Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Government of or by Apps? Mobile Infrastructures in "Digital" India

in partnership with the South Asia Center & Penn Anthropology

Nafis Aziz Hasan
CASI Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Thursday, February 3, 2022 - 12:00
A Virtual CASI Seminar via Zoom — 12 noon EST | 10:30pm IST

(English captions & Hindi subtitles available)

About the Seminar:

In 2018, the business magazine The Ken gave the Indian government the epithet "App Sarkar." Since 2013, the government has put up over 900 apps in its play store compared to only about 200 by the United States. There are apps by ministries that go by names such as Ujala, Vidyut, and Tarang; apps by the Prime Minister's office; a potato cultivation app, an app for toilet rating and many hundreds of more apps that aim to mirror the social life of the government. And yet, India has never been on the forefront of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) adoption for the work of government, let alone success with its use. In fact, its rank has been consistently low on comparative, cross-national dashboards. Everyday experience with government technology, as multiple popular and scholarly writings have described, is also one of delays and breakdowns and not of ease and access that apps often portray.

Locating the proliferation of apps in the broader history of electronic governance in India, Hasan asks: what drives this desire for apps?  Specifically, what might mobile apps be doing to the material politics of governance, even without meeting the putative goals of "good governance" assigned to ICT adoption? Drawing on his fieldwork, conducted between September 2018 and August 2019, among bureaucrats, engineers, and consultants coalescing around programs for digital governance in southern India, he makes three inter-related observations. First, one reason why apps are proliferating is because they ironically give an opportunity to bureaucrats to escape the bureaucracy of technology procurement. Second, apps further an entrepreneurial form of governance even as they encounter and sometimes fall flat against an older political economy of paper. Third, apps show that the design of technology plays a role in their adoption, an element not centrally considered by the dominant literature on e-governance, which has overbearingly focused on socio-political conditions for technology adoption.

About the Speaker:
Nafis Aziz Hasan is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CASI. His research examines the techno-politics of digital media, material politics of public institutions, and technological policies for governance with a regional focus on India. Prior to CASI, he worked on his Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology at UCLA, in which he examined the technologies, labor, and politics in the adoption of digital forms by colonial-era Indian administrative bureaucracies.

Nafis has conducted prior field research on biometric governance, the politics of welfare and development, and school education policy in various parts of India, including the northeast. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in various scholarly journals and in the popular media. He has contributed chapters in books and is currently working on a co-authored book on the material histories of digital technology in India, along with articles from his dissertation.

Nafis brings his diverse work experience—research and teaching at Azim Premji University, research at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, and data analytics in the information technology sector—to bear on his critical praxis.


Tariq Thachil:

Hi, everyone. And welcome to the Center for the Advanced Study of India, CASI at the University of Pennsylvania. My name is Tariq Thachil and I'm the director of CASI. And I'm delighted to have you join us today for our weekly seminar series. Normally, as many of you know, our seminar series is hosted by our two wonderful post-docs, Naveen Bharathi and Nafis Hasan. But today we are delighted to have Nafis as our featured presenter. So Nafis Hasan is a post-doctoral research fellow at CASI where he comes after having completed his PhD in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles, where he completed his PhD in 2021. Broadly, his research examined the technopolitics of digital media, material politics of public institutions, and technological policies for governance, with a regional focus on India. The core of his work stems out of his doctoral dissertation, which is both a historical and ethnographic study of an extremely timely subject, the impact of digital technologies on the state in India, and how digitization is transforming the relationship between the state and its voter citizens. His project, both the dissertation and the monograph that's growing out of it, look to detail the human and material investments needed to build the virtual state and the effect that this transformation is going to have on citizen relationships with state agencies.

One part of his project seeks to be more historical in contextualizing the ongoing digitization policies for the government in India, within a larger history of administrative reforms, going back to the first administrative reform commission in the 1960s and bringing it forward to reforms at the turn of the 21st century. The second section of his project draws on rich ethnographic material generated over a decade from across India, work that he's done amongst bureaucrats, engineers and citizens examining digital programs centered on land governance and public service delivery in states ranging from Karnataka to Haryana to Meghalaya. He's also done three months of archival research at the national archives of India in New Delhi to kind of supplement his analysis of past programs, and his work paints a nuanced picture of the possibilities, ambivalences, and often painful costs of the ongoing and momentous transition of the Indian state into the realm of the digital.

Nafis's work and its promise is signaled by the range of support it's already received, including grants from the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the American Institute of Indian Studies. He's also done work outside of his dissertation on the policies and technologies of social identification and [inaudible 00:02:44] space legislation around public services. His work on Aadhaar in Tripura has been published in South Asia, Journal of South Asian Studies. And his other work has appeared in Political and Legal Anthropology Review. And he has a co-authored book entitled The Crisis of the Informational Subject, currently under review.

His research work is informed by diverse work experiences, including at the School of Policy and Governance at Azim Premji University, where he studied the digital components of a major accountability legislation, the right to public services across three districts in Karnataka, and also authored policy reports on land governance and municipal bureaucratic recruitment. He's also studied the workings of Aadhaar at the Center for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore. We've been delighted to have Nafis with us here at CASI. He's enriched our center through his scholarship, his organizational efforts and his general collegiality. And we are the really delighted to be able to host this presentation of his work, "Government of or by Apps, Mobile Infrastructures in Digital India." Before turning it over to him, just to remind you, he'll speak for the first half of our hour together, following which we'll have an open Q&A. Please enter your questions to me, Tariq Thachil, directly in the chat box. Keep them brief and to the point, so we can get to as many of them as possible. And please refrain from posting commentary in the chat box, which is distracting to an audience who have come to hear our speaker.

Please also take a moment to mute your mics and only unmute them when called upon by me to ask a question. Otherwise, please keep them muted. Recordings of this event are not permitted without prior permission of our presenter. Just so you know, a video of the event will be made available on the CASI website in the next couple of days, should you want to to access it. With that, let me turn it over to Nafis. Nafis, thanks again. And yeah, take us away.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you so much, Tariq. That was such a wonderful and detailed description of the work that I've done. I'm really, really grateful for this opportunity to present my work here. Thank you so much to Tariq, to Juliana, and to everyone at CASI for making this possible. It's very rare for an early scholar to get this opportunity. So I'm doubly obliged and grateful. I also want to take this opportunity to thank folks in India who I've been in conversation with over these years, particularly [inaudible 00:05:02] at Azim Premji University, who has been a mentor colleague, friend, and a co-thinker on many of these issues. Not to say that he agrees with everything I say, but he's been a great colleague to have. So I'm going to get into my presentation. As Tariq said, I will talk for about 30, 35 minutes. Then I'm looking forward to the conversation and the questions after that, because I know many of you in the audience are probably grappling with some of these similar issues.

All governments around the world are employing informational infrastructures, such as computer databases, mobile applications, web dashboards, to change the way they work. Here's a recent snapshot from the World Bank tracker of how this investment in infrastructure is panning across the world. So you can see the regions that are dark blue are the ones in which the World Bank says high application of ICT is present. India has recently joined that group. So what's pushing India into this realm is, the argument that I'm making is that apps or mobile apps are a big component of it. The national government and several state governments are investing in apps over websites. If you've used a government service recently, you've probably encountered an app. For the most part of it, apps seem to be working in some ways better than websites. Apps offer services at a distance. They allow you to access certain things, which are not usually always present remotely, but apps also bring about many risks and challenges.

"The future of government is digital," say many organizations, including the World Bank, and that's something to be debated. But what is happening as a result is that there is a huge processes of digitization that's happening of government material and government information. One of the things that we are seeing is that all this interconnected data is being foregrounded through the form of the app. So the apps become the interface through which a lot of this data becomes available to different stakeholders and therefore apps become an important technology to grapple with, both empirically as well as from a critical scholarly interest. This will be very critical for India in the future because as many studies have shown us, mobile access, internet is expanding. And in one report, 96% of India's population is going to be using internet on their phone.

So it becomes really important to understand the future of the form of the app. Now, having given this background, what are the questions that I'm asking in my research? If this is a great transformation, it poses critical questions, not just about the empirical ways in which citizens and other stakeholders are going to access services, but also about the nature of governance and government itself. Right? So the questions that I ask are as follows. I ask, what goals of governance do apps drive? What do apps tell us about e-governance? E-governance is the amorphous term that is used for several programs that have a technological foundation. But e-governance as a term is not always clarified. So I'm saying apps may have something to tell us about e-governance.

What do apps tell us about the everyday working of the government? This comes a little bit from my own disciplinary interest in thinking about the everyday material practices of governments and how these practices constitute what we know as the state. Now, as Tariq mentioned in the introduction, my work has been of a diverse range, and I've been very interested on the interfaces between the state and citizens. In this part particular project, I'm focusing a little more deeply into the internal working of bureaucracy. I'm paying less attention on the empirical dynamics of the interface between citizens and state. This is not to say that that is not important, and that is part of my research, but for the purposes of this talk and in this component of my research, I'm more interested in the internal dynamics.

What are the arguments that I'm making based on these questions? I'm saying that apps, and I'll get into the evidence and the description of all of that, but I just want to put this out up front, so you know in what direction I'm moving. I'm saying that apps help us see something about the material working of government. I'm going to argue that, I'm going to show that through the processes of technology procurement. Secondly, I'm saying apps offer us a way to think about how the government or the state is organized. We know from a generation of scholarship that questions about the embeddedness of the state in society is a foundational question. The argument that I'm going to make is that apps help us see certain relations which other technologies or other processes may not have in the past. I'm going to do that with the argument that some of these relations are entrepreneurial. Finally, I'm going to say something about the technological impulse of government. That's a historical impulse, but I'm going to say that apps help us see a certain aspect of it. That aspect is that of design, which is not entirely, not the most preferable or not the ways in which thinking about investments in government are prioritized.

The implications for these questions and arguments again very quickly are, there's a burgeoning literature around app studies. So I'm saying that the work that I'm doing on governments and the use of apps within the state and government are going to help us add to that literature. Also, again, going back to my own disciplinary interests, thinking a little bit about the cultural construction of states and how states come to be seen as states, right? How are the figures of authority that states embody come to be seen as such?  I'm saying that my interest and my study of apps are going to help me see that. Finally, what sense do we make of a legal-rational bureaucracy that doesn't always work on the terms that were set out, either as a [inaudible 00:11:43] state or as a state that completely is based on the processes of paper and other documentary apparatus. I'm saying that the relevance of this study could push that understanding of legal-rational bureaucracy a little.

I'm going to tell you a little bit more about the broad project from where all of this is coming, and then quickly get into the material for this talk, which is based on particular apps that I've studied, and finally end with some implications. Just to quickly zone out for a moment and tell you about the motivations for the larger project before I get into the more fun stuff around apps. As I said, several decades of ICTs have been employed and implemented in the Indian state. These have produced a multiple kinds of digital policies. I don't need to tell this audience what those are. I study how the social technical system of policy, technology, laws, and legislation reconstitutes the location and goals of bureaucracy. I do this through the frame of technopolitics. I understand technopolitics as a means to understand political choices that are embedded within technical forms. That is to say, how digital technology-led information policies have substantive impacts, not only on the lives of citizens, but also on the internal working of bureaucracy. And finally, I also study this through the frame of data justice. I'm interested in how the ethical aims of bureaucracy, that is, the commitment to equitable distribution of resources and access to information, is being worked on in this moment.

I study a lot of different infrastructures. Just to give you a sense of what I do, one is areas around surveying, recording, capturing data, which is to do with apps and other technologies, which is what I'm going to talk about today. I also do it through databases and archiving information, and I study informating and communicating services through dashboards and visualization. One quick note on methods, ethnographic investigation, and two things that I would like to highlight here is, one, that in the period of my fieldwork, talking to people, organizations, and being in spaces was super critical, but also being in the virtual space. So that's one component that many of us who work on digital technology have to grapple with, and we can talk about in Q&A what the challenges are to work in the virtual space as an ethnographer.

The other thing is government archives, as Tariq already mentioned. I'm interested in looking at these things slightly historically, so both state archives, as well as national archives. I can talk a little bit more about these methods later on. So finally, now I'm going into the specific material for this talk. The bureaucracy that I'm going to talk about today is known as the Revenue Department. And many of you who work in India would have encountered this department. It's known as the mother of all departments, and it has several different functions related to land development and welfare. The department has seen a lot of different kinds of technical interventions, and these are the logos of some of them. Some of them are built in the department, some are built outside and brought into the department. And so the apps that I'm going to talk to you about today are from this particular sector of government. Very quickly, I want to thank [Vikas 00:15:11] here. Vikas has assisted me in both collecting data, but also brainstorming about these issues. He's an engineer by training, and after the work with me has actually joined an e-governance project with the government of Karnataka. So it's great learning everywhere, and I'm really happy to work with him.

Let me now tell you something about the apps that I'm going to talk about, and I'm not going to go into major descriptions of each of these, but I'm going to just introduce them and then link different aspects of each of them to the arguments that I was making. The first is an app to survey land, and land, as many of you would know, is produced legally and bureaucratically through the cartographic work of maps. And so every state, every department in India, which deals with lands deals also with a lot of maps and visual material. The aim of this app was to translate all of that, which is not in great condition. And these maps are really old. They're tearing and repeated handling of them are actually destroying them further. So the aim was to translate the map onto the app, so that the app itself could be the basis on which changes in the map could be made.

For this, the commissioner of the survey department in Karnataka of the Revenue Department helped produce this app. He also hired a lot of new surveyors who had engineering backgrounds to digitize these maps. The app was aimed to offer flexibility, but because of a certain limited technical function, it was abandoned. And I'll get into that as I progress. The second app is to do with the survey of crops. Again, it's an app that completely restructured the way survey of crops, which is a critical function of the department, which is done three times a year, was done. Here again, the methods and the organization of survey transformed. So there was a huge change. Finally, the data, which until before the app came was kept pretty much under lock and key within a certain office, was made online.

Finally, a third app, which is slightly different from the two, but is more to do with internal communication and bureaucracy. So this was an app that was used by the government, by a particular district commissioner to communicate with his district. The big change with this was it could bring a lot of people, it could bring his entire organization onto a single call because that was a functionality that was possible. And it could completely restructure the way in which these very mundane and repeated conversations happen within that bureaucracy. And I'll get into more of that. Just a quick leave to say that I chose these three apps today because they all represent a certain definitive transition from a prior way of working. I'm happy, as I progress, I'll tell you what that is specifically.

To my first argument, which is to do with the material working of bureaucracy and the way in which apps help us see something about that materiality, and I'm doing that through the lens of procurement. Let me just quickly tell you a little bit about what procurement looks like. So we know from the work of Jennifer Bussell, for instance, her book on ICTs and public service, that the choices around technology are politically determined, and they are determined by the party structure of the state at that point, they're determined by politicians, material interest. But once those decisions are made, what happens? We don't have a lot of literature on looking at the very empirical processes by which technology is actually bought and the ways in which it is adopted and brought into the working of government. So through my research with a diverse range of actors, I found that bureaucrats, and this was quite a surprise for me, that bureaucrats are actually risk averse. They're averse to actually buying big technology and trying to implement big projects because of multiple reasons. One is that the tedious rules that are governed by the law and in Karnataka, Public Procurement Act, which has many different aspects, which looks at the way in which tenders are put out. The law is, and that's probably general for many different states.

The figure of the law is central here, but beyond the law, you also have conservative risk-taking because of certain problems. I'm going to just tell you a little bit about what a particular person, an owner of a company who worked with government in the past told me. He told me that all decisions are challenged by opposing interests. So he said, "Even if you win the tender, people who don't win the tender are actually finding ways to resist what you do." So decision making becomes really hard. He gave his own example where he had proposed that the government buy a particular server, which could have image data, impact data, as well as text data. That was resisted by a lot of other vendors who claimed that he was wasting the government's money. He spent a lot of time trying to convince the government that he wasn't. He continues and says, and he tells me the bureaucrats do not want to take risk and be in the eye of the storm. Non-delivery is a safer option.

So that's one set of concerns. Another is the kind of institutionalized commissioning that goes on. Here I was told of this 5-5-5-5 rule, which is like, you pay 5% at every stage of getting approval from ... After you're approved a particular project, the company, especially small companies, have to pay a certain amount of commission back to the government. That he says, this particular person who was a small vendor, says was cutting into their profit. His point was that a lot of companies do not want to work with government at that level.

I can get into more examples of what these challenges are in the Q&A, but that was one other point. Finally, even when government projects don't take a commission, a lot of them end up in litigation. That's because demands on the contract are made which are not in the contract, but are made after the contract is signed. And there are issues around the budgeting and the cost proposed. These are some of the examples that I got in terms of why adopting technology within the government is difficult. The argument that I'm making is that apps have helped bureaucrats escape some of these procurement challenges.

One reason I'm going to say is that you can start small with apps. So to give you the example of the land survey app again, it started really small scale. The only functionality was to translate the paper maps into digital form. That was the only thing they could do for a particular period of time. These functions on the right hand side were proposed, which was, it was going to happen after the digitization was complete. But as I'll tell you, that never happened. The app had to be abandoned for other reasons. The point here is that it can start small scale. As a result of small scale, one thing that I learned is around the costing and the ways in which the cost of buying that technology can be spread or dispersed along the service of the app.

This is an example from grptalk, the app that was about internal communication between the commissioner and his organization. The photo here is of the company, of the group of people who actually built the app and marketed it to the bureaucrats that were in that particular state. What I learned from being with them for over three months is that they have worked out of a very interesting method by which they get payments from the government and from the particular commissioner who they're selling this app to, which is that they have a pay-per-use model. So they only, they have a rate where they charge 80 paisa per minute, per person on the call. They bill the commissioner only amounts which are under a lakh. Every time that amount gets up to about 80,000, 90,000, they send out a bill. I wondered why did they do that? Why don't they just wait for the whole, for a longer period? They said that the reason is that if they send a bill for less than a lakh, the provisions of the procurement law don't apply. So the commissioner doesn't have to put out a tender. Basically they're able to work around the law and find a way by which they can meet the demands. This seems to be a function of the way in which apps are structured, because they allow for, as I said, in the earlier phase, small scale and [inaudible 00:24:38] staggered development.

That's another example. A third one is a social network. As I said, the tendering process, even though we know that tendering is not transparent or is not particularly the most accountable thing, and there are many scandals around that, but in the case of apps, all these three apps that I'm talking about were actually made by people who these bureaucrats in particular knew. So they came out of their social networks. In the case of the land and survey app, it was made by the colleagues of the bureaucrat from the IAT. In the case of the crop survey app, it was made by a family member. In grptalk, it was made by a friend's company. This is not a scandal. The point I'm trying to say is that it's not a scandal. It's an accepted or an expected way of working with something like the app. And I'll say a little bit more about later.

Part of the other reason for this is also the kind of network that bureaucrats are embedded in. It goes back to the change in the character of the civil services. There are some studies looking at the way in which more engineers entered the civil services and the kind of networks they bring, and the kind of expectations they have. Finally quick turnarounds. So unlike large projects, which take years and months, and sometimes end up in litigation, and all of that, here, you could have things coming to you within a few days. So the grptalk in fact already existed. They just had to  add another group to their existing infrastructure to be able to get the bureaucracy to work. Quick turnaround is another advantage, and one of the ways in which this works.

These are my points around how apps help bureaucrats escape some of the constraints around provisioning large technology. Now, I'm going to say something about my second point, which is entrepreneurial government, and this is slightly, it's getting a little bit more, I'm kind of deriving what I've said from the empirical evidence into something slightly bigger. So entrepreneurship and government, again, we know from past studies, from Jennifer Bussell's study, from work on village level entrepreneurs, that governments do enter into entrepreneurial models. But that model is really a model in which work is outsourced. The point I'm trying to make here is that what we're seeing with apps is something different. Here it's individual bureaucrats who act as managers taking end-to-end control of the app life cycle. I'm basing this understanding of entrepreneurship on new work that's coming out on entrepreneurs in India and the entrepreneurial spirit. So Lilly Irani's work on entrepreneurial citizens in modern India, but also Hemangini Gupta is working on entrepreneurship and tech startups.

I'm basing it on new literature that's coming out of this area, and I'm going to make the following points. So one is the question of individuals over rules and documents. Here again, we see some sort of divergence from the traditional structure of bureaucracy, the traditional rational-legal structure of bureaucracy. The other point is around expertise. So let me get into that example quickly. Here's an example of the crop survey. This is a life cycle of the crop survey. It's app design to data made online. The point I'm making is that this entire process was managed by the bureaucracy, by a couple of bureaucrats and a few of their team members. They did have a technical backend, but it wasn't that the work of managing was outsourced to them. It was entirely managed by the bureaucrats.

I have an example, which I won't read out now, but these are from my field notes on conversation between the bureaucrats and the hub in Bangalore and the field surveyors, who are actually using the app to do the crop survey. In this conversation, which is very interesting, you see the back and forth, and you see the way in which troubleshooting around the app and the kind of training that bureaucrats are giving to the people on the ground to do this is extremely managerial and extremely in a way suggests that control rests within the people who have designed and the people who have in some ways imagined this intervention.

I can get into that later at this time, but there's some very interesting conversations that display this entrepreneurial spirit. The third point around the entrepreneurial work is the unconventional ways of doing this work. So again, the legal-rational method is through documents and paper, but here you find a lot of use of other media. Again, crop survey used a lot of camera photos. Photo was a big component of the collection of this data, both the collection of data as well as the way in which bureaucrats manage the surveyors by making them take photos of themselves and uploading it on the app as a way to track if they're doing the work or not. They also used a lot of voice features. In this case, they actually allowed farmers to complain to the state through voice. We know, this comes a little bit, it's a bit jarring, and it's a little different from the way in which we understand the way complaints are made to the state.

There's a long history of complaining the state in South Asia. The basis of that is through petitions and writing and all those legal documents. Here we see voice as a mode of complaining the state. So the point I'm making is that ways that are not so conventional could be introduced through this mode. Finally, data performativity. So data performativity is a concept that is applied by critical data scholars and many other scholars trying to understand the ways in which data is being positioned, right, and to do things which are beyond its goals. Here, the point that I'm making is that data performativity is a part of this. The quick example is here, the crop survey again. The crop survey is done. The data has been audited by a level in the bureaucracy. Then you have the data which is in these beautiful formats available online, which is extremely, it's amazing, because prior to this, all this data was in government records, which we had very little access to.

But the fact remains that this data is not in where it most matters. If you look at the top hand right corner, that's a example from a land document where you constantly get this problem of no crop information. Farmers depend on this land record to access multiple goods and services. What happens is that they constantly are hit by this problem of having no crop information listed on their records. Whereas data exists and is presented online in these beautiful visualizations, it's not in the places that most matters.

Now this leads me to looking at the limits of this entrepreneurial work. The point I'm going to make here very quickly is not that this is good policy sunk by bad implementation, or this is not innovative, forward-thinking senior bureaucrats being pulled down by corrupt and nefarious lower bureaucrats. That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that there's a certain, multiple levels of resistance to the entrepreneurial move. Part of the resistance is also because it operates only at a certain scale and not beyond. So very quickly, design limits. Like I said, the land survey app had to be abandoned because it did not imagine, it did not take into account the entire complexity of the map making, which was part of the colonial architecture. So it just couldn't work beyond a certain level and it had to be abandoned. There are also tech limits. Like I said in the previous example, the interoperability between the data collected on the app and what's available in the places that most matter is not always in sync.

The other, the third more interesting thing is what scholars of government and documents have called the political economy of paper, which is that paper is a powerful object. It is concealed. It is hidden. It is made extremely precious. That continues in the realm of the app because for the reasons of technical limits and design limits, farmers, for instance, still have to go back to village accountants to get paper certificates about their crops. They still have to pay a little bit of a bribe to get that. So that continues as a way of work. The entrepreneurial spirit doesn't really penetrate that. Finally, I'm saying that there's some resistance to also in terms of the loss of discretion, the lost ability to work. Here on the right I've shown a poster, which is a protest actually by surveyors in Bangalore in 2019 protesting the automation of their work through apps and websites.

Here are some of the limits. And then finally, the point I'm going to make about the design is that my third argument, which is that, so this is some recent literature on e-governance in India. It's from different fields, it's from different realms of work, but something common in all this literature is that it focuses a lot on the sociopolitical conditions of adoption. That dominates the critical scholarship on e-governance in India and elsewhere. What I want to add to that is that design choices matter. This is not to say the sociopolitical is not important. I'm saying that the design is also political in a certain way. For instance, again, quickly to give you the example of grptalk was the conversation was set up in such a way that only the commissioner could direct the conversation and no one else could ask him or interject in the course of the meeting.

The app was built in a certain way that gives complete command control over the conversation to the commissioner. That was a function of the design. The locative features in the crop survey, as I was saying, can actually produce data, which is used by seniors in the department to survey the lower level staff. Again, that's a feature in the app. Finally the example of the crop survey, where it was intradepartmental and a multi-agency exercise in the past, can now be streamlined into a way that only one set of bureaucrats or departments can work on it. That I can show you has created certain tensions between the way in which the government works and coordinates.

Finally, the implications very quickly, and some of this will lead into the Q&A. First is of course the contribution to app studies. I won't go into that right now, but more importantly, what do we know about the state and the way in which it operates? So we had this very important essay article by James Ferguson and Akil Gupta in 2008, talking about the spatializing states, where they make the argument that the state is produced through the concepts of verticality and encompassment. That is, the hierarchy within states is not a given thing. It's actually through the material practice, through the everyday practices of meetings, of supervision, of audits, and of movement between a certain geographical level to a different geographical level. In these ways, the states are produced.

Now one sort of counter, not a counter in terms of the concept, but in terms of the materiality of the argument is, what happens when data and this sort of connection becomes much more immediate? So the question of temporalization or the question of different aspects of the state being coordinated within a certain temporal moment could raise questions about the way in which the cultural understanding of states appears. The other thing is bureaucratic knowledge, as I was saying, is legal-rational. It's produced through these documents. How does that sit with this question of the entrepreneurial spirit, of actually working through with an idea to a certain level, but in a completely individual and in a way that's driven not by the constraints or by the structure of paper bureaucracy, but by another spirit.

Finally similarly looking at the role of design to form aesthetics and structure and rule making. So these things are not always seen together. We don't think of rule making and structure in terms of design aesthetics, but I think apps are forcing us to look at this aspect of power and structure as well. I'm happy to talk more about these implications and anything else about the data that I've presented in the Q&A. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening. I'm really looking forward to your comments and questions.

Tariq Thachil:

Thank you so much, Nafis, for that rich and well-organized talk. We have questions coming in already. So let me go directly to them. The first couple of questions we have are from Zubin. Zubin, do you want to unmute yourself and ask your question for Nafis?


Sure. So I'm a graduate of Penn from 2013 from South Asia Studies. I really enjoy coming to these talks. Thank you so much. Nafis, the first question was around, what are the rules that govern bureaucrat's scope to utilize digital tools to achieve their goals? Is it fair to say that it's harder to imagine a district magistrate or a BDO engaging in the kinds of processes that you've described than it is at the state level? And if so, how much of that is driven by rules and how much by norms?

Nafis Hasan:

All right. Do you want me to answer that or take a few?

Tariq Thachil:

Zubin, why don't you also ask your second question as well, and then, Nafis, you can kind of respond to both of those and then we'll go to the next question.


Sure. So the second was, so my background is I've worked a lot in the NGO space in India. There are a number of NGO driven and funded models, which aim to connect citizens to various government schemes. One is called haqdarshak. In that model haqdarshaks are essentially agents who act as entrepreneurs to connect citizens to various government services. I wanted to know what your theory and view of such efforts is. And especially because you talked a little bit about sort of some of the ethical implications of the kind of digital transformation in government. I wanted to know your view and theory of such efforts.

Nafis Hasan:

Yeah. Thank you so much. Very quickly, the first question is about at what levels of the state can this operate, right? Is this something that is specific to a certain category of bureaucrats or a certain scale of government? The examples I've shown you are multi-level. The grptalk, the one used for communication is actually by a district magistrate. So he had employed it. The others were by other bureaucrats at different levels. The point here is I think there are many elements to this entrepreneurial spirit and that also leads me to the next question that you asked, which is that it kind of pervades, as Lilly Irani is showing us in her book, pervades a certain imagination of the way in which prior responsibilities of the government or prior ways of work by the government are transitioned into a more streamlined and a more dedicated way of working, which has got managerial implications.

I think in terms of rules and policies, this ability to escape some of that is found at multiple scales. I wouldn't be surprised, and I found examples of ways in which even lower level bureaucrats are employing some of these techniques. I'm happy to give you examples of that. Finally, the question of NGO models and entrepreneurs, I think that's fantastic. That goes back to the question of entrepreneurial citizenship, that Lilly Irani in some ways is arguing in her book, which is that people take on the responsibility of the state and take it on in a way that helps mediate some of the work that state is doing, but also changes the direction of it.

Here again, you see some sort of commonality between some of the bureaucrat engineers who are taking on these methods and people who are considered outside the state doing it. I think your question is also pointing to the fact or the concept or the understanding of embeddedness. Yeah.

Tariq Thachil:

Thanks so much. We have a number of questions, so let's move to Nidhi. Nidhi, you're next. Please pose your question.


Hi, thanks, Nafis, for this very rich talk. I was curious to hear more about ethnography and virtual space and especially what challenges or possibilities does that hold, that you have to acquire new digital skills. [crosstalk 00:43:16] some more. Thanks.

Nafis Hasan:

Yeah. Definitely thank you so much for the question. It's a challenge. There are two, I think two or three things that one can think about here. One is there's a classic way of doing ethnography and people outside anthropology kind of hold anthropologists to that mode of research. One challenge is to think about ways in which the classic work of ethnography gets modified in these spaces. I'm not saying that's typical of this moment only. I think all through the history of anthropology, you can see ways in which methods were innovated and employed. If you think of Max Gluckman and his team on the shop floor of the factories in Britain in the early 20th century, he wasn't doing the kind of, you know, ethnographic research that is more classically associated with anthropology.

One point about what methods one should choose is also looking a little bit at the past and look at the ways in which other anthropologists in other moments have innovated. That's one area in which possible ideas and innovations can emerge. The other is to think of virtual space in its own right. There is a separation, or there is some sort of a hierarchy in our thinking between what's in person, in reality, in actual in-person encounters and what's happening in virtual life. Somehow what's happening in virtual life, or what's online in some ways doesn't count for true data as much as, or primary data as much as what happens in real life does. I think that COVID has shown us that that's completely incorrect in a way, as more and more fieldwork is being pushed online.

I would say, to very quickly sum that up, I would say that to think of virtual space as a space in its own right, and with its own norms, its own constraints and its own limits in terms of what data can be produced. Yeah. Thank you.

Tariq Thachil:

Sorry. We have a number of questions, so I'm actually going to start grouping them. I think it makes sense to perhaps next ask Himangshu and then Rahul to ask their questions. So Himangshu, will you ask your questions, please? Everyone, please keep your questions as brief as possible, because we have quite a few.


Right. Thank you for the interesting talk. So first is a very simple question. Would you like to comment about the classifications of apps that you encountered? I guess one of the previous questions sort of spoke about this, like citizen engagement, service delivery, intragovernment. The second question is a bit more abstract. I think you made a point about how engineers' ideas and their knowledge has been shaping these decisions. Do you feel that the first principles or the world views of the disciplines of the particular specialists in each branch of government would be determining these decisions? Does it seem that very small things about the design or UI user interaction, user experience of apps, will have huge implications about individuals and their interaction with the state broadly?

Nafis Hasan:

Yeah. Thank you so much. I think your second question is really, I mean, that's the core of my argument here, that it does. It does. Questions about, or decisions around design, about user interface and the way in which data flows or the way in which work is organized in these forms does have an impact in the way in which individuals come to see something like the state or come to experience power or authority. I think it definitely does. I said engineers and empirically, that's true. There are many more engineers in the government today making decisions than there were in the past. I think that there's something to be said about that. There's something to be said about the way in which the trajectory of government is moving without really falling into this trap of technocracy or not technocracy. I think there's something more creative. What I'm trying to say is not, I'm not simply saying that engineers are rationalizing the government in a certain way. I'm saying that bringing in their creative inputs, they're bringing in a certain way of thinking and that's transforming government in a certain way. I think the burden on us is to show how that's working. I think the point I was trying to make is that apps help us see some of that. So apps illuminate that logic and that way of thinking.

The question of typology is super important. It's already there in some ways. So if you go onto like Mobile Seva, the government app store, and look at the way apps are organized, it already tells you the way in which it's thinking. But some of these apps are not easily recognizable as apps that are used by the government. So typology I think is important, but also seeing the interconnections between ... And some of the impulses are the same. Whether it's a citizen-facing app or whether it's an app for the bureaucracy, I think I'm more interested in looking at the impulse and where that imagination is coming from and what it's doing. Yeah. Thank you.

Tariq Thachil:

Okay. Thanks. I think we're actually going to group three questions because they're all kind of on themes that I think are related and maybe make sense for you to address together. So first we have Rahul. Rahul, would you please ask your question, followed by Indivar.


Thanks, Tariq. Thanks, Nafis, for the talk. Yeah, my question is about, if you could talk a little bit about the intermediary figure and whether in especially the citizen-facing apps, if there's a way, because often in the context of digitization and financialization, the argument has been that, with digitization, the intermediary figures of the money lenders and everything is sort of cut off now. And thankfully it's direct, whether it's direct cash transfer or these loan apps, which one can use. I was curious how in some of these apps around, say, land records and crop measurements, if the earlier figures of the land surveyors and things like that have been, if there is a way in which that question of the intermediary is being discussed. Thanks.

Nafis Hasan:

Yeah, no, that's ...

Tariq Thachil:

Okay. Indivar, why don't you go and then actually [inaudible 00:50:10], too, because all of your questions relate to personnel and kind of agency on the ground. So Indivar, go ahead.


Thanks so much, Tariq. Thanks, Nafis, that was a great talk. My question is about your use of entrepreneurialism.  I'm curious about how you think about it for these high-level bureaucrats, but who are in a hierarchical organization of sorts and thinking of their activities as entrepreneurial. Then the second part of the question is you talk about challenges from below, but I'm wondering also about challenges from above and the political will of elected governments and so on and how those shape this bureaucratic entrepreneurialism. Thanks so much.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you.

Speaker 8:

Hi, Nafis.

Tariq Thachil:

Go ahead.

Speaker 8:

Yeah, hi, Nafis. This was great, thank you. I basically was going to ask if there's a tension between this entrepreneurial spirit of bureaucrats who drive the development of these apps and the sustainability of such initiatives. I can imagine that the procurement is easier. So you said there's a staggered development and that can happen because these are not costly. But if they are driven by individual bureaucrats, then what happens when the bureaucrat get transferred, moves on? Are these initiatives actually sustainable? And is it okay, Tariq, if I ask my second ...

Tariq Thachil:

Make it quick.

Speaker 8:

Okay. I also wanted to ask about the grptalk app that you spoke about. Do you think it's problematic because they're helping bureaucrats bypass formal channels? There are no file notings sometimes now, because all of this communication happening on these apps. I was just wondering if you have any sense of what an app that's inclusionary of all levels of bureaucracy and politicians could look like. Thanks.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you. Thanks. These are fascinating questions. So just to quickly maybe take Indivar's first because it relates directly to what I was saying in terms of entrepreneurial challenges from above. I've said there's some resistance. So part of what I'm saying here is that, yeah, I'm not trying to say that bureaucrats can completely outdo their organizational constraints, right? So they actually really embedded in these organizations and they have all these pulls and pushes, but the argument I was trying to make is that apps do help them carve out a certain space for themselves to work in, and they are able to use some of the features that I was telling you about in terms of costing, in terms of staggering, in terms of working on a small scale, try and push or keep at bay some of these other pressures from the top. What I'm saying is, in some ways in conversation with what Jennifer Bussell is saying in her book, in terms of the political constraints of tech decision-making, but I'm saying that there are some of these ways in which it can be circumvented or deviated. I do believe that more work needs to be done in this area to see how this is done in a more consistent way. So that's the question about entrepreneurial challenges from above.

The question [inaudible 00:53:34] raised about entrepreneurial spirit and sustaining some of these things. That's a really interesting question. Like I said, so one of these apps was just abandoned because it didn't work. But I also find that there are instances where the fact that a certain bureaucrat is making all these interventions, first of all, puts them into the limelight. So they get all these awards and they put out there and they get a lot of support in some sense from multiple areas. I think that there is a way in which they become associated with a certain way of intervening and thinking in government, and that carries on. Even if they go, even if they're moved around different departments, they continue with that spirit.

The spirit in some sense becomes very much part of their persona. That was my point about rethinking the legal-rational aspects of bureaucracy. Because here you do see a very strong charismatic feature. There's very interesting material to look at there. I mean, things like YouTube, you find channels that are run by bureaucrats, where they talk about these things in the public. So it's fascinating. It's almost like an identity which is very much part and parcel of where they go and what they say. In that way, it sustains, even though specific projects may not, but the logic and the spirit sustains.

The thing about grptalk and file notings, again, very interesting. I found many instances where things like orders and circulars, which are the bread and butter of a legal-rational bureaucracy were not available anymore because they were just like WhatsApp forwards, or even if they were PDFs, they would just circulate on the WhatsApp and they disappeared after some time. So that's something. Whether or not that is going to have an impact on the way in which some form of accountable government works is a big question and really important question. I would like to do more work on it. I'm sure other scholars are doing work on that as well. So that's a really important point.

Finally, Rahul's question about intermediaries, I think that's fascinating. I would say that the app, if you look at the way in which surveyors are present, I would say that intermediaries exist, but they exist in a different form. They exist not as someone who is unrecognized or unidentified by the bureaucrats in charge, but they are intermediaries who are actually appointed by them. So for instance, in the crop survey example, the category of the private residents were contractual labor that hung around [crosstalk 00:56:32] and they were given the charge of doing this survey, carrying out this [inaudible 00:56:40]. Many of them were hired. So they remain in that form. The point I was making about intermediaries is that they are controlled in a way that may not have been so in the past. But happy to talk more about that with you. I know you're working on apps and mobile infrastructures, so I'm really happy to have more of this conversation. Thank you.

Tariq Thachil:

Thanks very much. We're running out of time. I'm just going to have two, the last three questions, but just get them one after the other. So could you please ask your question very quickly? So the people who have questions are Aakash and Mekhala, in that order. If you could just ask one question and briefly, thank you. Aakash.


Hi, Nafis, Aakash here.

Nafis Hasan:



Basically, I'm sure we'll have a longer conversation later. Just wanted to know your thoughts on how we frame entrepreneurial governance in response to procurement complexities. Is it a particular kind of entrepreneurship that the apps give rise to, or is it tacking on to sort of slightly older norms or conventions in how bureaucrats compete with each other? For example, a joint secretary potentially becomes secretary because it is understood [crosstalk 00:58:45].

Tariq Thachil:

Go ahead. Mekhala, you want to go next?


Sure. Thanks. Thanks, Nafis. Thanks for your talk. It's really great to be back virtually in a CASI seminar as well. I had a quick question. You talked about app studies. I was wondering about your thoughts or in your work, your relationship or your understanding of platforms. Because there's another whole area, and a lot of people have been also thinking about how to think analytically about platforms. But with something like, for example, eNam, it's supposed to be a platform, but it has become an app. So I often think eNam is an app without a platform. I often feel like a lot of apps in this particular world of thinking about the state are apps without platforms.

Nafis Hasan:



But they're supposed to either generate platforms or be plugged into platforms. There's this whole idea of who gets plugged into what, particularly with states and centers and interoperability and all of these questions. I wonder if you could comment a little on that. Thanks so much.

Nafis Hasan:

Sure. Thank you.

Tariq Thachil:

Nafis, why don't you go ahead and just take those two and then we'll close it. Thanks.

Nafis Hasan:

Sure. Okay. Let me start with Mekhala's. That's a really fascinating question. So part of what I was trying to say earlier was in a way directed towards this, which is that it's very hard to typologize these apps, because I think what's happening, as you said, many of these are coming as individual interventions, individual interests that are being coalesced around something like the app form. But one thing I'll say about the platform is that a lot of, many of them that I have come across, even if they're individual apps, they come with the impression or the promise that they will transcend and become something of a platform, where data will be accumulated or made interoperable with other systems. They will do much more. So the idea of the stack growing.

I think that remains a promise in the sense, not only because it has tech [inaudible 01:01:20] but also because these apps are serving goals, which don't necessarily need the technicality of it to transcend into a platform. These apps can do the political work, which I was pointing to. They're doing it in that particular form itself. But it's really, I mean, super interesting to think about what you said in terms of apps without a platform and this whole idea of platforming. I mean, Aadhaar itself is such an interesting example of what it was supposed to do in terms of building a stack or a platform and the kind of futurity that it signaled.

Aakash's question, I think super interesting. The old set of entrepreneurial, the older entrepreneurial model, which I was trying to refer to as the one in which the government outsources things, and then keeps a certain contract-based relationship. The one what I'm talking with apps is more internally focused. It's picked up by one or two people and then driven by them in the spirit. But I'm sure there are other ways in which we can think about entrepreneurship and I'd be happy to talk to you more about it and also look at the way in which intradepartmental competition happens on some of these forms.

The other work that I'm doing is on dashboards. That becomes a really interesting site to actually look at this tension around hierarchies and departments, fighting it out through maps and numbers and visualizations. So yeah, happy to take that up. Thank you.

Tariq Thachil:

Nafis, thanks so much. I think the number of questions we got, there were several in the chat that we were not able to get to. So we'll save it for sure. I encourage those of you who I wasn't able to get to, please do reach out to Nafis and share your thoughts and questions with him. I'm sure he'd be happy to hear from you and exchange ideas with all of you. Nafis, thank you for your presentation and for your cool, calm, and collected demeanor. It's appropriate that a talk on digitization was also the site of our first Zoom bombing. So congratulations on that, a badge of honor to wear proudly. We look forward to having you back in your role as a host next week or in the weeks to follow and delighted to have many of you join us. Please do join us again for our weekly Thursday seminar. We'll see you then. Thanks so much. And good-bye.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you everyone.