Over the past decade, China built the world’s largest high-speed rail network while India has struggled to expand its own overburdened railway system. What explains the striking difference in state capacity for railway development between these two countries? Drawing on two years of fieldwork in China and India, I argue that the organizational structure of state bureaucracies matters. Nodal forms of bureaucratic structure, where authority and accountability are highly concentrated in key organizations and individual positions, yield greater state capacity by combining flexible coordination mechanisms with clear lines of responsibility. Diffuse forms of bureaucratic structure, in contrast, are characterized by overlapping lines of authority and accountability, causing decision-making paralysis and a diffusion of responsibility that ultimately results in diminished state capacity. I show that within the railway sector, the nodal structure of China’s state bureaucracy contributes to greater state capacity while the diffuse structure of India’s state bureaucracy results in diminished state capacity. I describe the implications of these findings for the study of state capacity and organizational effectiveness.
Kyle Chan is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department at Princeton University. He studies the determinants of state capacity and the role of the state in development with a focus on China and India. He received a master’s degree in political sociology from the London School of Economics and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago.