Red Tape

Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India

Red Tape

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

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Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: Published: July 2012

Author: Akhil Gupta

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Sociology > Social Theory

Red Tape presents a major new theory of the state developed by the renowned anthropologist Akhil Gupta. Seeking to understand the chronic and widespread poverty in India, the world's fourth largest economy, Gupta conceives of the relation between the state in India and the poor as one of structural violence. Every year this violence kills between two and three million people, especially women and girls, and lower-caste and indigenous peoples. Yet India's poor are not disenfranchised; they actively participate in the democratic project. Nor is the state indifferent to the plight of the poor; it sponsors many poverty amelioration programs.

Gupta conducted ethnographic research among officials charged with coordinating development programs in rural Uttar Pradesh. Drawing on that research, he offers insightful analyses of corruption; the significance of writing and written records; and governmentality, or the expansion of bureaucracies. Those analyses underlie his argument that care is arbitrary in its consequences, and that arbitrariness is systematically produced by the very mechanisms that are meant to ameliorate social suffering. What must be explained is not only why government programs aimed at providing nutrition, employment, housing, healthcare, and education to poor people do not succeed in their objectives, but also why, when they do succeed, they do so unevenly and erratically.


“[A] novel exploration of the various bureaucratic structures and institutions that make the poor both voiceless and invisible to decision makers and administrators, from Delhi down to the village. . . . Recommended. Upper-division undergraduate students through professionals.” — M. J. Frost, Choice

“Gupta asks why India, with a rapidly growing economy and a government plus NGOs that actively conduct poverty alleviation programs, continues to have vast, extremely poor, and socially marginalized populations. He frames this as a question in the production of structural violence, supported by a impressively clear and thoughtful review of the strengths and weaknesses of that term. . . . Rarely is a perspective of systems inequality, and one of complexity and diversity, so effectively synthesized.” — Josiah Heyman, Anthropological Quarterly

“What is significant about this book is that it opens up a means to engage with bureaucratic practices which embody the structural inequalities and hierarchies of Indian society. Such an approach not only infuses flexibility in the analysis of discursive practices and its effects but also paves the way for a new range of scholarship on how recently introduced methods of citizen-government engagement such as the Right to Information law and e-governance mechanisms hold the potential to alter the power equations between ruler and ruled.” — Vidya Venkat, Biblio

“Akhil Gupta’s Red Tape 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. . . . 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” — Harsh Mander, Economic and Political Weekly

“This is a lucid, powerfully original and rigorously argued book...The strength of Akhil Gupta’s writing springs from his consistent rejection of the axiomatic as well as the incidental.” — Tarangini Sriraman, Studies in Indian Politics

Red Tape is an engaging volume. Gupta raises critical questions about the connections between ‘the state’ and poverty, and is able to provide some answers through ethnographic data. . . . [T]he volume can be strongly recommended to scholars studying the ‘state in India’, and poverty and development more generally.” — Terah Sportel, Progress in Development Studies

“The greatest strength of this book is that its complex theoretical argument connects an easy-to-read narrative that transports the reader to the rural settings in Uttar Pradesh. Hence, its rich content will appeal to a wider audience mainly because it adds to the literature on the culture and politics of the state. Although it specifically relates to fieldwork in rural India, by using Foucault and Agamben, social theorists who have wider appeal, this book will extend its global readership.” — Rohit Madan, Gender, Place & Culture

“Akhil Gupta’s masterfully crafted book seeks to contribute to our understanding of the persistence of poverty in India despite high rates of growth and numerous public programmes designed to eradicate this malaise. . . . it makes an important contribution to the study of the quotidian practices that constitute the state, the conceptualization of poverty as structural violence, and the manner in which corruption, state inscriptions, and neoliberal governmentality combine to produce the systematic arbitrariness that perpetuates poverty in the country.”  — Indrajit Roy, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“...Gupta’s book provides a very important methodological base for all scholars who want to investigate the relationship between poverty and the state, and not only in South Asia.” — Tommaso Bobbio, Asian Affairs

“Through careful ethnographic treatment of how bureaucratic rules are received, negotiated, and performed on the ground, Gupta brilliantly demonstrates that understanding seemingly mundane political processes provides surprising insights into contemporary forms of violence and power.”  — Asher Ghertner, Environment and Planning D

Red Tape is written with matchless clarity and deliberation, and brims with ethnographic insight.  More importantly, it is a profoundly moral book that joins outrage with cold-eyed analysis of abject poverty that kills. . . . Akhil Gupta has produced a tour-de-force: an argument that is ambitious, erudite, bold, and, best of all, generative to think with.” — Vinay Gidwani, Environment and Planning D

Red Tape is extraordinary. . . .  Gupta’s ethnographic skills are keen and innovative, and they enable him to expose the arbitrariness—in both its positive and negative potentials—that always accompanies the presumptive rationality of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus.” — Sallie Marston, Environment and Planning D

“Gupta’s processual approach to understanding structural violence offers a compelling corrective to a literature that often presents an overly static, agentless picture. . . . [A] landmark study.” — Elizabeth Oglesby, Environment and Planning D

“Gupta’s ethnographic methodology and disaggregated framework for understanding state practice provide useful tools to uncover these mutually constitutive processes of social change agency and tactics of rule. Gupta’s work thus sets a powerful new agenda for social justice-oriented research; scholars and activists alike are deeply indebted to his contributions.” — Sapana Doshi, Environment and Planning D

Red Tape is the next work in Gupta's already-formidable intellectual trajectory.” — Hannah Appel, Social Anthropology

Red Tape is a brave attempt to answer a harrowing question: ‘Why has a state whose proclaimed motive is to foster development failed to help the large number of people who still live in dire poverty?’ (p. 3). . .  Gupta’s account of the relationship between written documents and oral accounts, and also statistics and narrative, makes a significant contribution to existing anthropological analysis of the construction of knowledge in bureaucratic settings.” — Gemma John, PoLAR

“This book is very helpful for students of Indian politics to understand the interrelationships between efficient governance and poverty alleviation. The detailed illustrations of fieldwork as well as theoretical discussion of the Indian state at the bureaucratic level greatly support the author’s arguments.” — Sojin Shin, Political Studies Review

“Gupta’s considerable skills in closely reading the detail and nuance of bureaucrats’ interactions with each other, and their encounters with the public, are also clearly on display here, as too is his talent in communicating these snapshots to his audience.” — Glyn Williams, Antipode

Red Tape is an impressive piece of work by a leading scholar of contemporary South Asia; it will undoubtedly become a key text for students and scholars of South Asia alike. Its implications for further research—empirically, conceptually, and methodologically—are profound, and will spur important lines of research in the coming years.” — Aalok Khandekar, Exemplar

“Red Tape is essential reading for everyone interested in bureaucracy as practice. It advances debates in the anthropology of the state by demonstrating the crucial links between social hierarchies, political action and bureaucratic behaviour. It convincingly demonstrates that abject poverty might not always be the result of exclusion from, but could be the consequence of inclusion in, a (particular) welfare state.”  — Ursula Rao, Asian Studies Review

Red Tape does break new ground conceptually and empirically, and will appeal not only to students and scholars of anthropology, sociology, political science, and cultural studies conducting ethnographic studies of the postcolonial state but also to practitioners and policymakers interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts of development program. At the very least this book complicates and nuances our understanding of how the Indian state operates at the very grassroots, but at the most it lays bare some serious developmental challenges in postliberalization India and hints at two alarming possibilities—one, that developmental programs may be no more than an eyewash, meant to keep us believing that the state is doing its best and numb us to the possibility that death at such a large scale should constitute a scandal and two, like Sripal, one of his protagonists, the poor may eventually realize the shortcomings of the system and prefer to opt out of it than get embroiled in its arbitrary mess and myriad dysfunctionalities.” — Shruti Majumdar, Governance

“[A] superb interrogation of bureaucracy and poverty in contemporary India. . . .” — Benjamin Siegel, Contemporary South Asia

[T]he force of the argument in Red Tape against the decriminalization of violence against the poor should be a wakeup call for academics and policy-makers alike. For this and many other reasons mentioned above, it is an important read for a wide group of scholars, activists, and policy-makers who seek to understand the cultural politics of poverty and envision alternative futures.” — Nusrat S. Chowdhury, Journal of Anthropological Research

“As a magnum opus of Gupta’s recent scholarship, there is much in Red Tape that will be of value to scholars and students alike. There are particularly rich discussions of paperwork, forgery, and the workings of the bureaucratic file (the origins of the term ‘red tape’). However, to me the book succeeds more for its powerful insights into the way that the state is India is encountered, imagined, mocked and reproduced through the everyday actions of its rural and small-town functionaries than it does in explaining the reproduction of extreme injustice in conditions of economic liberalisation.” — Madeleine Reeves, Anthropological Notebooks

"A significant contribution to anthropology of the state and an understanding of structural violence." — Michelle Gambud, Asian Ethnology

"For all the high-tension disputes among economists about these issues, their failure to engage seriously with the quotidian realities of the nascent (or dying) Indian welfare state show clearly why Gupta’s analysis is so important and necessary." — Roger Jeffrey, European Journal of Sociology

"A powerful agenda for further research on the relationship between the state and rural poverty." — Satendra Kumar, Journal of Peasant Studies

Red Tape is really worth reading for the provocative and insightful questions that Gupta asks and the way in which he pushes state and development theory in new directions. His sustained analyses of these complex issues not only provide insight into the workings of Indian development programs but also serve as a reminder to those of us who study the link between a “disaggregated” state and poverty to truly explore this disaggregation in all of its manifestations.” — Kathleen R. Arnold, Perspectives on Politics

“[M]agesterial. . . . Red Tape beautifully and gut-wrenchingly reveals how and why the government regularly fails to deliver on its promise.” — Sharmila Rudrappa, Contemporary Sociology

"By putting bureaucratic practice at the central of analysis, Gupta illuminates a biopolitics of poverty that makes care (whether conceived as welfare or empowerment) a site of structural violence and a mechanism through which the poor are, he insists, not just abandoned but also killed." — Ilana Feldman, American Ethnologist

"This is a landmark study of bureaucratic practices through which the state is actualized in the lives of the poor in India. Akhil Gupta's theoretical sophistication and the ethnographic depth in this book demonstrate how South Asian studies continues to challenge and shape the direction of social theory. This book is a stunning achievement." — Veena Das, author of Life and Words

"This long-awaited book is a masterful achievement that offers a close look at the culture of bureaucracy in India and, through this lens, casts new light on structural violence, liberalization, and the paradox of misery in the midst of explosive economic growth. Akhil Gupta's sensitive analysis of the everyday practices of writing, recording, filing, and reporting at every level of the state in India joins a rich literature on the politics of inscription and marks a brilliant new benchmark for political anthropology in India and beyond." — Arjun Appadurai, author of Fear of Small Numbers

"Why has the postcolonial state in India seemed so incapable of improving the life chances of the country's poor? In his brilliant book Red Tape, Akhil Gupta argues that the structural violence inherent in the state operates as a form of biopower in which normal bureaucratic procedures depoliticize the killing of the poor. Whether exploring corruption, literacy, or population policy, Gupta provides an utterly original account of the deadly operations of state power associated with the ascendancy of new industrial classes and of neoliberal practice in contemporary India. A tour de force." — Michael Watts, author of Silent Violence


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Akhil Gupta is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for India and South Asia at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India and a coeditor of Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, both also published by Duke University Press. He is also a coeditor of The State in India after Liberalization: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, The Anthropology of the State: A Reader, and Caste and Outcast.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Part One. Introduction

1. Poverty as Biopolitics 3

2. The State and the Politics of Poverty 41

Part Two. Corruption

3. Corruption, Politics, and the Imagined State 75

4. Narratives of Corruption 111

Part Three. Inscription

5. "Let the Train Run on Paper": Bureaucratic Writing as State Practice 141

6. Literacy, Bureaucratic Domination, and Democracy 191

Part Four. Governmentality

7. Population and Neoliberal Governmentality 237

Epilogue 279

Notes 295

References Cited 329

Index 355
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5110-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5098-9
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