Every village connected: Entrepreneurial governance and development in a contemporary rural Indian digitization project

My dissertation explores the scope of contemporary Indian State practices as it submits its governance and development agendas to market mechanisms. Mobilizing Digital technologies and fostering ecosystems that allow their roll-out across territory has become a fundamental part of contemporary Indian policymaking.  Scholars consider India as a unique case to understand the scale at which digitization projects are being implemented and the utopian narratives through which these are kept alive despite the typical challenges these projects face on the ground. Furthermore, critiques have raised concerns about the murky terrain of information-technology policy drafting and the increasing role of private sector players in developing governmental technology. My research extends the scope of this scholarship by putting focus on the material practices of the government with respect to use of Digital technologies, and how they manifest in (whether) new forms of legal-bureaucratic configurations, economic dispositions, performance benchmarks, entrepreneurial thinking and entanglements of the governmental and the corporate.

My case study is a large-scale e-governance project implemented nationwide in all rural areas over the last decade and most recently under the 2015 “Digital India” initiative. The project bolsters rural infrastructures by setting up kiosks run by private entrepreneurs – young resourceful men and women - who connect rural masses to essential public utilities and non-government services using basic technologies in their villages.
Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the east Indian state of Jharkhand, my research draws from perspectives of variously positioned actors operationalizing the initiative, ranging from policy makes, bureaucrats, service providers, state representatives, project managers and village entrepreneurs. Moving between the policy and practice world of the project, I illustrate the experimental nature of contemporary governance and the productive friction created by conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and un- or under preparedness.

Outcomes of the project are realized in a complex negotiation field as older state-led models of development interact with the effects of digitization, new economic arrangements and entrepreneurs’ personal and ethical projects of improvement. So far, little anthropological attention has been dedicated to the subtle ways in which these projects are made manifest by State actors and how people actualize them even when there is only scope of limited action. In remote villages, digitization inspires participants to innovate, hope and endure – often in the space between what is possible and what might become possible. 

My research contributes to nuancing the fusion of the State and market mechanisms in empowerment programs in contemporary postcolonial settings. Contemporary governance and development increasingly assume an ontological condition of experimentation and tinkering. This condition leads to a rearticulation of how the State does what it does – particularly how it organizes, interprets and appraises development.  Studying how people are recruited into space between imagining and practice produces a fertile ground for anthropological investigation on state actor’s and rural people’s aspirations, agencies, time-reckonings, improvisations and resistances.

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