akhil Gupta focuses on the interactions between the poor and the state, whereas Nayanika Mathur and Ayaz Qureshi explore the inner workings and dynamics of bureaucracies. However, while Mathur’s work mostly focuses on the lower echelons of the bureaucracy in a remote district, Qureshi conducted his ethnography amongst the higher echelons of the Pakistani NACP situated in Islamabad. These three books thus offer complementary perspectives on both the inner working of the state and the interactions between state agents and state subjects, on the lower and higher echelons of the bureaucracy, on India and on Pakistan, as well as on different areas of state action (development, welfare, health).

The underperformance of the state: going beyond simple explanations

10Gupta’s and Mathur’s books both contribute to raising the same question as regards the Indian state: how and why is it unable to successfully implement its developmental programs and policies, especially when it is the poorest sections of society that are targeted? Be it development programs for the rural poor (Gupta) or one of the largest welfare programs launched in the history of India (NREGA, Mathur), the question indeed arises: why does the state keep underperforming? Mathur (2016:1–2) underlines the “sophisticated plans and laws” the state keeps coming up with, which “consistently underperform,” as well as the “staggering slowness and propensity for making people wait endlessly even when swift, decisive action is desperately required.” For his part, Gupta (2012:4) emphasizes that despite the fact that economic and social development is at the heart of the state’s legitimacy in India, it has not been able to eradicate poverty or to prevent hundreds of millions from “premature and untimely deaths.” He insists upon the violence of extreme poverty, which he defines as “a direct and culpable form of killing,” and asks the following question: “how is violence like this taken for granted in the routinized practices of state institutions such that it disappears from view and cannot be thematized as violence at all” (Gupta 2012:5)?

11Gupta’s answer lies in a sophisticated theoretical argument. He sees the violence of poverty as “exercised without intention” (Gupta 2012:22). The work of bureaucracies is “shot through with contingency and barely controlled chaos,” and bureaucrats are led to take decisions that can make the difference between life and death on the basis of guesswork, incomplete data or files prepared by their predecessors (Gupta 2012:14). Furthermore, turning poverty into a statistic legitimizes slow action, as high rates of poverty become the norm. In such a context, one cannot identify a culprit: “it is not a victimless crime but its opposite: a crime without a criminal” (Gupta 2012:21). The violence of poverty is a structural one, both invisible and constant.

12Mathur does not deny the violence of poverty or the fact that bureaucratic action can lead to violence against the poor. Yet she refuses to locate the causes for the apparent inaction of the state or the disappointing results of a law such as NREGA “within intentionality, indifference, dysfunctionality, incapacity, or forms of violence” (Mathur 2016:176). She instead proposes a more fine-grained analysis that aims at identifying the “specific effects of particular laws in named places and within a definitive time” and thus helps “eschew normative answers to the question of the performance of an anti-poverty legislation” (Mathur 2016:176). As we will see later, she shows the intricacies of implementing a law such as NREGA, underlining how the simple fact of introducing new documents into the administrative process may hinder its implementation.

13By putting forward these theoretical and methodological alternatives to the question of underperformance, both Gupta and Mathur aim at going beyond familiar explanations such as poor implementation or rampant corruption. As Gupta rightly emphasizes, “If the problem is poor implementation, the blame falls inevitably on lower-level officials who, for reasons ranging from corruption to poor training and education, are deemed incapable of implementing the wonderful programs thought up by metropolitan experts” (Gupta 2012:25). This “reproduces both a colonial complaint of the incompetence of the natives and a class bias towards subalterns in the bureaucracy” (Ibid).

14Gupta and Mathur both denounce analyses that have tended to explain the Indian state’s inefficiency by invoking a disconnection between the higher and lower levels of the bureaucracy. One such example is Kaviraj (1984), who, as Fuller and Harriss (2001:8) put it, wrote about a supposed deep fracture, dating back to the colonial period, “between the bureaucratic elite, at home with a ‘modernist discourse’ which often corresponded fairly well with Weberian rationality, and the personnel at lower levels, whose ‘vernacular everyday discourses’ were not structured around principles of formal rationality at all.” This is also Pritchett’s argument, as he describes India as a “flailing state,” in other words a state in which “the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but … no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs” (Pritchett 2009:4). The “limbs” here refer to the lower levels of the bureaucracy, where indifference, absenteeism and corruption are supposedly rampant.

15Mathur (2016:17) discards corruption as an explanation, stating that the “excessive focus on corruption detracts from the core issues of how the Indian state actually functions, what it does, when, how and why.” She does not refute its existence, but she invites us to forsake our moral judgment and look at how corruption actually takes place, why and with what effects. As for Gupta (2012:91), he does consider corruption as one of the main modalities through which violence is exercised on the poor, underlining how “everyday corruption is one of the mechanisms that convert the site of care and the provision of state welfare into a form of violence,” by excluding poor people “from the very programs that are set up for their benefit” (Gupta 2012:109). However, using his previous work on this issue (Gupta 1995), he calls for complexifying our understanding of the way corruption works. Through different vignettes from his fieldwork, he shows that poor people are not entirely powerless when they face corruption, but are, sometimes, able to “use the various levels of the state to obtain some leverage in dealing with corrupt officials” (Gupta 2012:35). Secondly, one’s ability to deal with corruption and to negotiate does not depend only on economic, but also on cultural, educational, and social capital. Thirdly, Gupta shows that corruption is not to be found only at the lower levels of state bureaucracies: it is fundamental to the bureaucratic and political structure, lower-level officials being “only one link in a chain of corrupt practices that extends to the apex of state organizations and reaches far beyond them to electoral politics” (Gupta 2012:91; see also Wade 1982). Finally, Gupta (2012) draws attention to narratives of corruption, as they contribute to shape people’s expectations about the state, to produce the boundary between the state and society, and to perpetuate and banalize corrupt practices.

16All three authors emphasize the need to take into account the transnational dimension of discourses on corruption (Gupta 2012). As Mathur (2016:20) underlines it, the “international development apparatus … consistently characterizes states in the Global South as, somehow, lacking and aberrant,” and keeps calling for more transparency and accountability, seen as one-all solutions to corruption. Qureshi (2018:99) casts light on how deviation from the formal procedure might be considered in a Western context “as an exercise of ‘personal initiative,’ valuable for potentially improving an organization’s capacity and efficiency,” but would often be considered as “corruption, nepotism or tribalism in the context of ‘Third World’ bureaucracies.” Accusations of corruption have often been used to get developing-country governments to submit “to the market- and private-sector logics of international financial institutions and donors” (Qureshi 2018:8–9).

17This leads us to Qureshi’s own approach regarding the issue of South Asian states’ underperformance. Rather than asking why and how the state fails to implement development programs, he asks “how ‘success’ is produced” (Qureshi quoting Mosse 2005:7). He shows how the common understanding of the Pakistani state’s lack of capacity and of its continuous failure to “abide by global ‘best practices’” along with its supposed inability to care for criminalized and marginalized populations have led foreign donors to subcontract HIV/AIDS prevention to NGOs and the private sector (Qureshi 2018:5). He thus calls for a shift towards scrutinizing the practical effects of these global norms.

State procedures, state papers

18The three books offer very important insights into the inner workings of South Asian states and their obsession with paper and procedures, underlining the role of emotions in the day-to-day working of the state, and the intricate relationship of official documents and data to truth.

19As regards the obsession with paper and procedures, Qureshi (2018:86) underlines its historical antecedents: the “Pakistani bureaucracy has often been acclaimed as the inheritor of the proceduralist bureaucracy of the kaghazi raj, or ‘document rule,’ of the British colonial administration.” In his book on paper and graphic artifacts in urban governance in Pakistan, Matthew Hull underlines the “continuity of the colonial material infrastructure,” especially “documentary writing,” which “has long been recognized as an essential element of modern governance” and was “an especially central component of colonial government in South Asia” (Hull 2012:6–7). He finds the origins of this overreliance on paper, records and files in the functioning of the East India Company, especially its need for “regulating day-to-day actions of officers and employees” stationed far away, but also in “the elaborate written procedures of the Mughals” (Hull 2012:7–10).

20In the case of contemporary India, Mathur evocatively uses the expression “Paper state” to describe the “enmeshment of paper” with the state (Mathur 2016:61). She writes that the “everyday life of the state … is constituted through the enactment of routine bureaucratic practices centered upon the production, consumption and circulation of documents and the convening of meetings” (Mathur 2016:145). In other words, “writing is constitutive of the state” and should not be considered or understood as “a substitute for action,” but as “itself a form of action” (Gupta 2012:36). It is indeed “one of the chief activities of bureaucrats; it is not secondary or subsequent to bureaucratic activity” (Gupta 2012:188). Mathur provides us with a sharp and detailed analysis of how the life of the NREGA law is mostly made up of paper. It is in the continuous writing, proof-reading, and circulating of documents, reports, and letters, along with the organization of meetings that are centered around the production and inspection of the same documents, that the law takes on life and is considered to be under implementation. Even in a context of crisis, when a big cat starts attacking and killing residents of Gopeshwar, the first action of bureaucrats is to write “a flurry of letters” and to document the crisis through the collection of “evidence accumulated in documentary form” (Mathur 2016:150,155).

21As Gupta (2012:191) points out, the importance given to the written word and to paper by bureaucracies in the South Asian context is not unique; yet it is significant, because “bureaucrats, at least at lower levels, often have to deal with a population of clients who are largely illiterate.” He then develops a subtle analysis of the relationship between literacy and empowerment. His objective is “to break the chain of causation that leads straight from literacy to domination” (Gupta 2012:191), and to underline the capacities of the poor to contest the power of the state and of bureaucrats.

22Gupta shows how and why complaints are rarely submitted or fail to do what they are supposed to do. He describes the reluctance of poor people to submit such documents, which finds its source, according to him, not in the absence of formal literacy, but rather in the lack of cultural or political capital. Those who have political connections, economic capital and/or better knowledge of the workings of the state are the ones who would consider engaging with the state. For others, complaints are seen as potentially useless, but also dangerous, as they might lead to retaliation or antagonize powerful people. This reluctance to submit complaints echoes with the fright with which bureaucrats receive them. Indeed, as Gupta (2012:144) puts it, “writing (is) not merely a weapon wielded by powerful bureaucrats to dominate their hapless and often illiterate clients,” but a potentially double-edged sword and bureaucrats do their best to avoid complaints. Both Gupta and Mathur describe different strategies they use to avoid receiving them, such as questioning their legitimacy, identifying technicalities, finding reasons for delays, or even forgetting or getting rid of them. Finally, Gupta (2012:37) defends the idea that the poor are not just passive victims: they employ different tactics “to contest the power of literate bureaucrats.” This includes making sure their children learn how to read and write, participating in the political sphere and, sometimes, resorting “to counterfeit certificates and affidavits” (Gupta 2012:232).

Bringing back the affective dimension of the state

23What emerges here is the diversity of emotions that official papers and written documents, such as complaints or certificates, can provoke and entail. Whereas the affective dimension that citizens give to official writings and inscriptions has been documented,7 fewer works deal with the emotions of bureaucrats as they relate to the written words (Cody 2009). Hull (2003:289) for instance talks, in the case of the Pakistani bureaucracy, of the “routine anxiety” that accompanies “even the most uncontroversial writings.” Mathur’s ethnography shows how, beyond the “unvarying routine and banal, repetitive, pedantic work on documents of various kinds” (Mathur 2016:101), state writing is not necessarily “uniform,” “dry,” or “authoritarian” (Mathur 2016:114). She describes how official letter writing is conceived of as an art, a skill that few possess, which requires an attention to detail and an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the state and of its hierarchies. She further mentions how “considerable time, energy and emotion is invested by middle- and lower-level bureaucrats in to the process of producing letters” (Mathur 2016:115).

24This contributes more largely to present “bureaucratic practices and the spaces within which they are undertaken as shot through with affect” (Mathur 2016:134). As evident as this might seem, it is important to highlight this feature to finally depart from the misreading of the Weberian conception of the bureaucracy as devoid of emotions (Bear and Mathur 2015; Belorgey 2020). Qureshi (2018:91) describes the NACP as “enchanted,” underlining “the ‘romantic quality’” of life within department, which includes “rumour, gossip, whispering, back-biting, jokes and laughter.” He also describes the emotions, affects and insecurities of the bureaucrats and contractual employees as they face the potential end of the World Bank’s funding. This crisis led to “survival politics” “that precipitated heightened emotions in everyday exchange” and to the discharge of “hitherto submerged distrust, rivalries and resentment” (Qureshi 2018:111). This resonates with Mathur’s description of the fear and confusion of bureaucrats faced with public pressure to kill the big cat and the ensuing daylight exposure of interdepartmental conflicts.

25This brings us to the question of “the compliance of functionaries with the state’s rules and procedures” (Mathur 2016:135). Gupta (2012:160) underlines the role of inspections, which he defines as “procedures in which the disciplining of subjects and subordinates is carried out.” He shows how these inspections do not focus on what has been done or on the results of the policy under implementation, but rather on the respect for the stipulated procedure, to the extent that one could define procedure as ideology. These inspections are a state ritual, quite routinized, but for those inspected, they are accompanied by a feeling of uncertainty. Thus, Gupta describes how state employees take part in what he calls anticipatory inscription, in other words anticipatory writing, to have proof that they have done their job correctly in case of an inspection. This practice does “not necessarily make officials function more effectively or efficiently,” but it does “result in the production of documents attesting to their capability” (Gupta 2012:162). The discipline of bureaucracy thus leads lower-level bureaucrats to “pay attention to the targets rather than to the welfare of the people being targeted,” in other words, to “execut(e) programs on paper,” rather than to care “for how well they are implemented” (Gupta 2012:48).

26In a recent article on the National Register of Citizens, Mathur (2020) talks of the “blind proceduralism” of the Indian bureaucracy and explains how bureaucrats follow procedures as a way to protect themselves from blame and audits. In her book, she underlines how the production and circulation of written documents act as a “protective shield” in a time of crisis, when the unpredictability of the big cat’s attacks throws the different district level administrations into a panic (Mathur 2016:112). However, for Mathur (Mathur 2016:135), hierarchy, discipline and violence alone cannot “explain the eagerness to learn how to properly fit in and become sarkari.” One has to take into account the affective dimension and the “aspirational and deeply desirable” meaning of belonging to the state apparatus (Mathur 2016:136). She especially stresses the role of meetings as “key means through which a member of the state learns how to act and behave like one who is associated with Bharat Sarkar” (Mathur 2016:118). During meetings, one learns “where to sit, when to stand up, when to speak, what to say,” and to focus on targets. The participants also discover what are acceptable reasons for delays in implementation or disappointing results (Mathur 2016:133). This affective dimension of the insertion into the world of Sarkar is visible in Qureshi’s work when he describes the “politics of inclusion and exclusion” in which civil society organizations find themselves (Qureshi 2018:126). It also appears in Gupta’s work when he talks about women involved in state care programs as “voluntary workers.” Taking pride in their ability to care for and teach young children, but feeling undervalued, they complain about their working conditions and fight for the regularization of their jobs (Sharma 2006). While doing so, they contrast the quality of their work with the supposed lack of commitment of government employees.

What about the truth?

  • 8 “Farzee” can be translated by fake.

27Meetings are also moments during which the complex relationship between the “sarkari version of events” and the “asli” or real version comes to the fore (Mathur 2016:62). The relationship between official documents and truth has been detailed by authors such as Tarlo (2001:77) who, in her work on the Emergency in Delhi, underlined how governments documents and archives may not only reveal official truths but also conceal unofficial truths. As Mathur (2016:167) puts it, “by definition, sarkari documents and statistics possess a complicated relationship with the real (asli), and might be—but then again, might not be— farzee.”8 She describes how lower-level bureaucrats tinker with official figures, because they are unable to abide by the rules. Senior bureaucrats often warn their subordinates “against continuing with fraudulent practices,” while at the same time, telling them “to ‘fix’ the papers or reports” (Mathur 2016:130). This leads to a “doublethink,” where what is on paper is both considered untrustworthy, if not entirely and necessarily false, but at the same time, the only thing that does actually matter (Mathur 2016:131). Mathur (2020) thus underlines the widespread and “constant doubting of the veracity of almost all documents, especially those submitted by citizens.”

28Gupta tackles the issue of the relationship between bureaucracy and truth with a focus on statistics. He underlines how “transnational governmentality has made the use of statistics to compare states with each other more important than ever before” (Gupta 2012:158). So much so, that statistics have become an “end that states aspire to achieve” (Gupta 2012:158). This is especially the case in India, where generating data has historically been a core activity of the bureaucracy and a central element of welfare programs targeting the poor. Yet, both the accuracy of the data and its actual use by the state are questionable. This leads him to question the biopolitical nature of the Indian state. For biopolitics, accuracy of data is highly important. But, if the primary objective of data generation is to present the state as a cohesive entity, the accuracy of data becomes less critical than the process of collecting and aggregating it.

Neoliberalism and the state

29All three authors provide in-depth analyses of the consequences of neoliberalism to the state. Drawing on Collier and Ong (2005), Mathur (2016:12) convincingly advocates for studying neoliberalism as a “pervasive form of political rationality.” As is now widely acknowledged, neoliberalism does not necessarily mean a retreat, but rather a reshaping of the state and of its interventions. The programs studied by the different authors are not necessarily epitomes of neoliberal policies, but they do show that neoliberal values permeate almost all aspects of state action. Qureshi and Gupta, for instance, insist on the buzzwords that now lie at the core of development or health programs. These new slogans bring about an ideological shift that has potential impact on the populations targeted by the programs and on the functioning of the state. As Mathur underlines, these buzzwords are so often bundled together that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between them. For purposes of clarity, I here distinguish three clusters.

30The first relates to empowerment and self-help. As Gupta writes, the neoliberal era brings along “a new set of antipoverty initiatives that stresse(s) self-help and emphasize(s) that the poor could take the initiative and use the market to help themselves rather than rely on government assistance and handouts” (Gupta 2012:242). Mathur (2016:13) similarly describes how NREGA is based on the concept of “self-selection,” where the rural unemployed are charged with self-enforcing their right to work. Thus, the state is reframed as a “facilitator of development and as an empowering agent” (Gupta 2012:250).

31Relating to this first cluster, a second promotes participation and capacity-building. The idea is to encourage participatory modes of governance and to foster non-governmental organizations, by involving civil society members in the decision-making and implementation processes (Qureshi 2018). As Qureshi (2018) underlines, the promotion of participation is based on the presupposition that civil society organizations will be more efficient at providing care than the state. He, however, shows how these participatory modes of governance can cause conflicts between government agencies and NGOs and, at least in his ethnography, turn “AIDS activism … into a competitive ‘market of dispossession’” (Qureshi 2018:194). He also signals that, despite its radical origins, the paradigm of participation was coopted by institutions such as the World Bank. Brought together, empowerment and participation facilitate “neoliberal goals of small and good government” (Sharma 2006:64). In the case of the HIV/AIDS sector in Pakistan, Qureshi (2018:82) furthermore argues that the involvement of non-governmental organizations has prevented the formation of a “sustainable public-sector response to the epidemic.”

32Finally, and again related, a third cluster promotes transparency, accountability, and efficiency. These buzzwords emphasize a “critical scrutiny of every state action” (Mathur 2016:171). They are an answer, while at the same time contributing, “to the increasingly widespread crisis of trust in public institutions and the state” (Mathur 2016:171). They target the inner functioning of the state in the hope of making it more transparent, more flexible and more cost- and time-effective. As for the bureaucrats, they are “empowered … to discipline themselves as ‘enterprising selves’” (Qureshi 2018:23), like the targets of the programs they implement.

  • 9 Mahila Samakhya is a program for the empowerment of women in rural areas.

33How do these buzzwords impact care programs and the functioning of the bureaucracy? The diversity of answers given by the different authors bear testimony to the complexity and diversity of effects of neoliberal rationality. Whereas Mathur and Qureshi mostly focus on how neoliberal values and buzzwords impact bureaucrats, the inner functioning of the state and that of development/health programs, Gupta asks how the care of the poor changes with the emergence of this new regime. He compares two programs, one planned and launched before the liberalization of the economy and one after. This is an interesting and potentially rich methodology, but, in the case of Gupta’s analysis, it falls a bit short, as the data he uses for the program launched after liberalization is not based on his own fieldwork, but on Aradhana Sharma’s study of the Mahila Samakhya program9 (Sharma 2006).

34Based on the comparison between his and Sharma’s works, Gupta advocates the adoption of a disaggregated view of the state when analyzing the consequences of reforms. We should not assume that changes or shifts happening at one level or in one sector may happen similarly at every level or in every sector of the state’s intervention. The influence of reforms “on lower levels of government and on agencies not directly connected to sectors such as large industries or consumer goods is much less obvious” than on higher levels of the administration (Gupta 2012:241). He calls for “studying everyday actions of particular branches of the state to understand what has in fact changed and at which levels” and to focus less on the wording of policies and more on their implementation (Gupta 2012:272).

35The advent of neoliberal ideology does not indeed necessarily entail changes in the day-to-day workings of the state. In the case of the two programs he compares, Gupta defends the idea that significant similarities can be observed in their operation. These include the perseverance of the “biopolitical goal of mapping the population,” which leads to the abundant production of numbers, data, and statistics; a constant evaluation and surveillance of the program through statistics, or performance indexes; and the exploitation of poor women who, in both cases, are given an ambivalent status where they are both workers and beneficiaries (Gupta 2012:272). These women are paid very low wages for their work and do not benefit from any of the advantages that usually go along with a government job (security, status, benefits, etc.). There is no substantiated empirical proof that the advent of the neoliberal ideology and of the buzzwords that have accompanied it has “left the poor more vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and unemployment” (Gupta 2012:278).

36Mathur (2016:4) tackles this issue of continuity and change by showing how “contemporary neo-liberal dictums of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ are exacerbating” the Indian state’s historical obsession with paper. There is a “foundational assumption that transparency is materially produced or, in other words, transparent governance emerges from control over and access to state documents and records” (Mathur 2016:84). This leads to an “explosion of paperwork” and meetings, and to an “ever-expanding reliance on documents as constituting concrete evidence of the expending state labor and production of ‘results’” (Mathur 2016:4). The need to produce this massive amount of paperwork, data, and reports often leads to the hiring of consultants and contract-based employees to make-up for the dwindling of the permanent staff (Girard 2019).

37Mathur (2016:30) also demonstrates how the “transparency-making documents” have rendered the implementation of NREGA very difficult. NREGA shares the objectives of previous employment schemes but, as these were considered corruption-prone, the planners of NREGA introduced new safeguards. These included job cards, which were supposed to remain in the workers’ possession. Despite the widespread misuse of the job card (it was often either not distributed to the workers, or not filled out or filled out incorrectly), its introduction led to a disruption of the contractor raj, “the ‘traditional’ arrangement” “through which rural employment schemes ran” (Mathur 2016:90). In this context, contractors and others who usually benefited from this arrangement preferred to focus their attention on other development programs.

38For his part, Qureshi (2018:7) aims at looking at the “social lives” of neoliberal policies. He underlines how a new focus on “entrepreneurial governance” (Qureshi 2018:59) was introduced, which aimed at “shelving the reputed ‘red tape’ of rules, regulations and procedures of the government bureaucracy” and at “restructur(ing) the government’s bureaucratic management of HIV/AIDS prevention along the lines of an ‘efficient’ business” (Qureshi (2018:43–44). This new work culture stressed flexibility, scalable and cost-effective solutions, short-term goals and output-based performance. For Qureshi (2018:89), this led to a “blend, of traditional proceduralist bureaucracy, with its customs, rules and regulations reminiscent of the former British colonial administration, and the culture of a new and flexible, market-oriented organization.” The hybridity of the ‘new’ organization was visible in its staff, which brought together a large number of contractual employees, technical and management consultants, NGO workers and experts with civil servants, “combining different styles of management and bringing different logics and rationales to work” (Qureshi 2018:46). Interestingly, Qureshi (2018:88) observes that in the everyday life of the office there was “a real blending of talents, despite the distinct ‘legal and affectual contracts’ of the staff.” Only in a time of crisis did the tensions emerge between those with permanent government employee’s status and those who were hired on a contract basis (Qureshi 2018:88).

39Qureshi explores how these changes impacted bureaucrats, while underlining how the latter were pivotal in implementing and translating these very same changes. He thus shines light on state employees’ emotions and affects under neoliberal rule. The new culture of work fostered an “emphasis on individual initiative and go-getting” and “new forms of patron-client relations” (Qureshi 2018:201). Qureshi (2018:94) talks about an “entanglement of a bureaucratic, entrepreneurial, and political ethos.” This impacted the relationship between senior and junior colleagues and led to constant concern amongst employees “about their value or depreciation in ‘human capital’ markets” (Qureshi 2018:100). This favored, amongst other dynamics, the exploitation of junior colleagues and corruption. Qureshi (2018:201) however insists that one should not simply write off the staff of NACP as opportunists, underlining how they “sought to align their personal interests with those of the greater good.”


40The three books under review show how relevant a focus on state agents and the inner functioning of the state can be. They show the importance of taking into account the practices, experiences and emotions of bureaucrats so as to understand why the state is a “Paper Tiger” as Mathur puts it, in other words, both powerful and ineffectual. They encourage us to systematically complexify what is taken for granted, such as the usual explanations for the disappointing results, and sometimes the downright failure of development or health programs. The diversity of their analyses and conclusions, however, shows the complexity of the state as an object of study. As regards the states’ obsession with paper and procedures and why bureaucrats not only comply, but often readily contribute to it, Gupta’s and Mathur’s approaches are complementary. To the disciplining effect of inspections should be added the social and emotional appeal of belonging to the state apparatus. Both authors denounce the violence that this blind proceduralism and fascination with paper often leads to. Yet one cannot help but regret the absence of more details about the social profiles of the bureaucrats and the extent to which this factor impacts their relationship with their colleagues and with the public.

41All three authors disregard the idea that neoliberalism has brought a complete overhaul of the state. Each ethnography shows how neoliberal ideologies and policies build up through the “cumulative time layers” that make bureaucracies (Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan 2019:11). Their analyses validate Gupta’s argument that one needs to look at the impact of neoliberalism on different levels of the state and on different sectors, without presuming systematic radical change. It is in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and in agencies situated at the center (Qureshi) that the changes are the most pronounced, whereas change seems to slowly trickle down to remote places such as Gopeshwar (Mathur). In the mountainous district’s administration, change arrives through transparency clauses that lead to an explosion of paperwork and to the influx of new actors (Mathur). We however need further inquiry to better understand how such a set of changes impacts the population targeted by these programs.

42This leads me to underline the possibilities that these books open up for the study of the state. First, we require more socio-historical approaches to understand how, historically, the sociology of state agents has evolved, such as the study conducted by Dalal Benbabaali (2008) on Indian Administrative Service officers. We do not know enough about the collective and individual trajectories nor about the life stories of bureaucrats at different levels of the state apparatus in South Asian countries. The books under review also contribute to highlighting the growing importance of individuals situated on the blurred boundary between state and society (Gupta 1995) and the diversity of the “politics of inclusion and exclusion” which is at play (Qureshi 2018:126). Whether they are NGO or “voluntary” workers (Sharma 2006), contractual employees (Bear and Mathur 2015; Qureshi 2018), or consultants, it is important to explore the personal and professional trajectories of these actors, their relationship to the state and to the work and practices of bureaucracies, and how they might contribute (or not) to changing them.

43Second, an emerging body of literature is focusing on the impact of rising populism and democratic backsliding on public administrations (Bauer and Becker 2020; Wood et al. 2021). These studies highlight the importance of studying the policy agendas of populist leaders as regards public administration, as well as the impact of populist discourses on bureaucracies, the reforms that are actually implemented, and the reactions of bureaucrats to these evolutions. In a context of rising authoritarianism and populism in contemporary India, it is urgent that we study how the relationship between the political realm and the administration is evolving. We further need to understand how this impacts bureaucrats, everyday practices and power relations in the bureaucracy at different levels as well as the interactions between state employees and the public.

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1 Akhil Gupta is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Nayanika Mathur is Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford.

2 Launched in the mid-2000s, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is one of the most ambitious welfare programs in India. It guarantees 100 days of employment each year to rural households.

3 By this term, the author refers to the diverse and numerous writing practices of the bureaucracy.

4 Ayaz Qureshi is senior lecturer in Medical Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

5 Such as Laura Bear’s Navigating Austerity (2015) and Matthew Hull’s Government of Paper (2012), which has been reviewed in this journal by Hafeez A. Jamali (

6 The Hindi term "Sarkar" can be translated by “State” or “Government.” It can also be used to address someone respectfully (Mathur 2016:22).

7 See for instance the review of T. Sriraman’s book (2018) in this journal:

8 “Farzee” can be translated by fake.

9 Mahila Samakhya is a program for the empowerment of women in rural areas.

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Electronic reference

Bérénice Girard, Of Violence, Paper and Neoliberalism: Bureaucracy and the Everyday State in South AsiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 27 June 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Bérénice Girard

Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Stavanger, Norway; Associate Postdoctoral Fellow, CESAH, Paris, France

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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