ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Unravelling India's Red Tape

Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India by Akhil Gupta (Durham and London: Duke University Press), 2012; pp xiii + 368, Rs 895.

Akhil Gupta’s Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India is one of the most insightful, probing and erudite studies that I have read on the Indian bureaucracy and its failures to significantly alter the destinies of millions of India’s poor. His ethnography of the bureaucracy’s relation to poverty is founded on a year’s field research in Mandi block in Uttar Pradesh during the 1990s. The most delightful segments of the book for me were his observant descriptions of the ways rural people negotiate bureaucracies which have penetrated all aspects of rural life. He rightly stresses that impoverished people are not passive or docile victims; they assert their dignity, are “inventive and creative in employing whatever means they could to care of their families”, and besides are “astute philosophers” and his social guides in making sense of the riddles of India’s pervasive officialdom.

The main puzzle that his study attempts to solve is why a state whose declared aim and legitimacy derive mainly from bettering the lives of the poor continues to allow anything between 250 and 427 million people live in poverty, deprived of such elementary necessities as clothing, shelter, clean water and sanitation. This is, indeed, one of the most difficult and important questions of our times, and unless we find adequate answers to it, there seems little hope in altering the destinies of masses of India’s poor people. Gupta’s findings are complex, multilayered, illuminating and thoughtful; the reader may not agree with all his conclusions, as I did not, but his work is refreshing for not being reductionist and simplistic, and for challenging many accepted assumptions.

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