This article studies corruption in India through an ethnographic elaboration of practices that are colloquially discussed as the ‘eating of money’ (paisa khana) in northern India. It examines both the discourse and practice of eating money in the specific context of the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (NREGA). The article works through two central paradoxes that emerge in the study of corruption and the state. The first paradox relates to the corruption–transparency dyad. The ethnography presented shows clearly that the difficulties in the implementation of NREGA arose directly out of the transparency requirements of the statute, which were impeding the traditional eating of money. Instead of corruption being the villain it turns out that, in this particular context, it was its categorical Other—transparency—that was to blame. The second and related paradox emerges from an ethnographic examination of the processes and things through which development performance, corruption, and transparency are established and adjudged in the contemporary Indian state. Corrupt state practices and transparent state functioning are authoritatively proclaimed through an assessment of evidence—material proof in the form of paper—that is constructed by the Indian state itself. The push for transparency in India at the moment is not only leading to an excessive focus on the production of these paper truths but, more dangerously, is also deflecting attention away from what is described as the ‘real’ (asli) life of welfare programmes. Ultimately, this article contends that we need to eschew treating corruption as an explanatory trope for the failure of development in India. Instead of devising ever-more punitive auditing regimes to stem the leakages of the Indian state, this work suggests that we need a clearer understanding of what the state really is; how—and through which material substances—it functions and demonstrates evidence of its accomplishments.
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