Mediation, Middle Grounds and Meddling – The Medley of Middlemen

[Dedicated to Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay on account of “receiving ends”]

Couple of weeks ago, I was attempting to rent out the apartment that my mother and I own in an urban sprawl in South Bangalore. Among others, a broker – referring to himself as a ‘property consultant’ – approached me with a client. I met the client and conducted some negotiations. Eventually, however, I rented the apartment to persons who had approached me before the broker and his client saw our place. I politely refused the broker’s client. The broker contacted me soon thereafter and began issuing threats for not renting the place to his client. He threatened that it would be dangerous for me to spoil my business with him. Initially, I was also nervous and upset because I was unsure if the broker had an office in the neighbourhood and whether he was powerful enough to spread false rumours about our property which could potentially devalue the property and/or spoil my relations with the new tenants who had just come in. He then came to the apartment complex where the flat is situated and created a small ruckus. Finally, failing on all counts, he threatened to lodge a false police complaint against me for allegedly taking a deposit from his client without issuing a receipt. The broker’s threats turned out to be empty and damp squib as him. He never showed up after that dramatic afternoon of back-and-forth(s).

This episode was, however, a very important experience for me. I have been writing about brokers and middlemen in a variety of contexts, ranging from e-governance and transparency to water distribution in large cities. Brokers aka middlemen are ubiquitous in the arena of governance, and in everyday life in general. I have interacted with a range of middlemen and brokers, beginning with panchayat members in peri-urban areas who are embedded in the real estate dynamics in their administrative jurisdictions and who simultaneously mediate the relationships between rural citizens and bureaucrats from the revenue administration system over matters of land ownership and usufruct disputes, services and amenities; municipal councilors who broker the relationships between citizens and municipal administration; engineers in water departments who are mediating a variety of relationships involving propertied residents, ‘illegal’ and ‘informal’ groups, senior bureaucrats, pipeline men, plumbers and valve-men over the contentious issue of access to water; and clerks and junior level officials in registrar offices where all kinds of property transactions (including transfer of ownership and documents) take place. Given my investment in the subject of brokers (as result of my deeper investment in understanding relations underlying and surrounding property in cities), here I was, at another point in time, at the receiving end of a broker whose ilk I interact with and, quite honestly, enjoy being in the company of. I am glad that as a researcher, my life throws each of these experiences at me so that I am able to think more deeply about issues such as exploitation, graft, ethics, norms and ‘political correctness’. This blog post is in the order of introspection by a researcher who is many-a-times at receiving ends!

Sociology of Middlemen: A broker/middleman is not always a pre-existing entity. Situations create brokers/middlemen as much as brokers/middlemen emerge in situations where information is either ambiguous or scarce and/or when negotiating is required. More often than not, the typical brokers/middlemen we encounter in our everyday lives are individuals who possess more information about rules, procedures, localities, and who are also connected with influential networks and/or individuals. These middlemen/brokers may not necessarily have fantastic negotiating acumen, but they have become middlemen by virtue of the information(s) they possess and the connections they already possess or can draw on.

At the same time, the broker/middleman occupies multiple other positions in society and in the sphere of governance – the middleman is a resident of the same locality/settlement where he facilitates establishment of water connections or assists migrants in finding housing; the middleman is also a recipient of the same housing/water supply that s/he is brokering to get for his/her clients. The middleman is as much at the mercy of the bureaucrat’s discretion as much as he is invoking the discretion of this bureaucrat to get the work of his client/s done. A middleman such as a panchayat member has much of a stake and interest in protecting his/her own lands as much as s/he is involved in getting and issuing khatas (i.e. titles) for his/her constituencies in the villages. By describing this double-bind situation (which can be triple-, quadruple- or multi-bind given the context and time in which the event is occurring), I want to indicate that the powers of middlemen are not entirely absolute; as much as they can pull strings, they can be entangled within these strings by those who are part of the chain. Yet, middlemen are often labeled as exploitative, corrupt and cunning. This post aims to interrogate the powers of the middleman by examining the very architecture and sociology that underlies different sorts of middlemen.

There is a general and genuine disdain for brokers that pervades across all sections and strata of society. The rich, sophisticated and educated as much dislike interacting with brokers as do ‘informal’, ‘illegal’, poor and ‘marginalized’ groups. This disdain stems from the sociology of brokers that is accepted and internalized as universal i.e., brokers are sleazy, hyena-like, shrewd creatures who take advantage of the lack of information and necessity among people and make a kill. It is universally believed that brokers are lewd, powerful and crass. It is their crassness – the lack of refinement – that leads people to avoid them across the board, as much as possible. In this respect, Vivek Dhareshwar and R. Srivatsan’s essay on the sociology of “Rowdy-sheeters” in Andhra Pradesh and how the stereotypical image of the “Rowdy-sheeters” kept perpetuating with constant marking of these entities as criminals could apply equally to brokers and middlemen who are routinely marked as corrupt and exploitative.

There is also the issue of entitlement and due, which operates in an interesting way in the context of brokers and brokerage. The issue is: why should the broker be paid ‘so exorbitantly’ for providing information that could otherwise have been openly and freely available to people? If procedures were uniform and information about them could be easily accessible, then people would not have had to engage brokers and pay them for what would otherwise (documents/services/welfare resources) have been obtained for little to no monetary costs whatsoever. There is therefore persistent and vociferous advocacy by the rights advocating individuals and groups, international aid agencies such as the World Bank, NGOs, and think-tanks on the free-market end of the spectrum, uniformly, to open up access to information and data about government schemes, programmes, budgets and budgetary allocations and policies so that middlemen can be eliminated. It has also been argued by development aid agencies and policy-makers and advocates at various ends of the ideological spectrum that people engage brokers in order to save productive time that is otherwise (wastefully) spent on cumbersome procedures. This is the ‘opportunity cost’ argument. Brokers aid in saving productive time, which would otherwise be spent in chasing officials and moving files from one office to another. These agencies and advocates therefore argue introduction of ICTs and computerization in delivery of government services so that people can easily and expeditiously access services through websites, call centres, information kiosks or telecentres without having to interface/petition/confront government officials. Such automation and streamlining of service delivery is deemed to institute efficient, transparent and most importantly ‘direct’ state-citizen relationships.

This Blog Post: My aim in writing this blog post is to elaborate on two issues: first, I want to explore how a broker/middleman comes to be one and what constitutes/amplifies the power of middlemen. This analysis should ideally lead us to think a little more imaginatively and deeply about transparency interventions that seek to eliminate middlemen. Secondly, I want to discuss the relationship between brokers and information, and how brokers produce and circulate information. The purpose of the second exercise is somewhat more far-sighted i.e. to open up and question the black box/dead-end that appears to have developed as a result of the belief that the digital (and its aides such as databases and websites) is the primary deliverer and messiah of transparency. In recent times, it is largely presumed that given the expansive capacity of the Internet and its existing and potential outreach, the Internet is the source and destination of open data/information and access. My concerns with this imagination and belief stem from the worry that other forms of information production, transmission and circulation are either glorified or belittled (and in either case mummified) as ‘local’ and are increasingly forgotten in all advocacy and frenzy surrounding right to information, information access and open data. In this process, information that is published digitally is acquiring an enormous amount of power which is fundamentally configuring our understanding of what counts as ‘legitimate’, ‘open’ information. I have divided this blog post into two parts. Each part deals with each of these two issues individually. In the end, I will pull both these seemingly disparate issues together and tie them with a conclusion (paradoxically to a trail that is fluid and never-ending) about where we need to focus our energies and thinking when examining middlemen, exploitation, information, power and transparency.

Middlemen and the Grounds on which they stand – the ecology and power underlying middlemen: In December 2009, a co-researcher and I were trying to hail a taxi around a busy touristy area in Cape Town, South Africa. We were directed towards a taxi stand situated close to a five-star hotel. We asked a taxi driver or two to take us to Woodstock. Though couple of taxi drivers agreed, we were not certain about whether the fares they were asking for were appropriate or not. We then approached the security guard who was manning the gates of the five star hotel to confirm what we should be paying for our trip to Woodstock.

The security guard seemed like an astute and powerful person. He suggested a higher rate than what the cab drivers were asking us to pay and even offered to hail a cab for us. In the brief five-minute conversation with him, I deduced that he was ‘managing’ the space just outside the hotel where the taxi drivers were parked and that he was seeking ‘cuts’ from the fares that the drivers were earning. These ‘cuts’ were of the nature of collecting ‘a due’ for ‘brokering’ the relationship between the taxi drivers and hotel authorities who had a stronger claim on that empty space outside the hotel. The security guard had thus become a broker of this space as a result of his job duty which involved guarding this space. The hotel authorities and management could either be aware or unaware of his brokering role, but would not have objected to it in any case owing to two reasons: one, a taxi stand right outside the hotel would eventually serve the guests living in the hotel who needed taxis to move around the city. Secondly, the security guard was African and given the sensitivity surrounding racial discrimination in South Africa, the authorities may have preferred not to meddle much in the (aside) business of their African security guard as long as it did not lead to any kind of disorder or disruption involving the hotel. It could also be that the security guard had developed relations, in the course of time, with the traffic police and the cops of the area. The security guard could then always mobilize the power of these relations to keep the taxi drivers on their toes and to maintain discipline and order in the space they were occupying. The taxi drivers, on their part, may not be overtly confronting the authority of the security guard because the location of the taxi stand in a touristy area was good for their business.

A quick reading of this relationship architecture suggests that the taxi drivers are caught in a situation of monopoly where the security guard is the broker of the space they are using. Such a relationship, in reality and for a person at the receiving end, would indeed be monopolizing and exploitative. But given the situation of opportunity, constraint and dearth of space in cities, the people involved must make very difficult choices about whether to passively submit, openly confront, precariously negotiate or surreptitiously work with the concerned middlemen and authorities (where the middleman can also be an authority by virtue of the connection between the people and the higher-ups involved in the situation).

It is this (presumed or real) monopoly power of the middlemen that researchers, academics and outsiders read as exploitative. For those involved in the situation, the middleman might be an important connection, however sleazy and crafty, especially when there is a large chasm in direct access to the concerned authorities/decision-makers/service providers in the situation. For instance, Narayana Gatty in his doctoral thesis on Bhoomi – digitization of land records programme in Karnataka – explained that once the authority for effecting corrections moved from the head of the Taluk (district) to the Assistant Commissioner (in Bangalore) after implementation of Bhoomi, farmers had to approach middlemen to mediate not only because the authority had moved higher up, but because there was now a large social distance chasm between (illiterate) farmers and a highly educated, law abiding and rule-knowing senior bureaucrat. The farmers were afraid of being rebuked by the Assistant Commissioner for not knowing the rules and the system if they were to meet the Commissioner directly. Given this increased social and political distance, they employed middlemen to mediate the process of effecting corrections in their digitized land records. Similarly, squatters, especially new entrants in a settlement, rely on middlemen to mediate their relations with the local leaders or they depend on local leaders (who are also middlemen given the context) to mediate on their behalf with politicians and administrators. In such situations, the middleman continues to remain important unless the people involved are able to establish (and consolidate) direct access with the concerned authorities/decision-makers/service providers. Even after establishing direct access, it is not necessary that the middleman’s role, powers and monopoly come to an end. This is because the decision-maker/service provider/authority may get transferred and the relationship with the new person/s may have to be established all over again. Or, the middleman may position him/herself in another way in the relationship or the process such that s/he may continue to exist, albeit with lesser or more powers, depending on the renewed positioning.

What might be important for us to pay attention to, even if that involves tedious case-by-case basis analysis, is to examine the role and importance of the middleman in every given circumstance. As I mentioned above, middlemen are of various kinds and the roles they play in any given situation has not only implications for the parties involved; Solomon Benjamin contends that through their knowledge of rules and procedures and their everyday mediations and interventions, middlemen actually make the rule bound systems and the rule-based rationalities somewhat more porous. I will return to Benjamin’s argument in the second part of this two-part blog post. For now, let me concretely illustrate some kinds of middlemen for us to be able to understand how a middleman derives his/her power and what factors cause to amplify or reduce this power.

The Doormen and the Peons are Gate Keepers: I was listening to a municipal councilor’s plaint about corruption in the municipal administration in Mumbai. At one point during the interview, to explain his point about how corruption has percolated down to the lowest levels in the administration, he animatedly spoke of the following incident:

Some women from my constituency had come to the (ward) office to meet me. These women wanted to discuss some issues pertaining to legalization of services in their settlement. I was sitting inside my cabin. The women approached the doorman, asking to meet me. The peon manning the door told them that I was not inside, whereas I was actually sitting inside. He made them wait endlessly. I happened to step out of my cabin and the women saw me. They rushed to me and later explained that the doorman was trying to prevent them from reaching me. The doorman was hoping to extract a bribe from these women before allowing them to meet me. Such is the extent of corruption in this country …

I sat listening fascinated to the councilor because it was a clear instance of how a person such as a peon comes to be a middleman since he is an important connection in the access between authorities and citizens. Such middlemen can accordingly block access and flow of information between people and institutions, thereby becoming indispensable in certain spheres of governance. I had known from the experiences of some other researchers and colleagues working in government offices that peons and junior level bureaucrats are often labeled as middlemen because by virtue of moving files, placing some files above the rest in the pile, and misplacing files, they significantly affect decisions regarding allocation of resources, legalization and regularization of claims over space and delivery of services. For instance, in a conflict involving hawkers and their claims for regularization of spaces for vending, a list of the names of those hawkers to be regularized was quietly moved to the Commissioner of the municipal corporation as a result of ‘opaque’ interactions between local leaders managing the disputed market space and the bureaucrats within the municipality. This list was a crucial document for those vendors whose claims for vending space and livelihood were to be regularized and legalized after decades of conflicts with the police and the municipal authorities. Not all vendors had made it to the list. The leaders who were ‘managing’ the space had included only some names to the exclusion of others. On an immediate interpretation then, such politics is arbitrary, exclusive and unfair.

Clerks, peons and junior bureaucrats in administrative institutions – given their access to authorities and their power to move files – are often targets of transparency interventions because their actions clearly depart from norms, ethics, justice and fair play. However, it may be useful to ponder that in each of the conflicts regarding access to urban space, there are both winners and losers because whether it is legalization or surreptitious negotiations, not every claimant can make it into the lists, files, surveys and records. The question is whether the process that has produced these winners and losers, and the corresponding outcomes concerning allocations, is malleable enough for other entrants and aspirants to stand a chance to gain space, via and outside the parameters of law and legal rationality …

The Leader is the Dalaal (broker): I was moving around in a settlement in Mumbai in an exercise of fieldwork. A member of the community centre in the settlement was showing me around the settlement. At one time, he introduced me to a person and said that this person is a leader of the settlement. I greeted the leader, promised to meet him later, and moved on. After the member from community centre and I had gone some distance, he drew closer to me and explained in hushed tones that the leader we had just met was involved in carving and selling plots of land in the settlement for commercial and housing purposes. He explained that the leader was one of the chief agitators when the slum had been demolished. When the settlement was being rebuilt after the successful re-occupation of the land in the post-demolition phase, this person who was the torchbearer of the agitation against demolitions was now one of the chief real estate brokers in the settlement. I listened, once more fascinated. In my earlier fieldwork in the settlements of Mumbai and Bangalore, I had known of local leaders in many settlements who were also ‘extortionist’ moneylenders and brokers who facilitated rental arrangements between landlords and new entrants into the settlement. These brokers were also invariably and variously implicated in distribution of water and other kinds of infrastructure in the settlement.

Such leaders-cum-brokers are labeled as exploitative because they are capitalizing on the marginal and vulnerable situations of poor groups living in the settlement who do not have direct access to the authorities and often do not also possess information about government schemes, programmes, welfare and rules for obtaining basic services. We have often seen in Bollywood movies that these leaders intimidate the dwellers in settlements and coerce them to accept their authority. In reality, however, powers of such leaders are absolute when dwellers do not have alternative avenues for petitioning and articulating their claims, and for obtaining services. This does not mean that when alternative avenues are available, there is no coercion or exploitation at the hands of leaders and middlemen because not everyone can access these different avenues. But the presence of multiple avenues presents the potential for alternatives to exit and voice.

There are a number of factors that coalesce in a way that makes the power of middlemen absolute. For instance, in the M (East) ward in Mumbai, the dwellers are troubled by acute shortage of water because of a combination of several factors that have made the powers of the water mafia absolute: first, the ward is situated on the outskirts of the city and has poor pipeline infrastructure which leads to poor supply in the first place. Secondly, there has been a history of the nexus between engineers, plumbers, valve men and other staff of the water department in the ward and the water sellers in the area. Water does not flow into legal connections that residents have purchased because the ground staff of the water department does not open the valves that supply the water into the connections. The water sellers manage to bore holes into the pipes and connections leading to disruptions in supply. The sellers were initially members of the local Shiv Sena cadres which was a dominant political party in the ward. Even though the Sena is no longer the dominant party in the ward, the system has perpetuated and it continues. The water sellers also have the powers to intimidate the ground staff of the water department in the ward. The politicians are either involved in this nexus or they are not very effective in their negotiations with the city administration agency because for the municipality, M (East) is a poor, under-developed ward and laying down water infrastructure in the ward is hugely expensive. These, and other historical, social and political factors, have made the water situation in M (East) ward very absolute, such that resolving the situation involves nothing more or less than a complete overhaul of the architecture underlying the absoluteness of the situation.

The Looseness of the term ‘Middlemen’: The examples which I cited above, as well as entities such as plumbers, waste workers, labour contractors, etc are the typical persons that come to our minds when we hear or refer to the term ‘middlemen’. However, there is a plethora of middlemen which also includes individuals from the higher strata of society – lobbyists, established realtors and developers, lawyers, international aid agencies (negotiating for work contracts for mega infrastructure projects), senior political party members, among several others. Their image does not strike us when we use the term ‘middlemen’ because those who are usually seen as ‘middlemen’ are the entities I have mentioned in this blog post. And these entities are routinely marked and targeted for reform. Even academia studies and writes about these entities, thereby making them more visible and noticed in policy-making circles. What then are the issues that lie at the heart of middlemen and their meddling?

Reforming/Eliminating the Middlemen: In recent times, reform packages have been proposed and implemented to make the relationship between the state and its citizens, between the government and the people, more direct and straightforward. The direct interaction will presumably eliminate the middleman. However, direct interaction between citizens and their state also takes place via certain interfaces, which are managed by people. The question that perhaps should precede this discussion of direct interaction between citizens and their state is ‘who is the state and where is the state’? The state manifests differently to different people, given their circumstances and contexts. Correspondingly, so does the power and authority of the state. By removing the person through who the interface between citizens and state takes place and replacing it with a machine, a database or a website, produces uncertainties among many people. This uncertainty stems from the fact that if there are claims and issues that arise tomorrow, who exactly does the citizen petition via a website or a database or a kiosk? What are the guarantees that the petition will reach the concerned authority? And, most importantly, how will the decision be made via interpreting a written/email petition? What scope does the aggrieved party have to make a case before the authority in person, apart from the written plaint? In this respect, it is worthwhile to ponder on a remark that an elderly gentleman recently made to me:

I only deal with nationalized banks. I do not trust private banks. In a nationalized bank, the person who may have the answer to my plaint sits at his table. I can always go to his table and get my work done. But in a private bank, once my details enter into a computerized system and if there are problems arising from there, I will not know who to go to. It is a bottomless pit thereafter …

In this context, most middlemen act as guarantees and assurance, however much they are not entirely trusted, to mediate on behalf of citizens and authorities and to ask for discretion on behalf of citizens. It is this discretion which makes the state porous in that if there was absolute adherence to rules and laws, then the state would be completely aligned and its powers would be much more absolute than they presently are.

At the same time, reforms suggested to eliminate middlemen largely involve opening up of information for citizens. There are a few issues that we need to consider here, however desired and politically correct the ideal of ‘openness’ seems to be:

  1. Information is premium in any given situation. This premium is amplified depending on the time and space in which the information becomes critical. Certain kinds of information, irrespective of time and space contexts, are always premium. Opening up of this premium information has repercussions for those who privacy may be invaded by the large-scale opening up. Opening up can also increase the premium associated with the information, thereby setting in motion a dynamo of insecurity among the holders of the information. This, in turn, affects a number of social relations that underlie the information, including the relationship between citizens and their state.
  2. Apart from this tension between privacy and openness, the other issue that arises is whether it is worthwhile that some information must remain ambiguous because the ambiguity protects those who will be directly affected by the opening up of information. Ambiguity is also useful because it makes the information open to different kinds of interpretations and speculations and that these differential interpretations and speculations can in turn spur diverse networks, connections and histories that are essential for people to equally participate in society and politics.
  3. Thirdly, when information is opened up or made more streamlined so that people do not have to approach middlemen, such information should be available through multiple avenues rather than distributed only via one institution or system. The concern that gnaws at the heart of policy makers is that when information is available through many different avenues, there is the uncertainty that the information will not be interpreted uniformly. However, information cannot be bounded because it is in the life of the information to circulate, get reproduced and/or transformed in the process of circulation, and become generative in the process. Middlemen are part of precisely this ecology and social life of information …

[Part II to appear soon …]

One thought on “Mediation, Middle Grounds and Meddling – The Medley of Middlemen”

  1. While I focused on only the stories and skipped most of the post, I must note a few things that popped in my head. The broker sounds like an ass and may have possibly thought you and your mom had no male relative to ‘protect you’. Scary that he could threaten someone and create so much drama.

    One time we really liked using a broker was when we got our marriage certf done and it really saved us time even though ours was a simple case of Hindu marriage.

    But the taxi driver analogies fail because at a 5* property there is invariably a fare bump since the guest is assumed to be a rich person who won’t mind the hiked cost. So the guard may be in on the scam but even without a middleman the fare would have been higher. When we stayed in Sri Lanka, we would actually walk a bit away from our posh hotel and get cabs. And when we stayed in Dubai, the hotel itself was playing the broker for their own limo service – we had to specifically ask for a regular taxi or else the hotel provided us their premium inhouse cab for a much higher charge.

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