CPR Faculty Speak: Arkaja Singh

11 June 2021

Arkaja Singh is a Fellow at CPR and a part of the State Capacity Initiative, where she is responsible for developing a new programme of research on state capacity in Indian cities. Her areas of interest include municipal government, informal settlements, land, water and sanitation (and especially the issues around sanitation labour and manual scavenging), and the interface of law and the Indian administrative state. She studied law at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore and has a LL.M. from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

In this edition of CPR Faculty Speak, Singh talks about her work and interests at CPR, why they matter, what impact she hopes to achieve and more.

Tell us about your research work and interests at CPR.  

My research work is quite diverse, and includes a lot of seemingly different things, but it is tied together by my interest in the Indian state, and particularly in the regional and intra-state dynamics of welfare, governance and reform. At this point, I am involved in a study of the Indian regulatory state, in which I want to know what type of state the Indian regulatory authorities really are from the perspective of their formative histories and the scope of their powers and functions.

Last year, I spent some time looking at the problem of hunger and the delivery of rations and cooked food for migrant workers in the time of the lockdowns as a question of state capacity. My starting point in this inquiry was to find out why governments needed various forms of documentary identification, even to deliver emergency relief. My research led me to see how little room there is for administrative discretion in the design of welfare, and how this comes in the way of governments being able to respond to the particular needs of an unforeseen situation. A framework of rules that allows for sensible use of discretion could potentially lead to better outcomes.

I was also recently involved in some work on water federalism, in which there is an idea that state-level control of water resources is unhelpful to the sustainable management of water. I thought it might be useful to look at the history of environment law-making in India, to see how it is possible to advance policy in new areas within the federal structure. In some of my other work, I have looked at the interface of law, technology and sanitation, and the ways in which the failure of law to respond to technology contributes to the persistence of manual scavenging. I also have a long-standing and abiding interest in the legal and policy frameworks of urban governance, municipal services, and informal land and settlements.

Why does these issues interest you? 

I am interested in the political economy of the Indian state, but at the same time I also interested in the arcane and subject-specific detail of policy, law and administration. I studied law, and my legal education influences how I think of the problems of the Indian state. I like for my work to be of practical value, and for this it is important to get into the detail of things. But I don’t think making better law or policy can ever be a purely technical exercise. It is important to be able to think critically about the state and about state power.

How has this issue evolved in the country and globally over the years?

I started my professional life in the period after liberalisation, when a lot of things were changing in the government. However, there was never any universal consensus around this, and one of the more interesting things about working with the Indian state is how much things are debated, challenged and even radically transformed at every level. In my own work, I have seen a lot of state-level and inter-organisation dynamics at play, and this sometimes creates spaces for more inclusive policy choices that might not have happened otherwise.

However, on the other hand, in this entire period we have been stuck with the idea of minimal government, which translated into recruitment freezing and very low budgets for lower levels of government. And with the notion that computers and technology can take the place of human decision-making. I am not advocating that we remain stuck in a time warp, but human beings and organisations matter. I will give you an example from sanitation, where the solution offered for unsafe waste disposal is improved policy declarations and geospatial tracking systems, but with a vague idea that the market will take care of the actual solution. The policy discourse is still quite unwilling to deal with the public nature of the problem, or to fully articulate the role of the state in dealing with this problem. 

What impact do you aim to achieve through your research?

I hope my work contributes to making government more comprehensible and accountable, and in this way, leads to dialogue, public discourse and opening up of more avenues of engagement with the state. The term state capacity is used to describe many things, but it is my understanding that state capacity should co-exist with democratic values.

What does a typical day look like for you at CPR? 

In the time before COVID-19, the State Capacity Initiative was newly formed, and we spent a lot of time formulating our programme of work and thinking about our projects. We were lucky to have had that time to work together in meeting rooms, because although we have developed a sense of community and shared workspace in our Zoom meetings, I miss having intense face-to-face discussions about things we all cared about. The pandemic laid to waste our carefully made research plans, but we were lucky in being able to pick up and modify some of what we had developed to suit the vastly changed circumstances.

Now, in COVID-times we still meet every week, and we might have a few more sub-project meetings through the week, but it is of course all virtual. This helps us keep in touch with what everyone is doing, and provides an opportunity for some free-flowing discussion about what we’ve been thinking and doing in the past week. We also have a few text message exchanges and unplanned phone calls in the course of the week. My working day mostly includes reading and writing and some emails. I might also attend or participate in webinars and online meetings. But my days are uneven, I respond well to deadlines and get much more done when I have tight external deadlines than when I don’t. This is even more so in the world of work-from-home.

To know more about Arkaja Singh’s work and research, click here.

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.