Rajesh VeeraraghavanApr 11, 2023
Information Politics and Social Reform in India
Rajesh Veeraraghavan’s Patching Development: Information Politics and Social Change in India (Oxford University Press, 2022) offers the first ethnographically grounded perspective on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005), which was promulgated as a welfare oriented ‘right to work’ scheme by the Indian Parliament at the recommendation of civil society organizations and development economists like Jean Dréze.
The book presents a granular case study of the implementation of the scheme in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, and more specifically, the process of “auditing” that addresses many of the information and technological asymmetries that exist on-the-ground. Veeraraghavan also takes us to Araria, Bihar and his initial research forays in the field (where I first met him as one of the volunteer facilitators of a social audit myself) to show the tensions in the production of these audits, and the difficulty in having marginalized citizens’ voices heard in the face of local elite pressure. Given the complexities that animate the delivery of a scheme from abstract law to tangible results like finished roads and money received by those who performed the labor to finish those roads, success itself is never a guarantee.
In order mitigate these kinds of uncertainties, he argues that these landscapes are navigated by bureaucrats to produce a socio-technical, infrastructural system reliant on the mechanism of ‘patching,’—instantly familiar to anyone who has done any work in software development. Patching, here, implies an iterative and evolving practice of measuring and responding to outcomes. In the process, Veeraraghavan powerfully and persuasively makes the case for playing closer attention to how information technology and politics mix, in rural India—unsettling the narrative of urban spaces as the primary bearers of and responders to technology, and urging a thorough reexamination of development studies and science and technology studies paradigms.
Archit Guha is a PhD researcher in the Duke University History Department.