Vending Hope

November 8, 2015

Look at this picture and tell me the first thing that comes to your mind?


When I took this picture, I was simply looking at the balloon man, vending love and hope. It was going to start raining soon, still people kept milling into the fair that was going on in the ground behind him. There was so much happiness in the air that it was hard to believe where I was. The yellow vehicle just behind our balloon man is the bull dozer that is used almost every day to tear down informal settlements within the M/E ward. The bull dozer is symbol of the coercive power of the state, yet in this picture gets pushed to the background. I was standing at the entrance of the ward office in M/E, which like this scene is emblematic of the contradictions that people living in the city of Mumbai encounter on a day to day basis in their interactions with the state. This vendor most certainly was an informal and unlicensed, yet he was standing infront of the institution that formulated his illegal status, unthreatened and happy. How? Why? Why did no one from the ward office even try to interrupt his activities in following the rule of law? This is certainly not an abnormality; it’s not the manifestation of the incoherent state. I think this phenomenon indicates the presence of something more, something that pervades a single overarching explanation. A related incident that took place inside this very office instead of outside reaffirms these questions in my mind.


We were sitting in the office of the assistant municipal commissioner Mr K in the M/E ward office, an old lady comes in with a middle aged man. Immediately on her arrival, Mr K’s demeanor changes and adopts a very strict persona. She on the other hand is docile and apologetic. He tells her that -- don’t keep coming here again and again, your work will be done and she leaves. Mr K later tells me that this old lady is the sole earning member of her family and also an illegal hawker, whose cart was confiscated during a scheduled raid on illegal hawkers. When she approached him personally, he was moved by her condition and decided to help her out by resorting to a loop hole in mandates. He put her cart on auction, instead of destroying it so that she could buy it for a nominal price. He had taken exception for this leady, but was afraid that if this became known, many more would approach him. “My seniors will fire me if this information goes out”. Clearly Mr. K. pervades Weber’s notion of the bureaucracy as the ‘iron cage’, yet he still has to keep up the appearance of one.


I am not the first to point out these spaces of negotiation that are opened up by the presence of these aberrations of the ‘incoherent state’ or as I would like to assert the ‘multiple state’. I believe and would like to show through my research processes that the use of the subjectivities of bureaucrats and officials of the state can actually be used to build better bureaucracies.


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