This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with Arkaja Singh, a Fellow at CPR, who has worked across a whole range of topics broadly converging around the idea of ‘administrative coherence.
Having studied at the National Law School and SOAS, Singh spent a decade in development sector consulting and research before joining CPR. She has conducted research across a wide span of topics – from sanitation and manual scavenging to informal settlements and land titling to the framework of the Indian administrative state. The throughline across these different areas is a focus on understanding why government operates in the way it does, and what it would take to alter and reform it, not just in operations but in its international rationale.
In our conversation with Singh, we spoke about her years as a ‘governance consultant’ and how that differs from her time at CPR, what she means by ‘administrative coherence’ and her research into the municipal state. We also spoke about Singh’s research on how we cannot understand about access to water without first tackling the state’s approach to land, whether there is sufficient thinking about rationalities and histories within government and what advice she has for young scholars entering the policy space.
You can listen to the entire conversation as a podcast here, or read the whole transcript now.
(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell us a little bit about what brought you into the policy space?
I came into the world of adults in the year 2000, when I joined a law firm which had a practice in infrastructure and public policy. Its seeds were in India’s structural adjustment and liberalisation process – the world of PPPs and concession agreements, privatisation, electricity sector and reforms.
The world I saw was divided between (those supporting) privatisation and liberal reform on one side and the anti-privatisation activism on the other side. At the time, it seemed as if you had to pick a side. I didn’t really want to, because neither of these were fully complete or satisfactory ideas, and it was as if there was going to be a face-off. But actually that face-off never happened. And I think one of the interesting things about the last few decades is how it all got absorbed and subsumed into what was happening in the Indian state. That’s where I started.
I did some corporate and commercial work, but I also worked in the law firm’s infrastructure and public policy practice. I was a newly minted lawyer so I was doing work that was quite low down in the food chain. But some of the work that we were involved with was around the unbundling and restructuring of the electricity sector – infrastructure sector concession contracts, the new Electricity Act – all this thinking going on about the structuring of public private partnerships, legal contractual aspects of public private partnerships, and how risk sharing was to be divided and allocated in that contractual form. This was some of the work that I was around.
What happened next? How did you make the jump more firmly into policy?
I went to do a Masters at SOAS in London. Just when I was finishing, I was looking around for what I wanted to do next. I had the option of going back to the law firm. But I was looking around – and then I encountered a very interesting bunch of people in London who ran a consulting firm that worked in International Development. They had a big and very exciting project in India, and they were looking for somebody to fill a big gap that had emerged in how they were going to do this project. I had been reading some of the work that this consulting firm was doing, and found their way of thinking about this stuff interesting. So I met them and they said, we have this project to study the political economy of public administration reform in South Asia, and we’re interested in understanding tactics and strategies, and the project is structured in this way. Do you think you can get into it? And I was like, this is exactly the type of job I thought I would do and I couldn’t even imagine a job that would be more perfect than this. I jumped at it and stayed on with them for almost a decade.
What was the work actually like? What did it entail?
Our client for that particular project was a bilateral development agency. The nature of this kind of development consulting work was that a lot of it was funded by either bilateral or multilateral international agencies. Very little of it was directly funded by governments in the developing world context and in the South Asian context in particular. This project was meant to be a comparative study between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. I was supposed to do India. And in that we picked two Indian states to look at various aspects of the governance reform process, what would be broadly categorised as administrative reform. We would look at what these states did in the field of administrative reform, the historical context, political background, why it happened, and whatever tactics and strategy we could try and disentangle from the story of that reform.
I had to go to these states and many lovely weeks were spent there, meeting bureaucrats, civil servants and local academics. I got to work with a senior colleague who’s a South African political scientist, and I think that was very formative for me. It really helped me work through my ideas and taught me how to articulate what I was learning.
Following this project, and as you spent this decade at the consultancy, were you gravitating toward particular fields?
A lot of our specialisation was in cities and in inclusive urban development. To start with, that choice was accidental. But I think the continuing challenge and excitement of understanding cities is something that kept me engaged. And just to sidestep, to say how these projects come about: your proposals are evaluated on the basis of the expertise of your team and its previous projects. So if you develop a specialisation in certain areas, you’re likely to do more and more of that work. However, because I became a governance consultant, my area was perhaps a bit broader than what it would have been if I had been an urban planner. Because of that I got to work on a wider set of projects. I also worked on the business development side and wrote proposals. Some of our work was studies of the type I described, but some were project concept studies related to the structure and design of future interventions and then some of it was relating to actually implementing large programs or then evaluating the results or the outcomes of large programs.
To demystify for the audience a bit, what is a governance consultant?
It could mean many different things. In a public administration reform study, it could mean understanding the reform, literature, writing, the actual content of the reform, the institutional story of that reform – all of that could be part of my work.
To share an anecdote – some years later I was working on a project in Madhya Pradesh and I had been made responsible for coordinating the city level implementation of an urban poverty program in the city of Gwalior. We were supposed to set up an office inside the Municipal Corporation in Gwalior. I had a team which consisted of several experts who were all older than me, who were all men and who had worked in many more places than me and I was supposed to coordinate them and organise the whole project. I was the face of this project and had to hold all the pieces together. I told my senior colleague, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do over here because this is an urban project, but I’m not an urban planner. There was an accounting and finance aspect of it, but that was not my expertise. They were all engineers. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t have any specialisation in anything related to this project. And this senior colleague said, you are a governance consultant. You have to take a step back and as you go along, you’ll see that what you have to do is very valuable. Just apply yourself and you’ll figure it out. And often the brief was something like this: Apply yourself and figure it out.
We’ll dip back into how some of this worked, but to go back to the career path – what took you into CPR following this?
I started to move out of the consulting world in about 2015 and it was in early 2016 that I came to CPR. I knew the people at CPR, and they knew quite a lot about me. There was a lot of very exciting work on cities going on in CPR at the time. My colleague Shubhagato Dasgupta had recently set up a large program on non-sewered sanitation. I said, ‘but I’m not a sanitation expert’ and he said, ‘I think we need your skills here as well.’ It was that conversation that led to my coming to CPR.
Did you find that the actual activity changed majorly between those two positions or was it just a matter of degree?
Even though in the content of my ideas there might be strong continuities between those two things, I think the frame changed a lot between consulting and being in CPR. The scope and also the freedom to define your own agenda was much broader in CPR than it would be within the framework of a consulting project. Also in consulting I had reached the limit before I had to become a business person. In CPR, I could remain interested in the world of ideas and whatever mountain we were chipping away at. It was a very different way of looking at that mountain. There was much more of an idea of publicness in the nature of what we were doing.
Consultants and academics do actually have much more in common than they think. There is a continuity of public spiritedness that I encountered on both sides and across most of the places that I have worked in. But if you’re writing a report within the frame of implementing a government program, you’re much more constrained. In a think tank, the space is much wider. You can define it very differently. You can ask more fundamental questions. You can engage with more fundamental questions. But there is a publicness to both and I think, having had a look at both sides has been something that I’ve valued.
You’ve worked across a whole range of subjects and with different teams, including at CPR. You’ve worked with the Urban group, the State Capacity group, with the Land Rights Initiative, on Water and Federalism. I’d like to delve into some of these topics, but would you say there’s a broader theme or a thrust to your areas of interest?
For some years now, I’ve been thinking about this idea of administrative coherence as the running thread through various parts of my work and things that I have engaged with. It’s made-up of the everyday interactions between law and administrative practice inside the state. In its building blocks, it includes things like rules, standards, norms and the frame of reasoning of how administrative power is structured, and how it is reasoned and exercised. The ways in which it is controlled, its checks and balances, methods of accountability and how it engages with the claims of society, and of course the capacity question. This approach of looking at state practice has been a running theme through many of the things that I have done.
If we could take that broad idea and begin to understand what it means, what does it mean to be looking at administrative coherence on the ground? You’ve looked at it, for example, in the context of the municipal state…
First I should say what I mean by the municipal state. The centre of the municipal state are the local bodies – the municipal corporations and municipalities. The elected local body is at the third tier of governance. But the municipal state is actually not just that, because it’s quite fragmented and there are quite a lot of different agencies that are responsible or that engage with the parts of activity that to a lay person would be considered urban, including water, sanitation, land, planning and buildings, transport. So it’s a cluster of different agencies of which the municipality may be only one. There is a formal 74th amendment of the Indian Constitution which lays down a constitutional mandate saying all cities have to have elected local bodies and they should be progressively given more and more of a role. But the actual content of how big and what the profile of the municipal institution is, is quite regional and it has particular regional trajectories and historical context.
A long time ago, I wrote a paper on the colonial history of local bodies because the earliest local bodies in India were set up from the 1860s onwards. The earliest forms of modern elected government were the local bodies. Some of the very prominent local bodies such as the Calcutta City Corporation and Chennai City Corporation and Bombay and even some of the smaller places in western and southern India have their origin in that time.
Then there is the more recent reform trajectory that has been driven by the Centre in India’s federal context. This basket of things that get called municipal reform and their interactions with the regional contexts and the politics that it encounters – and this includes a bunch of things like digitization and property tax reform and computerisation, some of the very obvious things and some of the things that might be a little surprising. But we have a two-decade history of this cluster of things that go with the municipal state. What is administrative coherence in this particular context? It is the everyday state of the municipalities, which is in some ways shaped by law.
There are different vantage points to look at it. There is the PIL form of law around the municipal state not doing what it’s supposed to have been doing, and being challenged in the court of law. This is a particular kind of adversarial frame which defines in legal terms what the municipality is supposed to do.
In administrative terms, it’s sometimes measured and accounted for by projects and fund utilisation. This is located very much in the context of urban development being an unfinished agenda. There’s a larger context of the development of Indian cities being a longue durée continuing agenda and the municipal state is not a static form in that. It’s very much like it’s still being built. It’s incomplete in many ways. In the perspective of administrative coherence that I’m talking about, there is the possibility of making a qualitative understanding of what these institutions are and in what ways they are complete or incomplete, when viewed from the dimension of what they do – on human rights, rule of law and their environmental outcomes. Understanding the administrative state from its internal structures and logic and rationalities is perhaps the best way to understand what I mean by administrative coherence.
Let’s talk about the right to water. Your work has shown that we can’t understand access to water, and the right to water, particularly for those living in informal urban spaces, without first thinking about land.
In this particular paper, I was looking at the human right to water in the context of Indian municipalities. It was trying to understand the lack of universal access to drinking water in informal urban settlements. I looked at the rules and the rationalities with which the municipal state operated and its inherent contradictions and limitations. While there is enough to go around, the broader problem is that the goal of universal access is undermined by inherent and under-examined contradictions in how municipalities are supposed to plan, deliver and implement drinking water services.
I looked at the case law and, surprisingly considering the context, there was this really small scattering of cases that relate to the human right to water in urban contexts. This is because it’s an unwieldy problem. And the court is unlikely to be able to do something very useful. So it’s probably strategic and tactical that people are not really going to the courts over this issue. The issue itself relates to the nature of the settlements that people live in, which are unplanned and informal. They might have problems in terms of having incomplete tenurial claims to the land, but also the settlements don’t completely fit or conform to planning regulation. They don’t have all the approvals. The reason why people are in these settlements is often because it is the only type of housing that they can afford to live in. So there are larger numbers of people in these places and they do have some kinds of access to water. That access has also improved over time. It’s improved vastly in the past few decades. But when you look more closely at how that access is structured, it is not of the same grade. There’s a second-grade access that people in informal settlements have to water. And that second grade access can impose very harsh difficulties on the people who live there.
So I examined what the obstacles were and how they were negotiated on an everyday basis. I looked at this one particular case which relates to Bombay, where people in those settlements were getting regular piped municipal water and then there was a policy change which cut off those water connections, or made them illegal. They had fully legal access which became illegal. I had read about this case being celebrated as a recognition of the human right to water by the Indian courts. But when I read what the court gave them, the actual outcome for people was still dependent on a policy that the government was yet to formulate. The court also said that these people actually don’t have a right to be here and the Municipal Corporation should be working to remove them from these illegal dwellings and that they didn’t have an equal claim to the city services as did citizens who lived in formal and planned colonies. It seemed quite dissatisfactory even though it was celebrated as a kind of human rights victory. The policy of cutting off water was linked to the slum rehabilitation strategy of Mumbai, which was a very land driven housing program which I’ve written about. To justify the slum rehabilitation policy, they needed to make this water cut-off policy.
And then I took a step away from this and looked at the municipal practice around drinking water access in urban slums in Madhya Pradesh. There’s a little bit more fluidity to what municipalities can do on the ground when people make proper concerted claims for getting or improving their drinking water access. There is a stack of paperwork because the informal settlements don’t have full planning status and because people’s title claims are incomplete. Strictly on paper, municipalities don’t necessarily need these two things – formal planning status and title claims – to provide water. But if they sanction a project to go and serve these settlements, it serves as a ratification of the planning violations and the land title issues.
Their rules require them to ensure that the person (receiving piped water) should be an owner of the property. So now they need to find something equivalent to a title. That equivalent is a whole cluster of documents that the person needs to assemble. Along with that, they need to organise political mobilisation and collective pressure on the institution. And then they might ultimately get a better quality of a community tap or a better quality of community-level or neighbourhood-level access. The straightforward house connection that you and I might consider that the municipality should be giving, doesn’t come so easily. In spite of the fact that there is a policy scheme which actually gives people lower connection fees. In spite of that, it’s still not completely accessible
And so between these two options, ultimately one or the other, neither of these are really leading all the way to success, to full first class status. What is the obstacle to this? It was my understanding that that was linked to how the state and administration views land and the issues of legality around land.
The paper looks at, in the state’s mind, the moral hazard of ‘rewarding’ those who are living in informal or undocumented spaces.
In the early 2000s, when there was all this debate around water privatisation, the story was that water services were supposed to recover their own costs and therefore tariffs would have to be increased. And that experience did happen in structural adjustment in other countries, where water companies were given large concessions to deliver water services. People would have to pay the cost of service and people who couldn’t pay their bills would be disconnected. This continues to be the global experience in other places, but this didn’t quite happen in our context. We sidestepped this because none of our water services actually recover the cost and tariffs are generally quite low. Even where a large number of private service providers might actually be involved in various parts – water treatment plants, laying pipes, maintaining pipes, etc – that private sector vision of drinking water didn’t actually happen for us. And so the issue around providing drinking water to poor people in informal settlements was not around what the most obvious thing which you would think it would be – their inability to pay. It was in no way linked to that. It would be much more rational from an economic perspective to have people get individual house connections and pay some sort of tariff, if economic rationality was in question. But in fact it was the opposite, because of the issue around land.
It forces us to grapple with the Indian administrative state and its consequences. You examined this in your paper about hunger during the pandemic. What did you set out to look at and what did you find?
Towards the end of the 2020 lockdown was when I started to look at the material that led to the writing of this paper. At that time, there was of course the medical emergency of COVID, but also because of the lockdowns, there was the economic emergency. Lots of people were in places where they were getting no money and they couldn’t afford to buy food. It was not that food was not there in the shops but people just didn’t have the money to buy food. A few weeks of no work meant that there would have been a huge hunger crisis.
Of course, the Indian state had to step in. Lots of civil society also stepped in. But the Indian state had to step in to address the immediate humanitarian crisis. A lot of the actual response was at the state level. And I looked at the variations in how that response was structured. The responses were made without having much time to think about and time to set up anything new. So most of it went through the structure of PDS – the public distribution system of food grain. But PDS, by its very nature, was not designed to deal with emergencies. It was not designed to reach out to people who suddenly became poor, who may not have been on PDS registers or may not have been in places where they were on PDS registers. It was just not designed for an emergency. So lots of innovation, experimentation and a lot of adaptation had to happen. The mandate was very different from what the state deals with on an everyday basis or even what it deals with when there is an occasional and remote humanitarian crisis, because this was a very large scale crisis. And what it really tested was the ability to deliver relief rapidly. Over time, it also became important that you could do it with dignity and provide relief which was decent and respectable to the people to whom you were reaching out. This became relevant. Maybe not in the first three days of the crisis, but as it wore on.
Could the state act in ways that were localised and contextual and discretionary? State officials that were quite low down in the hierarchy had to make discretionary judgments about a group of people in a crisis. PDS was not designed for this kind of discretionary allocation because in normal times, the hard wiring of the state is to check pilferage and misallocation of state welfare. So this state resource had to be distributed in a way that somehow followed the existing structure without disrupting it too much. But a crisis of this nature hadn’t been seen before. So in this paper, I spent some time thinking about the history of emergency relief and the history of food distribution. I looked at everything, right from colonial accounts of food distribution and food distribution in the time of crises to this enduring concern with pilferage and with constructing tests of neediness. In the pandemic, different states responded to this problem in very different ways. Their positions were also very different because the challenges – how many people were vulnerable, what the profile of those vulnerable people were, how they had to be dealt with – were very different across states. But there was an interesting contrast between what happened in Delhi and what happened in Kerala. .
While the Delhi response was very large scale, it had to necessarily be very cookie cutter and non discretionary. The food kitchens were large scale but very non-discretionary and very basic in order to ensure that only a very needy person will make the effort to come to these food centres and eat this food everyday. And anything that was a little more responsive or agile had to be delivered through civil society partnerships. Even though the government obviously had the money to have done this emergency relief, they couldn’t. It had to bank on civil society partnerships, NGOs, corporates and other people contributing as charity relief.
There was a contrast with what happened in Kerala. It has to do with the history of how state and society are organised in Kerala, which meant that, in spite of the fact that they spent much less money, they were able to do more localised and discretionary and contextual relief. They managed to do much better quality relief.
That contrast brought us to the question of what are the different ways in which that administrative power can be framed and structured? This was something that I could reflect on in the course of writing that paper.
Do you think there are enough people within government doing this – looking at the administrative coherence, and the rationalities and histories of their approach as they reform the Indian state?
I think the elite state or the parts of the state that deal with elite interests are obviously very different from the parts of the state that deal with non-elite spaces. I’ll talk about one space where this tension is there.
This is the issue around unsafe sanitation labour and manual scavenging. Manual scavenging requires people to directly handle untreated or semi-treated human faeces. It’s not just a technical matter. It was a caste-based occupation, so it has a particular social and caste-related history in India. But, at some point, almost everywhere in the world, they would have had manual handling of faeces. But as sanitation technologies and the ways in which toilets were built and managed to change over time, most places were able to move away from this kind of handling. In India, for a combination of reasons, even as sanitation technology evolved, manual scavenging has also evolved and we’ve still got people dealing with human faeces in ways that are horrible and hugely compromising human dignity. But it’s also become more and more unsafe because of the nature of technology. For the past few decades, we have had this increasingly visible problem of people dying or being permanently impaired in terms of health because of manual scavenging work. Around the time of the freedom movement in pre-independence India and in the early years of post-Independence India there was already a lot of concern and thinking about the place of the manual scavenger, the oppression of manual scavengers, and how the conditions of their work could be made better. In the 90s, the possibilities of technology made it possible to prohibit manual scavenging and still manage to do so, because technology could do what people were doing.
Because of this history, it has been framed as a problem of human dignity, caste and oppression. Now this is very important and in fact other places in the world could valuably take from this, in the understanding of sanitation labour. Where in India we do not do so well is that it’s also very under-recognised as a problem of state practice. Institutionally it’s located in the Ministry of Social Justice. The legal framework is also handled from a social justice perspective. But, manual scavenging becomes necessary because of the quality of the infrastructure – our underground sewage lines, and what we have to deal with toilet waste from human settlements. This is often so poorly made and costs and corners are cut, or it’s underspecified for the population or there are various kinds of technical and engineering problems with this infrastructure.That shortage is accounted for by inexpensive sanitation labour, which is of course, much less expensive than fixing the engineering problems. So it’s a problem of state practice and a problem of the nature of employment.
Over time, the people who work as sanitation labour – their employment terms have also got more and more informalised. So it’s even more difficult now to do things by following standard operating procedures, following safety standards – all that would make for the work to be safer and less undignified, less humiliating. All of those things are even more difficult to do because of the informalisation of sanitation labour. And there’s a historical nature to sanitation labour always being slightly informal. But the right sizing of the state means that work has moved into darkness and you don’t even know how those people are employed. Through contract and subcontract it has become very fragmented and so disaggregated, directly as a result of state policy.
The legal framework around the prevention and control of manual scavenging also has many kinds of legal requirements, of what the state is supposed to do, how it’s supposed to document blocked sewers. There’s a lot of paperwork that they’re supposed to do as part of standard operating procedure to make sanitation labour less dangerous, less unsafe. But there’s not enough attention to this side of the story – of the state fully taking responsibility for this work and then seeing that it’s done in a systemized and organised way. So this is one example where perhaps there’s not enough thinking about the internal part of state practice.
You mentioned your study on the regulatory institutions that have been set up, since 1991, as potentially also playing into this…
We had a program on regulatory governance at CPR that I was a part of. We had a seminar series that I had organised where we talked to the chairpersons of many regulatory authorities about their mandate and function to try to understand the structure of what is called regulation. There’s a lot that’s being said and has been said continuously about the performance of regulatory agencies, their outcomes – lots of problems and lots of things that could perhaps be handled better. But what we were looking at was the structure of administrative power in regulatory agencies and how it was different from the structure of administrative power across various parts of the Indian state. Here was a place with a framework of reasoning and taking a decision, making a regulation, being responsible for the implementation of that regulation and seeing if there’s a problem, how you fix that regulation, and hear all the affected parties of that regulation. Here was a framework that provided for a better quality of administrative rationality. This is necessarily structured as economic rationality. But a much higher quality of rationality was possible within the structure of these regulatory agencies. The regulatory agencies, by the terms of employment also sidestep some of the very routine down-low problems of the Indian state – which is that people get transferred, people have multiple charges, they don’t have enough time to think about something and they are not around for the outcome of what they’ve thought about and done, because by then they’ve got transferred. And they also don’t get time to develop enough expertise in any particular area.
I’m talking about the routine departmental decision-making where most of the power of the Indian state is actually exercised and most of the thinking of the Indian state actually is happening in departments and ministries. But within the department and the ministries, they have very little capacity to think through or implement medium-term policy transitions. Anything that is multi-year or anything that needs a variety of responses.
If you were talking about environmental regulation, to be able to say that small informal units might need to comply with XYZ standard, and if you’re in a larger unit, you need to do this, and if you are in a remote area, the standard could be a little lower – [to understand and plan for a] variety of standards that could be possible for the different contexts in which people are, this is a capacity that exists within regulatory agencies and not outside. It’s very difficult to create its equivalents outside of regulatory agencies. This is not to say all of the Indian state should be recast as regulatory agencies, but to say that something of this quality of regulatory agencies could actually be valuable in other parts of the state. Could we consciously think about what is it in other parts of the Indian state that’s lacking and how could some of these qualities be replicated?
Are there misconceptions about the Indian state or the things that you work on that you find yourself having to correct all the time?
The first would be capacity building and I think a lot of the inadequacies of the Indian state gets the response that there isn’t enough political will and there isn’t enough capacity. Of course, both of these problems are there. But the problem with this characterization is that the first one has a kind of determinism that you can’t do much about. The second one is that your capacity building then translates into either hiring or training or more often training rather than hiring because it’s less expensive to train people than to hire people. But not enough thought is given to the internal and structural accountability. Being able to have people in places and positions where they can remain focused on a particular region or geography or sector or subject and build expertise and competency in that area, and then be there for long enough to be responsible for that. In the context of the regulation paper, I called the concentration of power – where you can take the decision, you can correct your decision, you can make variations of your decision. Not enough thought goes into the structure of administrative power, because of this easy and convenient focus on capacity building.
It is not to say that civil servants and people in government employment won’t benefit from on-the-job training and mid-career training and opportunities to improve their skills. All of that is important, but training is not a substitute for problems in the structure of administrative power.
If you were to speak with younger folks entering the policy world, what advice would you give them?
There are two things that I’d like to say to people coming into the policy world. One is the value or the importance of actually trying to understand what is going on. So working with the state or working in places closely adjacent to the state gives you perspective. A lot of this is in the zone of what is unwritten. There’s a lot more to be done over there. Having experience of being inside or adjacent to the state can be really quite useful.
Secondly, I think it’s important to be engaged. If you’re studying the Indian state, it’s important to come from a position where you care about what it does. To be invested in what the state does in terms of human outcomes, social outcomes, but also justice, freedom and dignity. You shouldn’t study the Indian state only because it’s an interesting subject of study. You should also be invested in and critique or challenge whatever it is. It should not be a bloodless thing, because I think it’s sometimes depressing to read and to engage with analysis that’s a little cold and bloodless. It’s really nice to read the writing of people where there’s some heart and soul in it.
Are there three works that you could recommend to the audience that have influenced you or you’ve found important over the years?
Some of this might be historical because it framed my thinking very early on, and some of it may be more recent.
The first one I’d like to name is the work of Solomon Benjamin, when he wrote [with Bhuvaneswari Raman] a piece called Illegible Claims, Legal Titles, and the Worlding of Bangalore. It was very popular. He taught us at law school as well. It was something that shaped not just my thinking, but the thinking of a lot of people around me as well. His work in understanding legibility, illegibility, land tenure and title, presented a layered understanding.
Another useful piece which I encountered later, when I was working on informal land tenure, was the work of Geoffrey Payne, who wrote about urban land tenure policies and what he called the ladder of tenure, and the importance of building not titling programmes but forms of state recognition of informal settlements. This was a very important policy piece for my thinking and has helped shape it.
The third piece that I found refreshing and that I recommend to people interested in cities, is the work of Harini Nagendra, who writes about Bangalore. I found an incredibly important perspective in her book titled, Nature in the City. A lot of urban environmentalism is framed around elite spaces, pristineness. It can be framed in very anti-poor ways and her approach to it was really important and different.
A fourth thing that helped me think about what shouldn’t be. Some years ago I spent some time reading all the legal documentation around the Delhi Yamuna case. This is a cluster of cases and a cluster of court orders which started in 1994 and continues to this day, though I stopped reading it in 2016. It started in the Supreme Court and went to the National Green Tribunal. I started to read it for a functional reason, but then it became a real insight into the question of the Yamuna’s pollution and the problem of adversarial, legalistic framings of the pollution problems. The case engages with engineering, standards, environmental regulation, but framed in a way that helped me define what was not my approach. Just for that reason, it was a really important couple of months that I spent reading through this material.