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Research article2019Peer reviewedOpen access

Reshaping the public domain: Decentralization, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), and trajectories of local democracy in rural India

Fischer, Harry W.; Ali, Syed Shoaib


Over the past three decades, governments around the world have undertaken reforms for decentralization. These reforms are founded on the belief that more democratic participation in local governance will lead to better outcomes for rural development, public service delivery, and environmental governance. However, the effects of these efforts have been highly variable in practice. Extensive literature has studied the factors associated with different outcomes of policy interest, yet we continue to lack knowledge of how local democracy evolves through changing power relationships over time. In this article, we draw together two dominant threads of scholarship, which have emphasized the social and institutional dimensions of democratic deepening respectively, to develop an analysis of local political change through the conceptual lens of the public domain. We define the public domain as comprising three distinct yet interrelated elements: (a) the citizens that are constituted as a "public", (b) the collection of "public goods" that they are able to access, and (c) the means and channels by which they seek to influence decision-making. Through case studies of three local governments in the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh, we show how the decentralized architecture of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) the largest downward transfer of resources to local elected governments to date has interacted with local histories of social and institutional change, leading to different trajectories of political transformation. While the devolution of resources under the MGNREGA has improved access to state resources and increased participation in development planning overall, the intensity, equity, and extent of influence varies according to the character of local political relationships. By offering a relational and processual understanding of how local governance evolves over time, the public domain lends new insight into the ways that decentralization is redefining citizenship through new articulations of the 'public' in local democracy. (C) 2018 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Decentralization; MGNREGA; Public domain; Panchayat; Governance; India

Published in

World Development
2019, Volume: 120, pages: 147-158

    Sustainable Development Goals

    SDG1 No poverty
    SDG8 Decent work and economic growth
    SDG16 Peace, justice and strong institutions

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Human Geography
    Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)

    Publication identifier


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