The Many Headed Monster

I seek to situate my research within a ward office of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the first constituted urban local body in India. Today this state entity employs more than 150,000 people, serving a population of 12.8 million within a jurisdiction of 457 sq km. Its functions range from the registration of births and deaths, to maintenance and provision of services for urban populations, to preservation of life and property. Every aspect of the urban lived experience is overseen by this massive bureaucratic entity which necessitates a very complex structural presence. The MCGM consists of three important substructures: the legislative, the technocracy and the bureaucracy. The legislators are the elected representatives with a term of five years and can be understood as the direct representatives of the urban population and part of the electoral democratic setup in India. The technocracy oversees the engineering and scientific functions of the MCGM. Technocrats are employees of the state appointed by recruitment examinations that occur as positions become available. They are the longest serving members of the MCGM, often coming into the institution at very young ages and retiring after tenures of thirty to thirty five years. The diverse nature of the institution warrants the diversity of the technical specificities as well. The bureaucrats serve as the link between the technocrats and the legislators, overseeing the administrative aspects arising from interactions between the two, appointed in a similar way as the technocrats.

The city is also spatially divided into three different denominations to suit these three streams. There are 227 electoral wards, 24 administrative wards and 6 bureaucratic zones. Therefore, there are 227 legislative representatives, many technocrats whose work corresponds to 24 administrative wards, and countless bureaucrats who work with 6 zones. There is also a corresponding structure that centralizes some of the technocratic functions. At the level of the administrative ward, the only representative of the bureaucracy is the Assistant Municipal Commissioner (Mr. K.) who oversees the functioning of approximately 300 technocrats depending upon the population of the administrative ward.

I spent this summer in Mumbai, trying to develop a better understanding of how this massive urban bureaucracy works. My research enquiry last summer led me to traverse the different scales of this institution and exposed me to the multiplicity of its functions. My interest was to trace the different processes involved in the development of land in the city of Mumbai, and tMCGM’s role in it. For the duration of 12 weeks, I investigated the allegations of incoherence. Instead, I found a perfectly coordinated, many-headed monster. I spent the next eight weeks in a ward office of the MCGM that was responsible for the upkeep of about 675,000 people spanning over 32 sq km. The office of the lowest level of the MCGM became my field site where in observing the mundane everyday practices of the different state officials, I learned about the complexity of state-society interactions.

My daily schedule included a whole host of activities ranging from observing the public grievance meeting held in the office twice a week, observing the interactions of private contractors with officers, and attending and observing appeal meetings of the right to information applicants. The most interesting site visits – which happened almost everyday - were those on which I accompanied the Junior engineers. These site visits took me to different parts of the wards, helped me understand how the state machinery functions on a day-to-day basis, and began to illuminate the multiple contestations/contradictions surrounding it. The level of access that I enjoyed in this process was unprecedented. Many times during this period I wondered how I was gaining this access to private citizens’ personal situations, but eventually realized that people operate with multiple ethical configurations that cannot be inflated to the logic of the incoherent state, and that these people were, ultimately, eager to tell us their lives and stories. Legislators, technocrats and bureaucrats alike had stories to tell about how the state actually works, all of which helped reformulate my initial research inquiry into this dissertation research proposal.