Global Poverty, Corruption, and the Law: India Field Study

“I look back at the time before I had to interact with the law, with a lot of romance,” a shopkeeper confided about the challenges of starting a small business in India. Sharing chai at his small café in the Delhi suburbs, we listened to his stories of grappling with cumbersome bureaucracy, an ineffective court system, and contradictory regulations. His tale about how he secured the space for the business where we sat—involving an alcoholic landlord, archaic land ordinances, and an array of cartoonish, corrupt local officials—was a fact pattern worthy of any devious law school professor’s property exam. The entrepreneur’s description made it clear that navigating the conflicting, overlapping, shifting jurisdictional maze of government regulations required every small business owner in India to possess the legal savvy of a seasoned lawyer.

The café owner’s stories brought to life the issues we studied over winter quarter in SLS’ Global Poverty and the Law course, taught by Professor Erik Jensen and Dinsha Mistree, PhD. The class examined a broad spectrum of issues related to poverty and the rule of law, including property rights, corruption, and cash transfer programs. The India trip was the course’s capstone field study, showing how the concepts we examined in the classroom applied to ongoing real-world efforts to fight poverty.

“Any examination of another country’s poverty reduction efforts raises questions about how our efforts are going back home.”

—Tom Westphal, JD/MA ’20

India occupies a unique position in the world. With an incredibly diverse population of close to 1.3 billion, India proudly lays claim to being the world’s largest democracy. Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, India established dynamic political institutions, a widely respected constitution, and a federal parliamentary system of government. In its 2019 parliamentary elections, an astounding 900 million people were eligible to vote—making it likely the largest election in world history.

But India’s government now faces mounting challenges. Though its economy has improved dramatically in the past two decades, its historically feeble growth has failed to deliver employment opportunities to much of the country. India lags behind in life expectancy, nutrition, literacy, gender parity, and sanitation. Pervasive corruption has further stymied development and mired successive governments in scandal. Its population is rapidly urbanizing, straining municipal infrastructure. Recent political movements seek to exploit ethnic and religious divisions. Conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir continues to fester. As a major producer of greenhouse gases, some observers think the fight against climate change will be won or lost in India. And India’s continued failure to match China’s successes in lifting its population out of poverty raises the question: Is the world’s largest democracy up to the challenge?

Global Poverty, Corruption, and the Law: India Field StudyTom Westphal, JD/MA ’20
SLS Global Poverty Law students on their field study trip to India with Professor Erik Jensen (front center) and Dinsha Mistree, Rol Fellow  (far left)

In meetings with government officials, including senior bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, politicians, and two Indian Supreme Court justices, our class explored how the Indian government hoped to address these problems. In other conversations with journalists, academics, political activists, small business owners, and officials from nongovernmental organizations, we heard more about the scale of the challenges, how some past government programs were defeated by the conflicting incentives within large bureaucracies, the jurisdictional challenges of federalism, and other problems of implementation. Approaching issues of poverty, corruption, and the law through so many different lenses and perspectives provided both a broad overview and specific insights into ongoing efforts to improve the lives of India’s poorest populations.

Spending a week in India gave us an admittedly limited view into a vast and complex country. But the picture that emerges is of an important country committed to grappling with large challenges through vibrant public debate and the democratic process. Our trip provided a valuable window into how the country is struggling with sharing the rewards of economic growth with all 1.3 billion Indian citizens. Additionally, any examination of another country’s poverty reduction efforts raises questions about how our efforts are going back home. Though the scale of the problem may be different, it’s clear that U.S. federal and state efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness are failing many of our most vulnerable citizens. And some Indian poverty reduction efforts, like cash transfer programs for the poorest of the poor, may hold lessons for similar programs in America.

The students and instructors from the Global Poverty and the Law class want to extend our sincere thanks to all the people we met with over the trip—we were constantly floored by the incredible hospitality and kindness we received.

Tom Westphal is a JD/MA candidate in the International Policy Studies program, with interests in comparative election law, election administration, and legislative process. This summer, he will be interning with the Department of Justice’s Voting Rights section in Washington, D.C.