Book review: Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums

reviewed by Elizabeth Chatterjee

11 Aug 2022, 10:04 a.m.
Elizabeth Chatterjee

Demanding Development book cover

Adam Michael Auerbach, Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020; 328 pp.: ISBN: 978110 8741330, £26.99 (pbk); ISBN: 9781108491938, £74.99 (hbk); ISBN: 9781108622592, £19.99 (eBook)


Ganpati and Ram Nagar are both squatter settlements in the historic city of Jaipur, today a sprawling metropolis of almost 4 million people in India’s northwest. A mere kilometre apart, the two were settled around the same time, lie in the same political constituency and serve the same labour markets. Yet the jumbled lanes of the former enjoy decent provision of public goods and services – bright streetlights, piped drainage, latrines, paved roads, even sporadic trash removal – while the latter languishes in night-time darkness, the air thick with the reek of seeping sewage and burnt trash. ‘Why’, asks the political scientist Adam Auerbach, ‘are some vulnerable communities able to demand and secure development from the state while others fail?’ (p. 3).

This question demands the kind of fine-grained answer not readily found in the quid pro quo clientelism that a generation of comparative political scientists saw as the hallmark of politics in the developing world. Such instrumentalist analyses typically suggested, first, that in ‘patronage democracies’ like India, votes are bought and sold: individual citizens transactionally elect politicians who will deliver discretionary benefits like state jobs or electricity connections to them. Second, ethnic identity is the most important heuristic by which voters identify the politicians most likely to support them in turn; as the notorious saying has it, Indians do not cast their votes but ‘vote their caste’. Auerbach is one of the leaders of a scholarly collective that has begun to disrupt this twin orthodoxy.1

Rather than concentrating merely on the grand spectacle of elections, this prizewinning book explores ‘the slow grind’ of everyday political life beyond the voting booth (p. 25). To excavate these quotidian dynamics and develop his own inductive theory, Auerbach establishes a new gold standard for mixed methods research in comparative urban politics. Demanding Development draws on 15 months of interviews and ethnographic fieldwork across eight slums – a word the book is unafraid to use, in full awareness of the heterogeneity it masks – in two Indian cities, Jaipur (Rajasthan) and Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). These deep connections gave Auerbach access to ‘informal archives’, invaluable collections of photocopied letters, petitions and newspaper clippings carefully husbanded by households and activists as evidence of their appeals to the state over years and decades. He crosschecks his qualitative findings with a household survey of 2,545 residents across 111 slums, supplemented with an imaginative range of photographic and Google Maps-based evidence.

This rich empirical base informs the book’s sensitivity to typically overlooked forms of political activity. Demanding Development finds that poor citizens are far from passive or powerless, but actively engage in ‘bottom-up, routine forms of claim-making’ to push back against state neglect (p. 25). The content of their claims revolves around the availability and quality of urban infrastructure in the settlement. Residents frequently pool their labour to dig their own drainage ditches or fill potholes, but many services can be delivered only by the state – and that means mobilising collectively. Against the atomistic individualism that undergirds much of his discipline’s theorising, then, Auerbach emphasises that ‘poor voters do not make claims independently of space’ (p. 5), singling out ‘socially defined neighborhoods’ as a unit of analysis that deserves a resurgence of attention from scholars of distributive politics (p. 229, emphasis in original). At the same time, the settlement-specific nature of such demands limits their potential reach and radicalism.

If such arguments are hardly new to scholars of urban informality – Auerbach himself cites among his inspirations the well-known work of James Holston, Asef Bayat and Partha Chatterjee, among others –Demanding Development stands out for its meticulous and nuanced explanation of uneven urban development and the role played by the ubiquitous figure of the ‘broker’ in the Global South. Given the limited availability of public resources, Auerbach argues, investments in urban infrastructure are highly politicised and facilitated by slum leaders, crucial middlemen who mediate between slum residents and the state. He finds a robust association between the density of local party workers – slum leaders who have been absorbed into party hierarchies – and the provision of public goods and services. Intuitively, he suggests that such density increases the number of vertical connections with party elites and provides an organisational structure through which slum residents can mobilise, tapping into the symbolic currency of the crowd to stage protests or create petitions. More importantly, Auerbach’s fieldwork upends the stereotype of the exploitative broker who traffics in powerless or naïve voters, often by tapping pre-existing elite status or the threat of violence. In the competitive political scenario of the slum, citizens have choices. With many potential brokers touting for business and political parties sensitive to the dilution of their brands, party workers cannot simply be idlers or thugs. They must develop personal skills (including literacy, paper being the substance on which the Indian state feeds), build effective lines of communication with party elites and be seen to solve problems in order to retain the status and informal fees that their position brings. Indeed, in the face of clientelistic theory, many settlements hold deliberations and even informal elections to select their leaders. Auerbach boldly contends that this competition acts as a mechanism to ensure a second-best form of responsiveness and accountability even where the state is otherwise apathetic. Each step of his argument is illustrated with lively detail from the field.

Disaggregating the political organisation of slum settlements in this way throws up some surprises. Demanding Development takes a step back to ask why some slums end up with more brokers in the first place. Population matters, as larger ‘vote banks’ attract the interest of political parties. More surprisingly, so too does ethnic diversity along caste, religious and regional lines. Upturning a substantial body of political science that links ethnic heterogeneity with underinvestment in welfare provision, Auerbach tentatively suggests that in India’s slums it can be a positive force. As residents prefer their own co-ethnic leaders (though far from exclusively), more diverse slums possess denser and more competitive party networks. There is a countervailing effect, however, in which competition seems to undermine rather than promote development. Auerbach’s evidence suggests that one-party dominance in squatter settlements can be a paradoxical blessing. Credit claiming is crucial for politicians: pipes or water pumps are often daubed with party symbols or named for their benefactors. Conversely, politicians are less likely to invest in slums where other parties can claim credit or derail local attempts at mobilisation. It remains unclear which effect dominates when.

One might question Auerbach’s optimistic verdict. Can these strategies of bottom-up claim-making meaningfully compensate for the manifold failures of the Indian state in delivering crucial public services through more familiarly Weberian mechanisms? After all, he concedes that economic deprivation and social marginalization remain the norm for many slum dwellers, who must approach political elites as supplicants rather than equals. Other scholars might seek to broaden the frame of reference. It remains unclear how nonaffiliated brokers fit into this thesis, yet party workers are only a small subset of slum leaders in many settlements. Equally uncertain is the relationship between these micro-scale developments in party organisation and the much more substantial majoritarian ideological shift visible at the national level in India, as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s one-party dominance became assured in Madhya Pradesh, if not Rajasthan. Though Auerbach powerfully argues for going beyond the overstudied metropolises of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, some might wonder how representative Jaipur and Bhopal themselves are, given their unusually neat two-party competition and political influence as state capitals. It is to be welcomed that Auerbach’s attention is apparently beginning to turn to smaller cities as he continues to expand his research. Finally, it will be interesting to see how well these theories travel outside India’s noisy democracy to less democratic or decentralised settings.

As an oft-cited statistic has it, 1 billion people live in informal settlements worldwide. This immensely thought-provoking and methodologically sophisticated book restores the political agency of slumdwellers by taking them seriously as active citizens, even as it opens a host of new questions on the precise characteristics, role and strategies of political middlemen in intermediating urban informality. In so doing, it persuasively returns the city to the heart of comparative political science.



1.For an agenda-setting statement by the members of this collective, see Auerbach et al. (2022). For a critical review of this trend, see Naseemullah (2021).



Auerbach, AM, Bussell, J, Chauchard, S, et al. (2022) Rethinking the study of electoral politics in the developing world: Reflections on the Indian case. Perspectives on Politics 20(1): 250–264.
Google Scholar | Crossref

Naseemullah, A (2021) Patronage vs. ideology in Indian politics. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 59(2): 193–214.
Google Scholar | Crossref


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