Understanding the Phenomena Called ‘Middlemen’

In a geographically vast and demographically diverse society, it is an onerous task for the state machinery to reach out to its citizens and enable them to avail its services. Even with its vast spectrum of services that the state offers and writes down as law, with its limited manpower and reach, the onus of utilizing them falls on the common folk. For those, who are in need of these services, most are often poor unlettered rural folk unfamiliar and ill-equipped to interact and make demands from the state. Even for availing the most basic of services, like a voter card or a caste certificate the citizens often have to travel long distances. And it is not just the geographical distance, but also the difficulty for the common folk to access government officials. In most cases, an average citizen will find it difficult to get a government official to listen to him. So the inaccessibility of the state can be attributed to two reasons: firstly, the physical distance of the government from the people for whom it matters most and secondly, inaccessibility of the government officials. In addition to these is the complexity of government procedures through a complex network of bureaucratic channels which the common folk find incomprehensible to navigate through. Also, often being not literate enough these people find it a barrier to understand the language of the state to access the state provided services for their benefit.

Such a two-faceted distance between the state and the society has created a void, thus allowing a group of non-state actors to populate it and act as a channel between the state and its citizens. As both Atul Kohli and Anirudh Krishna have found in their respective works that both the state and political organizations have been unable to cover the last mile. This has created the need for filling the gap by mediators who cover the crucial void left by political parties and state machinery and bring the state closer to the people. We know this group of actors as ‘middlemen’. One can find these middlemen in almost every government office, from the revenue department offices to transport department offices, negotiating with citizens and enabling them to avail services from taxes and driving licenses to caste certificates. Places where there are no middlemen leave the void to be navigated by the citizens who are neither familiar with the complexity of government procedures nor are often times literate enough to understand the complex bureaucratic language on letters and forms of the state administration. These middlemen close the gap between the state and the citizens and hold a very important place at the crucial position of ‘last mile service delivery’.

Being at the juncture of a state-society relationship, these middlemen are held as ‘important’ people who can ‘get things done’. The importance these people enjoy amongst those who see the state as a superior incomprehensible entity with complex networks of procedures and language is due to the fact that middlemen simply do what our frontline bureaucracy fails to achieve. The middlemen are educated enough to traverse the administrative and legal networks of the state. They also have connections to officials across departments owing to which they can overcome procedural barriers easily on behalf of others. They are individuals amongst the people who have grown up amongst them and is visible to them easily. He is, unlike a government official, a common individual who somehow has cracked the complexity of the state machinery and pervaded it and brought it closer to the people. He is easily accessible, unlike an official who is urban literate and unfamiliar with the life and sufferings of the people. Even when the work gets delayed, he can be called upon as he is a familiar figure and probably leaves in the same village or the neighbouring one, unlike someone from the bureaucracy who virtually has very little accountability to the people. Also, the caste of the middleman does not matter as people across caste lines call upon him for favours. Thus, the middleman is a local leader (not necessarily in the sense of a political leader) who grants favours to the people and acts a medium of state-society interactions from enabling individuals to access state-provided legal protection as social security and welfare to voicing concerns of accountability against corruption.

Acting as a channel brings personal benefits to the middleman and people around him. He charges different prices for different services he facilitates access to. By leveraging his connections, and necessitated by his need for survival, he makes a cut for all the officials at different levels of the administrative hierarchy involved in a particular service delivery. This cost, bore by the citizen, originates at the failure of the state to reach out to the citizens and ensuring ease of accessibility to citizens.  But it is not just corruption rooting out of the inefficiency of the state. A wilful agreement on the part of the officials in the lower levels of the executive to let middlemen thrive for a secondary source of income also contributes to the sustenance of the middlemen. The middleman thus becomes important and his existence is sustained as both the state and society see the middleman as an indispensable part of a system where neither the state is capable to deliver nor is willing to deliver except for the channels of a middleman. Personnel at the lower levels of our administration see the middleman as the best possible way to have secondary sources of income without directly asking people for bribes to get their job done. Therefore, the officials do the job for the middleman in return for their cut and also earns without directly getting involved in extracting bribes.

The middlemen thus give traction to voices that would otherwise be not heard owing to their distance from the state that still exists. They enable thousands, if not millions to avail social protection that are guaranteed as laws. They facilitate connections with service providers to even the urban literate classes who too have minimum interactions with the state and want to get past it its procedures with minimum hurdles. But the very existence of middlemen is proof of the fact that the Indian state has been a failure. And in a system where both the lower level service-providing class of the executive arm and the numerically large distant poor rural citizens come together to sustain a system of demand for the services of a middleman, it will not be easy to root out. For that would mean very new challenges for an ill equipped state as it has to reach out to its citizens like never before and bringing even the most distant ones closer through newer governance mechanisms, while simultaneously keeping it lucrative and maintaining accountability for the lower levels of the bureaucracy to provide the services smoothly that it is meant to provide.  

(The above article is based upon fieldwork that the author undertook in government offices in Bangalore Rural district as part of his academic requirements along with his peers).

Sayak Sinha

Sayak Sinha

Sayak Sinha has studied Public Policy and Governance from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. His areas of interest include governance, policy analysis and welfare rights and regimes.

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