The Last Mile as Space? A Review of Ashish Rajadyahksha’s Inquiry into Technology and Governance in India

Mar 4, 2024 4:38 PM

Fangyu Qing

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March 4, 2024


This is a screenshot of the cover of Dr. Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s report The Last Cultural Mile: An Inquiry into Technology and Governance in India.

The Last Mile as Space? A Review of Ashish Rajadyahksha’s Inquiry into Technology and Governance in India

by Fangyu Qing

Last Mile Blog Series 1: The Last Political Mile: “The Last Mile” as a Metaphor

This blog series aims to breathe life into the term “last mile,” which originally stemmed from the telecommunication and logistics industry, and to unpack this term’s metaphorical meaning and academic potential. In this second blog post, I engage in a dialogue with Dr. Ashish Rajadhyaksha and his report, The Last Cultural Mile: An Inquiry into Technology and Governance in India. Rajadhyaksha is a pioneer in conceptualizing the “last mile,” using it to address changes in Indian telecommunication cases. He concludes by examining how the roles of the state and the public were redefined in attempts to solve the “last mile” problem.

In the following section, I will briefly summarize his argument and discuss how my understanding of the “last mile” aligns with or differs from his perspective[1].

The Last Cultural Mile

Based on the Indian context, Rajadhyaksha noted that in public discourse, the "last mile problem" was used to describe the inability of the government. For instance, subsidies issued by the Indian government to the poor often fail to reach the hands of the designated recipients. Envisioning a technological utopia, the Indian government aspired to utilize advanced Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to overcome these barriers and connect with the envisioned population. In instances where the state was unable to resolve these challenges, private corporations stepped in. But according to Rajadhyaksha (2015, p. 22), the state faced a contradiction "that only mandates a State mechanism to perform an act of delivery, and then disqualifies the State from performing that very act effectively". This contradiction was labeled the "Last Mile Problem" in his monograph. With a pervasive presence in various aspects of contemporary Indian governance, it is depicted as being related to the grey areas of state governance.

In the following chapters, Rajadhyaksha examins the struggles to "solve" the "last mile problem" in several cases, from the television system to the Unique Identity Numbers of India, and he found that communication theories related to ICTs influenced the discursive dimensions of the state and the people.

Television, for example, happened to be associated with the theory of cybernetics. The role of the state, or the center, is to reduce noise and increase efficient information in limited channels. The people, on the other hand, are formed as decoders/viewers. The television signal sent from the center to the periphery represents a central concern of the localities, and the viewers are the cultural symbol of the localities, the Indian people (ibid., see Chapter Three).

Building on Rajadhyaksha's conclusion, it is imperative to emphasize the role of technology from the angle that when the state introduced ICT into the "last mile", it is in need of adaptation to suit the "State apparatuses" (ibid., p. 23). Media and communication scholars have a responsibility to capture this process, and to critically reflect on the outcome of people's 'indiscriminate' acceptance of technology.

The Last Mile as Space

Through several case studies, Rajadhyaksha proved that the introduction of ICT into the "last mile" 1) reconstructed a new state authority in terms of its access to the people; and 2) created a technologized system for its named beneficiaries that seemed to work. (ibid., p. 154) As such, his work sheds light on how communication models brought about by ICT transformations actually influence a discursive battleground of citizen welfare.

In the original monograph, the "last mile" remains an unbridgeable point, existing as "a litmus test of the State's capacity to maintain its authority while at the same time modifying such authorized purpose so as to permit technologies that can bridge the Last Mile to come under its ambit, and in the process turn legitimate." (ibid, p. 22) I am also curious about 1) how other actors play roles in the technology-reshaping; and 2) whether the "last mile" has potential to be considered as a space, that lies at the flexible boundary of state power, for actors to bargain, negotiate, cooperate, compete with, and challenge the interests that the state delivered by technology. In this case, scholars could go further to discuss the roles of communities, corporations, as well as different levels of governments; and the "last mile" could be a checkpoint of how technologies influence different forms of governance at the grassroot level.

Thus, I would suggest extending the idea of the "last mile" from an "unbridgeable" point to a space: as a battlefield, a grey area or a playground. In the "last mile", the state would play a role but could be distant, potential or insignificant. Other actors, including human and non-human, negotiate, compete, cooperate and communicate to complete different forms of governance. The "last mile" would be an important political space for grassroot governance practices to happen, and the existence of this space could be found in regimes of different ideologies. However, before making this bold argument, I will return to the public discourses on the "last mile" in China in my forthcoming article.

Publication Date: March 4, 2024

[1] As I am not intimately familiar with the Indian context, any misinterpretations are solely my responsibility.