Rajesh Hanbal

Course: PhD

Year of Joining: 2015

Year of Completion: 2022

Advisor: Amit Prakash and Janaki Srinivasan

Email ID: rajesh.hanbal@iiitb.org

Dissertation Title: Information systems and multiple transparencies: The case of India’s livelihood program

Dissertation Abstract:

The last two decades have seen transparency emerge as a valued political norm. The passing of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislations, Open Government Data (OGD) initiatives and whistle-blowers’ disclosures (such as WikiLeaks) are all widely discussed as transparency initiatives. The emergence of transparency as a political norm has been aided by technological advancements that have impacted our capacity to compute, store, and communicate information. Digitization has enabled large datasets to be made available online, in real-time. The emergence of a transparency regime and the pervasive use of digital technologies have together led to much optimism among governments around the globe, which have digitized their records, ordered the broader deployment of digital technologies, and created massive public information systems.

The enormous optimism invested in the idea of transparency risks turning it into a ”magic concept” or ”buzzword” that has universal appeal and is normatively attractive due to its high level of abstraction, but hides or makes invisible the notions of conflicting interests [Alloa, 2018, Cornwall, 2007]. Ideas of transparency are increasingly inscribed into the design of digital technologies. However, the field of technology studies alerts us that the outcomes of technological initiatives are socially shaped, thus making it critical that we attend to the emergence of sociomaterial practices around the design and use of technological artifacts, including information systems. In the context of transparency-focussed information systems, these concerns suggest that we need to examine what transparency means for the state and citizens in practice and at different sites of governance. The dissertation undertakes this examination using a multi-sited ethnography [Marcus, 1995] conducted over 14 months to understand what transparency means for the distant state, citizens, and the local elite in the deployment of a single government program, India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Scheme (MGNREGA/S), in Karnataka’s eastern dryland region.

My findings point to how transparency, especially when attempted through information systems, takes on different meanings across these different sites of governance. For the distant state, transparency implies a direct, unmediated sighting of data subjects and the local everyday state. I show how multiple information systems with varied features such as geotagging, biometric authentication, associated mobile apps, and electronic payments were introduced with the claims of improving transparency in the functioning of MGNREGA. Each of these transparency-seeking interventions aims to make the local state and the rural citizens visible to the distant state. The worksites, wage-seekers, and their bank accounts are all made directly visible to the distant state. Thus, the gaze is almost always on the local. This “seeing like a state” is then published with claims of having unleashed transparency [Scott, 1999].

However, for the citizens, the introduction of transparency-seeking digital technologies makes the functioning of the state even more opaque. Transparency, I argue, is understood differently by the distant state and by citizens. Citizens understand transparency as having a sense of certainty about the delivery of public services, in this case, about citizens receiving employment and wages on time. Transparency for the local citizens is also about knowing the ”face and place,” i.e., knowing whom to ask and where. Transparency, for the distant state, though, is about seamlessness and legibility.

My research also finds how in mediating between the distant state and citizens, the local everyday state reappropriates the information systems originally intended to bring about transparency. The local state performs two functions. First, it window-dresses the information system to appear transparent to the distant state. Its sociomaterial practices ensure that the distant state’s ”myth of transparency” is sustained. Second, the local everyday state also reappropriates the information system to enable local elites to ”see” the data subjects and enroll them into their “adjustment networks.” This reappropriation of the information system and, in turn, the program itself represents a case of ”reinterpretation beyond recognition” [Kaviraj, 1991].

Contributing to the field of critical transparency research, my research argues for a situated understanding of transparency. Transparency, I argue, is not merely about the publication of aggregate data but about power relationships between the state and citizens. Recentering the transparency discourse around citizens requires that the distant state and local state be made legible to citizens rather than the citizens being turned into mere data subjects for the state. My findings also contribute to the field of digital government research, showing how the current design of digital technologies perpetuates the distant state’s interpretation of transparency. I argue that technology design should, instead, be more sensitive to the existing sociomaterial practices of citizens if it hopes to contribute to sustainable impact.


  • Rajesh Dinesh Hanbal, Amit Prakash, and Janaki Srinivasan. “Who drives data in data-driven governance? The politics of data production in India’s livelihood program”. In Proceedings of the 13th International Con-ference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance. ICEGOV 2020.New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery, Sept. 2020,pp. 485–493.doi:10.1145/3428502.3428576.
  • Rajesh Dinesh Hanbal. “The ”opaque panopticon”: Why publishing data online doesn’t make the State transparent? The case of India’s livelihood program”.
    In Proceedings of the 3rd ACM SIGCAS Conference on Computing and Sustainable Societies. COMPASS ’20. New York, NY, USA:Association for Computing
    Machinery, June 2020, pp. 307–309.doi:10.1145/3378393.3402267.3402267
  • Rajesh Dinesh Hanbal and Amit Prakash. “A rights-based approach to open government data”. In Proceedings of the Tenth International Conferenceon Information and Communication Technologies and Development. ICTD’19. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery, Jan. 2019,pp. 1–4.

CITAPP at IIIT Bangalore is an interdisciplinary think-tank set-up to focus on the policy challenges and the organizational demands made by technological innovation. Of particular interest to the Centre is how technological advances, along with institutional changes that harness the legitimacy and the powers of bureaucracies and market, address the needs of underserved communities.