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Sovereign State and Mobile Subjects: Politics of the UIDAI

The increased mobility of people and the ever growing complex integration of systems of delivery of services have together led governments the world over to introduce new systems of identification that can be interoperable across a multitude of local systems. Each such initiative has met with anxieties and resistance. The unique identification project that India has initiated has to be seen in that context. Such a project does not necessarily and directly result in compromising the ability of the poor to survive and it does not necessarily mean loss of privacy across the board. However, it does not also automatically signal empowerment as the Unique Identification Authority of India has been insisting. It simply means that the terrain of plausible action, the terrain on which citizens' transactions with the state and the market agencies occur, will change.

Sovereign State and Mobile Subjects: Politics of the UIDAI

Anant Maringanti

It is hard to imagine any time in the history of independent India when the statecitizen relationship has not been at the centre of the imaginations of Indian social scientists. However, it was not until the National Democratic Alliance attempted to introduce the Uniform Civil Code in the

The increased mobility of people and the ever growing complex integration of systems of delivery of services have together led governments the world over to introduce new systems of identification that can be interoperable across a multitude of local systems. Each such initiative has met with anxieties and resistance. The unique identification project that India has initiated has to be seen in that context. Such a project does not necessarily and directly result in compromising the ability of the poor to survive and it does not necessarily mean loss of privacy across the board. However, it does not also automatically signal empowerment as the Unique Identification Authority of India has been insisting. It simply means that the terrain of plausible action, the terrain on which citizens’ transactions with the state and the market agencies occur, will change.

Anant Maringanti ( is a consulting researcher with the Urban Research and Policy Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

Economic & Political Weekly

november 14, 2009

f the alacrity with which bloggers in India downloaded and circulated the draft “Person Identification Codification” document of the Expert Committee on Metadata and Data Standards for Personal Identification in September 2009 is any indication, the activities of the Unique Identification Authority of India (henceforth UIDAI) of the government of India are being watched with a mix of keenness and perplexity by a sizeable section of websavy Indians.1

Instant commentaries range from strong opposition through cautious optimism to exuberant approval. Yet, for all this excitement among bloggers and media experts, there is little evidence of a considered academic opinion on the subject. Of course, in normal times it is hazardous for academics to offer instant opinions on current affairs, but unusual times offer unusual opportunities even for social scientists. This essay is prompted by a growing sense that the activities of the National UIDAI open up new avenues for critical social scientists to choose more effective theoretical perspectives and empirical sites to inform the state-citizenship debate in south Asia. Barely four months into the UIDAI’s career, it would be seem presumptuous to make definitive claims and prognoses.2 Instead, this essay attempts to suggest a tentative framework to structure further debate. I will do this in three steps: (1) identify the broad contours of the state-citizenship debate specifically in India but also more generally in the global circuits of knowledge; (2) establish the disruptions and the continuities in the state-citizenship relationship signalled by the UIDAI; and (3) suggest the key features of the emerging terrain of politics implied by the UIDAI.

In sum, I argue that there is an urgent need to revamp our understanding of the state-citizen relationship in India.

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late 1990s that the “citizen” as both a substantive and formal category begin to a ppear in the archives of Economic & P olitical Weekly. Increasingly concerned about the nature of the expanding “civil society”, and the dilemmas of secularism, historians and sociologists first began to debate “citizenship” in the EPW during 1998-99. Although convergent in some respects, the debate was marked by sharp differences and tensions that are all too familiar now: the value of post-Enlightenment modernity and universal ideals on the one hand, and the opportunities that are presented by postmodernist perspectives that valorise difference (see for example, Menon 1998).

Over a year after the rise of this new awareness of “citizenship” as an object of study, Andre Beteille, in a brief essay,

  • o bserved that the question of citizenship has never received any substantive or systematic attention from social scientists in India as compared to western liberal democracies (Beteille 1999). Insofar as a substantive debate on citizenship cannot be carried out in isolation from state theory, one could quibble with Beteille. The Indian social scientists’ lack of interest in citizenship had to do with the fact that citizenship was a received category in India from western liberal democracies, and in a context where liberal democracy
  • o btained more in form than in substance, political theorists did not really find it to be the most productive avenue for critical intervention. Nevertheless, in the political climate of that time one might have expected that Beteille’s observation could very well be taken as a provocation
  • – to use citizenship as an entry point into an extended critique of the state, and develop a uniquely south Asian perspective on citizenship. However, with the receding of the Hindutva agendas from national a ffairs, “citizenship” also gradually disappeared from the radars of critical social science in India. This is not to suggest that citizenship was no longer invoked. Indeed, a large, fertile and evergrowing body of literature in international refereed journals on empowerment, participation, d evelopment, democracy (Cody 2009); cultural politics (Liang 2005); and transnational studies (Appadurai 2001) continues to refer to the practice and performance of citizenship.

    In EPW itself, Chandhoke (2003) made a substantive contribution to the discussion by highlighting the challenges to state theory and the practice of democratic citizenship occasioned by what she refers to as the “pluralisation” of the state, a process whereby the boundaries between the state and non-state domains were getting more and more blurred. Yet few of these commentaries attempted to track the shifts under way in governmental imperatives and state technologies. How was the Indian state being restructured by its own strategic responses to the emergent challenges of managing its national e conomic space?

    In part, this sad neglect of the interplay between state theory and citizenship studies in India could be attributed to the fact that state policy as an object of study in India has largely remained in the domain of two interrelated sub-disciplines – public administration and public finance – both of which tend to be dominated by unreconstructed Webarian state models. Further, it is not until recently that it has been e stablished that ethnographic techniques could be used effectively to study everyday state practices and to contribute to state theory. Work of this latter kind represented by Akhil Gupta et al’s essay on specialising states (Gupta and Ferguson 2005) and Karen Coelho’s extended study of engineers as frontline actors in the reform process in Chennai waterworks (Coelho 2005); is still relatively small.

    To reiterate, the foregoing observations are not intended to suggest that Indian social science has largely been indifferent to state and citizenship theory. Far from it, apart from the large number of empirical work in the mould of south Asian area studies, the work of the Subaltern Studies Collective and scholars allied with it has made significant contributions not only to the study of the Indian state and society but also transformed the way in which Latin American, African and east Asian scholars think about the State. More d irectly, Chatterjee’s (2004) “reflections on political society in most of the world” have been so influential as to shape policy researchers’ thinking on the reconstruction of citizenship by the New Labour in the UK (Clarke 2005). Ideas that resonate with these formulations of the subaltern as an “improper” citizen, can also be found in the work of Aihwa Ong, whose influential analyses of state citizenship relations on east and south-east Asia are rendered through what she calls “graduated sovereignties”.3 However, recent transformations in the affairs of the State and society in India, have forced Chatterjee himself to revisit his previous formulation that “the majority of people in most of the world” inhabit what he calls the political society – a sphere in which cultural affinities, affective ties, electoral politics and local moral economies affords them possibilities of provisional and tentative entitlements.

    In his revised position, Chatterjee suggests that the cumulative effects of the deepening of technologies of government, shifts in capitalist accumulation strategies from exploiting labour to expropriating natural resources and rapid urbanisation necessitate a reworking of the prevalent Gramscian model of passive revolution as a lens to understand Indian state and society. He holds that passive revolution – that is, a situation where the elites simply do not have the capacity to win hegemonic power, and must compromise to form coalitions, resort to coercion and appeasement – continues to be a useful description of the Indian state’s strategies. However, an unprecedented acceleration in the movement of subaltern populations from peasant societies to urban informal economies is altering the dynamics and structures of possibilities in the political society. While Chatterjee draws on and endorses Kalyan Sanyal’s (2007) study aimed at retheorising contemporary capitalism, a growing number of studies in Indian cities in other disciplines also confirm Chatterjee’s observations. In a sense, the question that is staring us in the face is how to t heorise what these accelerating sociospatial mobilities of populations portend

    november 14, 2009

    for the Indian state and how it constitutes its citizens.

    Continuities and Disruptions

    Thanks to an influential body of work in humanities and social sciences inspired by Foucault, we now know that projects of identifying and accounting for every citizen are the essence of modern states. Such projects are the very core of “governmentality”, which according to Foucault is the system of rule wherein the state does not exercise sovereign power on its subjects, but rather, manages the territory and the populations contained within it through technologies of enumeration and calculation that act directly on the bodies (e g, public health), the very lifeworlds of individuals forcing them to gradually internalise the rules for governing their own conduct. The problem of governance is u ltimately one of how to conduct the conduct of populations in the most economic manner. However, in nearly two decades of Foucault-inspired studies, one finds a sparse sample of studies that relate shifts in actual technologies of enumeration and accounting (e g, census and budget) to the challenges of governing territories and populations in times of crisis. In part, the difficulty in capturing these shifts is that the strategic responses of the state are rarely premeditated. They come together through a host of experiments whose coalescence is easy to grasp only in retrospect. Small wonder then, the most significant studies on enumeration as governmental technology are all historical studies based on archival research. Yet, the need to develop conceptual tools and methodologies to study contemporary shifts in technology has been facing us for quite some time.

    Since the early 1990s, increased mobility of people and the ever growing complex integration of systems of delivery of services both by the market and by the state has led governments world over to introduce new systems of identification and generation of data that can be interoperable across a multitude of local systems. A lmost without fail, each such initiative has met with anxieties and resistance. Some states have been more successful than others in implementing these new systems. Almost everywhere, governments and civil society actors are rehearsing

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    different versions of arguments to shift the discursive terrain of contention over these technologies. For example, faced with a deepening healthcare crisis in the early 1990s, the US government felt prompted to harness information technology to develop medical databases about its citizens. While the government justified the move by citing the increased mobility of citizens, critical policy analysts responded by taking note of the ways in which the new systems of data management could create trails of information about individuals compromising their privacy (Alpert 1993).

    In 1995, when the British government revived a proposal to issue multipurpose identity cards, a raging debate on the relationship between the state and citizen ensued. The government publicised a laundry list of potential benefits to the individual of such an identity card including convenience in such matters as overseas travel, proof of age, banking and commercial transactions, emergency medical and donor information, state services, and personal identification in the fight against crime and so on. Critics raised concerns about the cost to the public exchequer and potential breaches to privacy. In later revisions of the proposal, the British government proposed that the commercial opportunities created by the smart technology of the identity card opened possibilities in part financed by the private sector, and the individual herself being obliged to pay for the card if it were to double as a passport or driving licence. In this framework, data gathering could be mandatory but citizens could opt voluntarily for the smart multifunction card to add commercial services to it (Thomas 1995). More recently, after the attack on the World Trade Centre, more and more governments have been framing these discussions in terms of homeland security – the need to secure the territory against aliens.

    Given this backdrop, the constitution of the UIDAI by the government and the official utterances of its chairperson, Nandan Nilekani are not particularly novel. Even within India, state and non-state agencies have been vigorously experimenting with new technologies of citizen identification for over a decade. Market actors have been taking an avid interest in

    Economic & Political Weekly

    november 14, 2009

    new possibilities. Within hours of Nilekani’s appointment, journalists began to track down stories that would connect to the big news. According to one report, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad had already done a p ilot study, the National Institute of Design in Management Ahmedabad had already designed a card. Pilot issuance of multipurpose cards had been going on in some places under the auspices of the National Population Register (NPR) project. The stocks of Hyderabad-based Bartronics (a magnetic card manufacturer) surged by 9.26% on the day the government announced the constitution of the authority. In short, the UIDAI and its activities are best understood not as the cause but as the results of the actions of a number of actors separated in time and space.

    Consider the Following: Government agencies in Bangalore are currently experimenting with biometrics to rationalise housing provision (land allotment and financing) for the poor. The rationale is the need to recover housing mortgage payments. This rationality has emerged over the last decade wherein the state has by and large withdrawn from housing finance for the poor; bank consortia are willing to extend loans but want some a ssurance that the loans will be recovered; builders are willing to build apartments for the poor but want prompt payments; civil servants are seeing their own careers tied to success in clearing out the messy slums and paving the way to squeaky clean cities; and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are seeing their own future funding tied to successful management of contests over slum lands. Precise identification of housing loan beneficiaries and tracking their payments over extended periods of time has become critical to the very operation of the housing industry.

    Or Consider This: Microfinance agencies in Hyderabad have been trying to introduce smart cards with biometric information to rationalise credit recovery as well as tie microfinance services to public distribution system (PDS) provisions. Supermarkets in Andhra Pradesh as elsewhere in India have generally not succeeded in capturing the lower segments of

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    the groceries markets. Poor people’s incomes are small and irregular – and they prefer to buy from the local moneylenderfixer-labour contractor-grocer-slumlord and often end up paying very high interest rates in return for flexibility and social networking. In this context, NGOs, microfinance companies, supermarket dealers, IT professionals wanting to do good and officials of the PDS and thrift group leaders have been brainstorming on ways to bundle microfinance with privatised PDS. Identifying consumers and their payments is gradually emerging as critical to the entire operation of subsidised food provision (Maringanti 2009).

    While such examples are too numerous to require further discussion, it is important to recognise that recent policy directions are only accelerating these experiments. An India that is hoping to maintain high rates of growth must of necessity look for ways to expand domestic markets. And it would appear that populations hitherto considered the “poor” are indeed emerging as potential target markets. To borrow a felicitous expression from the management expert C K Prahalad, the fortune is at the bottom of the pyramid (Prahalad 2009). Precision in tracking the consumption and purchasing power of these populations is an important strategic action in response to the economic growth (and welfare) imperative. It is in this context that the chairperson of the UIDAI, Nilekani observes that the task of the authority is to create a raft, a central database which can then serve as the base from which state and non-state agencies can issue their own purpose specific cards.

    The UIDAI in its very conception parses citizenship in such a way that the bearer of the identity becomes visible through a single mnemonic (in this case possibly an alphanumeric string associated with some biometric information) to a host of agencies with overlapping interests – security forces, bankers, NGOs and civil supplies department – essentially anyone who can have access to the coding system. To take a negative example, a central pool of servers and data storage organisation in India (perhaps with offshore backup), that can be accessed at the touch of a button to tell a debt collection agent whether or not the bearer of the identity is indeed the person he is looking for, can radically alter the way in which the economy works. But then, alternatively, the bearer of the identity who is qualified for food subsidy in a village can potentially be able to draw the subsidy even after he or she moves to a city.

    It is in this milieu that the constitution of the UIDAI, the recruitment of Nandan Nilekani to its chairmanship with a cabinet rank right out of his corporate executive office at Infosys, and his public statements referring to the UIDAI as a “startup” must be seen to signal both continuity and disruption. After nearly two decades of restructuring, it has finally become possible for the Indian state to abandon the appearance of confident projections and master plans, and instead acknowledge and embrace the entrepreneurial (read venture capitalist) that underscores the current phase of reforms. The point I wish to stress here is not so much the novelty of the idea that there is an entrepreneurial dimension to all states. Sudipta Kaviraj’s (1988) synoptic essay, demonstrates how barring occasional periods of stability, the state in India has always been in the process of making itself. It is rather that the task of state theory is to pin down the precise discursive and structural shifts in this terrain of politics; track how they have come about and offer a prognosis.

    An important feature of the UIDAI intervention is that it is a significant step towards deepening the reach of e-governance which can have dramatic consequences for everyday lives and for the organisation of physical space in which citizens move. The portability, instant transmittability and interoperability of information across a variety of hardware and software platforms across space, reconfigures and rescales extant power relationships.4

    Arguing alongside some postmodernist lines of thought inspired by early work of James Scott, one could hold that the unique id projects is characteristic of a high modernist state, a vainglorious techno-commercial fantasy, bound to fail, bound to be subverted (Scott 1999). Yet such a position would be irresponsible and go against the observations of many engaged students of the Indian society. For example, Corbridge et al (2005), suggest that in many parts of India, citizenship remains elusive and the challenge for the poor in fact is one of being seen by the state. Reading such observations alongside Partha Chatterjee’s analysis suggests that large numbers of the poor whether in peasant societies or in the urban informal economy will depend crucially for their survival on being able to choose tactically when to become visible and be counted by the state and when not to be counted by the state.

    To summarise, the UIDAI, as suggested by several critics in internet discussion boards, does not necessarily and directly result in compromising the ability of the poor to survive, does not automatically mean exclusion of some social groups and does not necessarily mean loss of privacy across the board. On the flip side it does not automatically signal empowerment as

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    november 14, 2009 vol xliv no 46


    the UIDAI has been insisting. It simply means that the terrain of plausible action, the terrain on which citizens’ transactions with the state and the market agencies occur, will change. In what follows, I will briefly indicate what these shifting goal posts in the empirical reality imply for theory and for action repertoires of activist groups.

    Citizenship Redux

    After nearly two decades of divergence, two theoretical trajectories in state theory under globalisation have recently begun to converge: one that may be broady called the neo-Gramscian state theories and the other that may be called the neo-Foucauldian governmentality studies. State theorists inspired by Gramsci, via Nicos Paulantzas’ influential argument that the state wins the consent of the oppressed through class alliances, characterise recent transformations in the nature of the state as essentially one of rescaling of state. They argue that as a consequence of the state’s strategic response to problems of capital accumulation, we have been witnessing an intensive and extensive rescaling and reconfiguring of power between national and subnational governments. In India, a direct illustration of this structuralist argument would be the way in which state governments have become influential and semi autonomous players in global markets, city governments are increasingly marketing themselves as attractive destinations for investors, and attempting to borrow from capital markets. While such perspectives on state restructuring can be very insightful about larger processes, they fail to account for the micropolitics, the minutiae of everyday negotiations of power. Filling in precisely where the neo-Gramscian perspectives fail, scholars persuaded by Foucauldian approaches map the ways in which populations have been internalising new economic rationalities, and new ways of conducting themselves. From this perspective, the shifts that we are witnessing are not imposed from top down but arise precisely because of capillary circulations of power; everyday actions of everyday states and they cannot be studied without attention to the desires and complicities of ordinary people.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    november 14, 2009

    While both of these approaches have been extremely fertile, the actual mechanisms and politics of calculation and enumeration by which the contemporary state seeks to know and manage its population and territory remained understudied. The significance of this cannot be overstated. To illustrate using an Indian example, scholars and activists studying and engaging in urban transformations are sharply polarised around whether or not clean titles and zoning regulations are the most effective way to provide for the poor. One commonly held strong view is that securing proper legal protection for the poor is the direction to pursue, and the other equally common and equally strongly held view is that the very process of legalising claims results in the production of illegalities and is already biased in favour of corporate power and middle class entitlements.5 While both agree that rent gaps among other things in cities are increasingly resulting in dispossession of the poor from the city, one relies on the law, and the other on protecting the informal interactions.6 Yet, empirical investigation in cities suggests that the push towards a change in technology of documenting land titles from a paper-based system to computers has already made it possible for new actors to enter the interactions surrounding land, people far away from the actual location can invest in real estate without having to be physically present in the location (Benjamin et al 2007).

    Projects such as land record digitisation have had far-reaching consequences for local economies, they alter the possibilities of governance, they bring in new actors and more often than not, they have unintended consequences. This is so precisely because during the process of transition from one technology to the other, when persistent claims of entitlements forged through years of local social practices and documenting systems (e g, paper-based records of rights, pattas, power of attorney documents, etc) are rapidly settled/displaced in favour or a spatially extensive technologies of mapping constellations of power, and alliances have to be reworked and by their very nature, such negotiations are unpredictable.

    Like digitisation of land records, UIDai in its very conception aims to break down

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    spatial barriers to the mobility of vital information about individuals, and by extension, it seeks to break down barriers to individual mobility and rationalise consumption and production (and rationalise welfare as a function of markets). In one sense, this is both a desirable and inevitable outcome especially as all available evidence suggests that the government of India is pursuing a growth strategy that relies on further liberalising the labour markets. Yet, this is so only in the most general sense. Both state and market agents are ultimately embedded in social, political and institutional contexts. Rules, codes and entitlements do not get altered at the mere touch of a button. Both for activists and for academic researchers, the UIDAI offers an opportunity and a challenge as it will radically alter mobilities of people, their entitlements as well as c apacities to organise themselves into c ollective bodies.

    To me, retaining sharp divisions between Foucauldian and Gramscian approaches, modernist and postmodernist approaches, structuralist and post-structuralist approaches and so on is no longer useful. As familiar social structures are dissolving, it is tempting to go with the flow and abandon all notions of a state that can act coherently. Yet all technologies of governance must be initiated somewhere, ideas must be produced from some command centre, relayed through some beltways, strategically focused on specific locations and made spatially extensive in general implementation. If we keep that in mind, it becomes necessary to rework old analytical categories, invent new categories and find new entry points. The national unique id project offers an opportunity to do this. It is an extremely fluid situation where an authority charged with delivering on a core function of the state envisions itself as a “startup”, a moment when the Indian state is reinventing its sovereignty by adopting new technologies to know and calculate upon its populations, on its national economic space precisely in order to secure its position in the global geopolitical economies. It is imperative that social sciences seize the opportunity to follow the precise trajectories of the identification of individuals, the logics of enumeration and updation, the cost sharing arrangements, the uncertainties of technologies, in one word, the successes and failures of the UIDAI.


    1 The recommendations can be downloaded from the web site download/file

    2 The UIDAI was constituted with Nandan Nilekani, then co-chairperson of Infosys India Limited, as chairperson with cabinet rank on 25 June 2009.

    3 Graduated sovereignty refers to (a) the different modes of governing segments of the population who relate or do not relate to global markets; and

    (b) the different mixes of legal compromises and controls tailored to the requirements of special production zones

    4 It may be recalled that 1997, when the government of Andhra Pradesh first toyed with the idea outsourcing a dedicated networking for file movement to a Singapore-based firm, it was strongly resisted by the non-gazetted officers. Although the arguments were framed in terms of loss of sovereignty, one of the key issues at stake was that switching to online file movement allowed for a tracking system to speed up processes. In contrast, the prevalent paper-based document systems allowed local government officials to exercise considerable influence on their mobility from one desk to the other, and up and down the hierarchy.

    5 See Liang (2005a) for a discussion of planning and its quandaries. 6 See Whitehead et al (2007) for a discussion of “rent gap” in Mumbai.


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