Citizen-State relations: Countryside and city

  • Blog Post Date 24 August, 2020
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To what extent do citizens expect officials to respond to local problems, and how do they make demands on the State to advance their well-being? Based on surveys in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, this article finds that urban slum residents are less likely to believe that they will get a direct response from an official, and more likely to report the presence of ‘political brokers’ – as compared to similarly poor rural residents.


The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the importance of State-society relations into sharp focus. As Patrick Heller recently noted, the virus, and policy responses to it, are “laying bare the most essential as well as the most complicated challenges of democratic citizenship.” Government efforts to slow virus transmission and mitigate economic distress hinge, in large part, on public trust, and on the ability of citizens to access government relief and resources. The importance of responsive governance – and of active citizenship practice to hold governments accountable – during the pandemic highlights fundamental questions about how citizens view, access, and engage the State. To what extent do citizens expect officials to respond to local problems? How do citizens make demands on the State to advance their security and material well-being?

These questions are of crucial importance for democracy and distributive politics at all times, beyond the emergency of the pandemic. They are particularly acute for India’s low-income citizens, who must often turn to the State for critical resources. Those same citizens often face government institutions that are widely perceived as dismissive, unaccountable, and discretionary in their behaviour towards the poor.

Comparing patterns of citizen expectations and claim-making across the rural-urban divide

In recent research (Auerbach and Kruks-Wisner 2020), we compare patterns of citizen claim-making and expectations of State responsiveness across the rural-urban divide. Drawing on survey and qualitative research in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, we document everyday forms of claim-making among two geographically distinct, yet similarly poor, groups of citizens – urban slum residents and villagers in the rural periphery. We find a dramatic divergence in how these groups engage the State, and in their beliefs about whether such efforts will receive attention from public officials.

Slum residents are deeply pessimistic about their ability to directly command responsive action from public officials. Our survey of 1,925 residents across 80 slum settlements in Bhopal and Jaipur, found that only 12% of respondents believed they would get attention from a politician or official if they directly approached them, without assistance from an intermediary. Such widespread despondency was captured in interviews. One slum resident in Jaipur, for example, remarked, “Nobody listens to us…they say, where have these people come from? And they shoo us away.”

Slum residents instead often turn to basti neta (slum leaders), to navigate State institutions and spearhead local efforts to demand public services. These leaders are pervasive features of political life across slum settlements. They are embedded in hierarchical political networks that stretch from the narrow alleyways of their basti up to the highest strata of political leadership in the city. Seventy seven per cent of our surveyed slum residents stated that these actors live and operate in their settlement.

In stark contrast, our rural respondents in villages in Rajasthan (2,210 respondents across 105 villages) express greater optimism about their ability to capture the attention of government. They are almost four times more likely (at 47%) to believe that they would get a response if they directly contact a politician or official. They also turn more often turn directly to elected representatives and officials (most often at the local level of the panchayat (village council)), without the assistance of an intermediary. Villagers are roughly half as likely as slum residents to report the presence of local brokers, and are significantly less likely to turn to them for help in navigating the State. In interviews, residents described their demands on local officials. For example, residents in a village described their efforts to secure water connections: “It was a matter of avaaz (voice). We raised our voices until they had to hear.”

These comparative findings persist after controlling for a wide range of respondent-level factors, including asset ownership, BPL (below poverty line) status, education, caste, gender, and land ownership. Why, then, do rural villagers and urban slum residents differ so strikingly in their approaches to and expectations of the State?

Uneven expectations

Informality and migration play a role in these uneven expectations of the State. More than half of our sample of slum residents migrated to the city. Many are employed in the informal sector, and reside in precarious forms of housing without legal tenure (71% do not have any kind of legal title to the land on which they live, including a small percentage (7%) of renters). Rural respondents, in contrast, are almost all life-long residents (after marriage, for women) of their villages, and the vast majority (91%) own at least a small plot of land. These differences in rootedness, and in legal recognition, undoubtedly influence residents’ relationship to the State. Yet, these features alone are insufficient to explain the varied expectations of government responsiveness that we observe. The urban-rural gap persists even when comparing those with and without legal tenure across both samples – the rural landless, for example, are four times more likely than slum residents without land titles to expect a response if they directly approach an official.

We argue that three factors, which together reflect divergences in the institutional landscape that surround villages and slums, shape the different citizenship practices that we observe.

First, decentralisation in rural India has been much deeper than in urban India. Since decentralisation reforms in the early 1990s, rural gram panchayats have become vibrant sites for citizen claim-making; they are approached by a majority of our rural respondents, regardless of caste, class, or gender. This in part reflects the panchayats’ local visibility and accessibility, as decentralisation has brought administration closer to the village. Unlike the panchayats, India’s urban local governance bodies have remained relatively moribund. The average urban ward has a constituency size that is an order of magnitude larger than the average panchayat, making urban local representatives less approachable than their rural counterparts. Urban municipal governments, moreover, are frequently overshadowed by non-elected, parastatal development authorities. This weakness of local government is amplified in slum settlements, and acutely felt by slum residents who both need the State and face marginalisation due to informality in housing and employment.

Second, and related, the panchayats serve as a channel for a large influx of government social spending targeted to the rural sector, which expanded through the 2000s – most notably in the form of schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA)1. Social spending also increased in India’s cities, but the gains have been more muted and have not generally benefitted slum residents. For example, a study by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in 2012, found that less than a quarter of India’s slums had received support from core urban development programmes, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission or Rajiv Awas Yojana 2 (NSSO, 2014). Slum residents therefore struggle to access the State in settings where their local governments are both less accessible and less powerful due to limited resources and anaemic capacity, relative to the rural panchayats, which have over time become more deeply institutionalised and more central to the local political economy.

Third, while urban local bodies are weaker in cities, urban party organisations are much stronger. Our study slums in Jaipur and Bhopal, as in other Indian cities, are home to structured party networks. Slum leaders are very often party workers (padadhikari), who mobilise residents to support political candidates while mediating access to public resources. These political brokers emerge as powerful channels for claim-making in slums. Rural party organisations, in contrast, are much more limited in their local reach; politicians and party workers are thinly spread, often making only sporadic visits to villages. It follows that less than a quarter (22%) of our rural respondents reported turning to political parties when seeking government assistance.

Accountability and active citizenship

To summarise, the urban and rural poor in our study take very different stances towards the State – both are active claim-makers, but engage the State through different channels (direct or brokered) on the basis of different expectations. These differences reflect fundamentally different trajectories of citizen-State relations in India. Our findings reveal an acute deficit of accountability in urban slums, but also highlight an active political society where citizenship practice is mediated through partisan networks. Rural villages, compared to urban slums, are sites of relatively greater optimism on the part of residents, who are more likely to directly contact local officials in ways less contingent on (although by no means free from) partisan influence. This, though, is a fragile equilibrium that can be disrupted if local officials lack the resources and capacity to respond to growing rural demands. Covid-19 and its economic shocks have the power to disrupt these dynamics, altering citizens’ expectations of and engagement with the State for years to come. Investing adequate resources in local governments, and amplifying the spaces in which residents can hold those governments to account, is a critical task – now more than ever.


  1. MNREGA guarantees 100 days of wage-employment in a year to a rural household whose adult members are willing to do unskilled manual work at state-level statutory minimum wages.
  2. Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) is a government scheme that envisages a ‘Slum Free India’ with inclusive and equitable cities, in which every citizen has access to basic civic infrastructure and social amenities and decent shelter.

Further Reading

  • Auerbach, AM (2020), Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India's Urban Slums, Cambridge University Press, New York.
  • Auerbach, Adam Michael and Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner (2020), “The Geography of Citizenship Practice: How the Poor Engage the State in Rural and Urban India”, Perspectives on Politics, 1-17. Available here.
  • Auerbach, Adam Michael and Tariq Thachil (2020), “Cultivating Clients: Reputation, Responsiveness, and Ethnic Indifference in India’s Slums”, American Journal of Political Science, 64(3):471-487.
  • Kruks-Wisner, G (2018), Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India, Cambridge University Press, New York.
  • Kruks-Wisner, Gabrielle (2018), “The Pursuit of Social Welfare: Citizen Claim-Making in Rural India”, World Politics, 70(1):122-163.
  • National Sample Survey Office (2014), ‘Urban Slums in India, 2012’, Report 561, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, New Delhi.
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