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

Auerbach, Adam Michael. Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 328 p. $99.99 cloth, 34.99 paper.

Cambridge University Press

Review by Veronica Herrera, UCLA

Squatter settlements dot the cities of the Global South, but they exhibit uneven access to public goods. Auerbach tackles this puzzle in Demanding Development, painting a revealing portrait of local claims making and problem-solving networks in India’s urban slums. In doing so, the author speaks to a central problem of development as public resources for infrastructure are limited and accessed through a complex web of political relationships.

Auerbach finds that settlements with dense networks of party workers are better positioned to demand public services such as paved roads, sanitation, and drinking water. Dense networks of party workers in a community intensify competition among party workers for a personal following, pushing party workers to work hard to solve residents’ problems or risk losing their support. Dense networks also generate more political connectivity, or the degree to which the slum is connected to party organizational networks and has relationships with political elites. Finally, dense networks offer an organizational structure for rallying residents to protest, strengthening the settlement’s power to disrupt when their claims go unanswered. In slums with greater party worker density, local residents are more likely to have their claims for public services addressed. Auerbach qualifies this account by noting that this relationship holds only in slums where a single party commands all party workers.

Demanding Development is a groundbreaking book on distributive politics that offers both quantitative evidence about the relationship between political brokerage and public services provision as well as illuminating narratives about the inner workings of slum political life. It is meticulously researched and elegantly written. Chapters 1-3 present an overview of the public service access problem cast against its proliferation in slums in the Global South and the argument of the book. A rich and engaging chapter 4 examines India’s slum leaders, how they navigate their problem-solving activities, adjudicate claims from residents, and engage in electoral mobilization as party workers. Auerbach paints a revealing picture of how embedded leadership from within communities are held accountable by residents pushing for resolution of diverse problems—this micro-level account provides a rich and compelling addition to the literature on clientelism in political science. Demanding Development features comparative ethnographic fieldwork in eight case study settlements, showcased in chapter 5.  In chapter 6, Auerbach presents evidence from an original survey in the slums of Bhopal and Jaipur, where 111 squatter settlements were surveyed. Auerbach finds party worker density to be statistically associated with the provision of paved roads, streetlights, municipal trash collection and government medical camps. Chapter 7 examines why party worker networks are uneven in their density and partisan balance across settlements, finding that settlement size and ethnic diversity helps explain this variation. Surprisingly, more ethnically diverse communities have better services because residents tend to prefer co-ethnic slum leaders, which increases the number of ties to party networks within single slums. Ultimately, while co-ethnicity facilitates support for co-ethnic slum leaders, what matters most in attracting a following is being able to get results for the community. 

Auerbach’s account is masterful in its multi-method approach. The comparative ethnographic research is first rate. The author uses extended quotations from residents, slum leaders and others to bring these communities to life and present their perspective in their own voice. Furthermore, photographs from the author’s research throughout the book provide a sense of context and place. Text-based sources such as pamphlets, letters, notes from community meetings, and petitions are drawn on throughout the case studies to show how slum leaders keep track of resident claims, generate followings, and curry favor with party leaders. Indeed, Auerbach notes he engaged with “thousands” of paper documents from slum communities to inform his study. The survey of 111 squatter settlements allows Auerbach to cast a wider net than ethnography alone about the degree to which the association between party worker density and public services provision hold across Indian slums. The survey also necessitated enumerating party workers in these same areas, providing further evidence for the ethnographically generated claims about the contours of slum leadership.

Several questions emerge from this study. While most research on India’s urban slums overwhelmingly focus on a few megacities, smaller cities such as those selected here better represent where most of India’s slum residents live. However, it’s not clear how representative Bhopal and Jaipur are of India or the Global South more broadly. The two cities are located in north India’s Hindi-speaking belt; had the two cities been located in different regions within India, the mechanisms at play or the contours of slum leadership may have differed. For example, settlement eviction is low in these two cities (p. 216), which is likely to differ across slums and impact the amount of leverage and tactics for slum leaders in brokering for services. Similarly, the book does not do enough to disentangle the differences across the indicators that are chosen for the dependent variable in terms of their policy environments or the ease with which political brokers can deliver them. It is not the same to provide a pop-up government health camp as it is piped tap water. The reader would have benefitted from knowing more about the public goods being provided and variation in their quality, continuity, and reach. The development index Auerbach draws on relies overwhelmingly on respondent’s impressions of service as opposed to other more objective measures of public goods provision quality such as government, NGO or IFI data. Finally, the study suggested that politicians invest in episodic infrastructure upgrades in slums to a point, as one politician noted, “After winning an election, parties are afraid to give slum dwellers all the facilities, like education, healthcare, roads, and other things, because they will become independent and not go around seeking help. That is a loss for the parties” (p. 222). It is unclear from Auerbach’s account how party leaders manage the claims of slums that have received increasing levels of public services. Are they ignored or appeased; do communities with better public services have more or less political leverage over time?

Demanding Development is a path breaking book that breaks new ground. The extensive, immersive fieldwork provides a level of richness and complexity to political brokerage that is rare and very welcome in the study of distributive politics. Auerbach finds that surprisingly, co-ethnicity is less important than being able to get things done in a city. The book’s account of how poor migrants come to live in close quarters with diverse castes and religions rightly demarcates key differences between rural and urban communities that have not received sufficient attention in studies of distributive politics. Auerbach problematizes simple accounts of clientelist exchange with his focus on the, albeit limited, agency residents have to hold slum leaders accountable and have their problems addressed. The book will appeal to political scientists, urban planners and development studies audiences who are interested in better understanding the relationship between politics and public services in Global South cities.

Reviewer Biography

Veronica Herrera is Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Political Science at UCLA. She studies the politics of development in Global South cities with a focus on Latin America. Her research interests include urban politics, decentralization, civil society participation, social movements, water policy, and environmental politics and policymaking. Dr. Herrera is the author of Water and Politics: Clientelism and Reform in Urban Mexico (University of Michigan Press, 2017), which received the Dennis Judd Best Book Award from the Urban and Local Politics section of APSA.