Penn Global and the Center for the Advanced Study of India are jointly funding a two-year project that investigates the urbanization of small towns in India.
The project, Understanding India's Urban Future, focuses on municipalities in India and the challenges that both local governments and citizens face due to development. The research centers on smaller towns with less than 100,000 people as opposed to larger cities such as Mumbai or New Delhi.
Tariq Thachil, professor of political science and director of CASI, first began working on the project with Adam Auerbach, a professor at American University’s School of International Service. Last month, Thachil and Auerbach published their co-written book “Migrants and Machine Politics: How India's Urban Poor Seek Representation and Responsiveness.”
Thacil visited towns in the northern state of Rajasthan from 2018 until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. After COVID-19, Penn Global began supporting the project, allowing for the scope of the research to be expanded to focus on more towns.
“For small towns, their challenges are often more modest, figuring out how to have basic paved roads, a basic sewage system, which the vast majority of these towns do not have,” Thachil said. “There’s far less private enterprise in these spaces, and so they have far more modest resources and are often much more dependent on higher levels of government for funding and support.”
Thachil and his team traveled to these cities to look over budgets and gather government documents. They also talked to local politicians and surveyed thousands of citizens to understand their grievances.
The two-year project is a third of its way through, with the team having completed the initial fieldwork. This upcoming summer, they plan to gather a larger data collection that includes surveys of thousands of citizens across 60 to 70 towns in Rajasthan.
“Our hope is to analyze that data next and write up the results next year,” Thachil said.
First-year political science Ph.D. student Deepaboli Chatterjee went with a team to four small towns in Rajasthan from March to May 2022. Chatterjee spent two weeks in each city, interviewing around 90 people — including local bureaucrats, politicians, and citizens. According to Chatterjee, around 45% of India’s population lives in these municipalities.
“Compared to a bigger city where you don’t know the local politicians, in these towns, politicians will often be your neighbor,” Chatterjee said. “[Also] compared to bigger cities, in these smaller cities, citizens and everybody else are quite willing to talk to you.”
Chatterjee also sat in on board meetings of the wards in these municipalities to see how local governments were considering citizens' concerns.
College senior Mathew Chemplayil has been involved in the program as a research assistant since September 2021. Chemplayil’s main role is geocoding, which entails turning a string of data into coordinates in order to map the location of Indian towns.
“The skills that I’ve had here are going to be very useful … for research in the future, and this has been a great experience for that,” Chemplayil said.
CASI celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. At the time of its founding, it was the first academic research center in the United States to focus on contemporary India. The team hopes to continue their research and expand to more municipalities in order to make broader generalizations about small-town development in India.