“G-local Women Power: Local Female Representation & Property Rights in India” (2021) in Invisible Institutionalisms
(by Swethaa Ballakrishnen and Sara Dezalay) Eds. London: Hart Publishing.

Abstract: Today, we live at the intersection of hyper-speed institutional change thanks to globalisation which increases the scope of opportunities for both integration and dissolution of prior structures and identities. On one hand, rapid change enables integration of new knowledge across communities, with radically new opportunities for the advancement of individual and collective interests either in partnership with more transparent states, or with autonomy from authoritarian planners. On the other hand, the striking inequality engendered by globalisation enables these same tools to support polarisation within and exit from the very communities that built transformative welfare states.

This chapter tells the story of how I arrived at one edge of the ‘global periphery ’ – rural India – to enter a crucible of institutional change: one in which women’s voices were changing the state from the household up. In 2008, I went in search of a revolutionary story about women’s economic empowerment through national legal reform ‘on the ground’, from rural Andhra Pradesh in South India to the banks of the Yamuna River in North India’s Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. I asked journalists, agriculturalists, politicians and activists to explain how a daughter’s new, equal rights to inherit property worked for them. Bureaucrats, elected officials, and judges told me in adjacent breaths that laws were effectively implemented, and that nothing would change for generations. Indeed, many legal activists knew nothing of this ‘transformative’ reform. My perspective changed as I met women who organised in what is becoming a centripetal political force: all-female Self Help Groups. Some of these women are now successful as elected officials; some intentionally remain outside the state. I had naively assumed I would find that women’s greater agency was the result of legislation declaring female and male inheritance rights equal. But instead, as I followed the steps of women steeped in the practice of female collective power, I found a resounding female political voice that had arrived on the scene long before.

“Land Rights Without Law: Property Rights Institutions, Growth, & Development in India” (2009) in Law and Economy in India (by T. Heller & E. Jensen) Eds. Forthcoming. Oxford University Press India.

Abstract: Theorists of new institutional economics are often accused of treating formal property rights institutions as a silver bullet for solving problems of economic growth, political development, and particular cultures’ successes. Yet the establishment of rights to property does not guarantee control over property. The relationship between formal property rights and economic development is unclear when legal rights to property are distinct from the informal capacity to control property. I consider formal institutions to be a set of rules with legal enforcement. In contrast, informal institutions rely on social norms to enforce rules, which are often framed as codes of behavior. Formal and informal institutions usually coexist in a given state, with informal institutions and formal institutions acting as complements. Informal institutions coordinate interests, whereas formal institutions enforce decisions. I examine the relationship between formal and informal institutions in the context of rights to a highly valued resource: land rights in rural North India.

I question how farmers utilize informal (non-legal) and formal (legal) property rights institutions to solve contested land rights, which are a frequent problem in the developing world. I will analyze this question in the context of two neighboring states in rural north India, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, where land rights are extremely valuable and there is high intra-state and inter-state variation in the development and quality of property rights. Based on a dataset of randomly selected district court cases about disputed land title in Pratapgarh district, central Uttar Pradesh, I provide preliminary tests of my verbal theory’s implications. The descriptive statistics show that my theory is plausible. Three conclusions follow from these empirics. First, coercion is the most frequently used tool for resolving land disputes between parties with large differentials in informal (caste) power. However, coercion is limited to settling disputes between individuals, as opposed to settling disputes for an entire class of people. Second, there is initial statistical evidence of pro-upper caste bias in Pratapgarh’s District Court proceedings. However, a data on landownership by caste is required to confirm the court’s upper-caste bias. Third, this research provides a basis for future studies of caste as an informal identity that provides valuable coordination mechanism in formal property rights institutions. My theory is that formal and informal institutions are complements. Informal institutions have a comparative advantage in coordinating interests, whereas formal institutions have an advantage in enforcing laws.

First, both powerful and weak farmers utilize the courts. Farmers choose to use formal institutions if the benefits of legal enforcement over and above a farmer’s individual ability to enforce land claims outweigh the court’s expected costs. Court use is valuable to a farmer when there is a small power differential between the given farmer and his/her opponent, regardless of their absolute power. Thus, both powerful and weak farmers use courts, but only when litigant’s evenly matched informal power requires a formal arbitration mechanism. Second, India’s formal institutions do not treat all litigants equally. Specifically, a litigant’s informal power, as measured by caste (and subcaste: jati) is a significant determinant of whether the courts will rule in favor of his or her claim. My theory explains a puzzle evident throughout the developing world: widespread use of impersonal formal institutions without rejecting pre-existing personal informal institutions. I theorize that India’s formal court decisions remain based upon a pervasive informal institution: caste.