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Millennium Post

The middle man's industry

Despite repeated efforts, governance and bureaucracy remains as areas where the so-called ‘middle man’ continues to play a major role

The middle mans industry
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This is not a bias about gender but traditionally playing the middleman's role has been and continues to be a male domain, at least until now. It's a role that is generally reviled by moralists of the society who tend to equate it with rendering service akin to a tout soliciting in a red light area. In common parlance, these facilitators are variously known as agents, touts, dealers, middlemen, links and some more colourful epithets. Anybody who has had even a remote need to acquire a government document like a licence from a civic body, approval of a building plan or register a title document, would have to deal with this class of operators. Indeed, on a bigger scale, billion-dollar arms and weaponry are stated to transit only through their good offices. Their asset is an intimate knowledge of the intricate and convoluted protocols needed to access the labyrinths of bureaucracy. Their collateral asset is the ability to short circuit built-in systemic delays in these venerable corridors decision-makers and deliver service at the door. In sum, they are valuable conjuncts of the cutting edge barriers into the insides of government offices.

As much as the common man is distressed at the existence of this community, so also the government frets and fumes at this community of samaritans for a fee. These unattached brigades operate singly or groups and their offices are open-air areas adjacent to public offices. The authorities deny their existence, they ban their roles and bemoan their class and proclaim their own innocence of their nexus. So they pass inane and ineffectual laws to banish their existence, driving them from open soliciting to covert one. Some of these laws are a tribute to our legislative ability to pass laws that cannot be enforced or enforced at the discretion of the enforcers. To the credit of our citizenship, overt or covert in existence, the middlemen's breed and hence, their services continue to flourish. Their stigma notwithstanding, 'middlemanship' is the next best profession after politics as it needs no qualification except being street smart as the way to a lucrative livelihood. Somehow, they do not even get counted in the GDP of the country.

All governments and those claiming to speak on its behalf begin by denying the existence of agents, but when evidence is given to the contrary, take some facile steps to ban them. Understandably, it is at the very least embarrassing to see a facilitator arranging the service due to a citizen for a fee when it is a civic right to receive the same service by way of entitlement. Electricity connection for a newly built house, or a water meter connection, completion certificate of a building, deeds of title and numerous other things. Ration cards, driving licences and sundry other permissions for doing trade or business, all attract the ubiquitous agent. Any interface with a government office puts one squarely in the hands of 'agents' or touts or middlemen. Call them what you will, only they provide the service to the applicant. It is still a sad irony that the citizen needing even a facile permit or any other service is a supplicant in the corridors of a public office. As a 'humble petitioner', the grant of audience or approval is at the pleasure of the dispensing 'monarch' in the office. If the supplicant mistakenly changes his tone to demand his due as a right, he is quickly educated on the process. That usually means endless visits to the concerned office without getting beyond the peon at the gate and is otherwise called the 'treatment' in mafia terms.

Why are bureaucracies loathe to simplify access to civic and allied services? It is a million-dollar question and has no simple answers. The bureaucracy as a class distrusts the public as a constituency who they feel is out to swindle the state. That misplaced sentiment guides their default response in making compliances onerous, and the process cumbersome. The tech apps too have not yet gone the complete distance, although these have mitigated some areas. Here again, it is inherent in the bureaucratic psyche that they do not trust technology also unequivocally. Yes, while partial use of the online application system has somewhat mitigated the process, but the desired goal of last-mile satisfaction is still far away. The quality of IT infra holds back easy access coupled with needless OTP protocols adding to the woes. The inability of the websites to handle volumes is a huge negative too.

No matter how expansive the claims of good governance initiatives, the onus of compliances is still a heavy burden to carry for the ordinary citizen. The noble intentions to make access to civic and other services 'Saral" becomes complex by the time the bureaucracy is done framing rules of engagement. Repetitive and needless information clutters the user's efforts. A bank wants the applicant's mother's name for the issue of a fast tag!! We have a UID and a pan card now. These should make access easy and secure. Whether one falls in a tax bracket or not is a secondary issue but a pan cum identity card would be enough or should be, to open government doors to services. The basic point is to have foolproof integrity of master data which can enable a citizen to access his government service from anywhere in the state if not the country. All public offices which serve public needs should be served by an integrated network to enable universal access. Governments just have to do it if they sincerely want the elimination of intermediaries, regardless of the costs. The physical interface has to be minimised for a satisfied citizenry and an agent-free environment. Till that happens, what God is willing to grant, the 'purohit' will hold back till his 'dakshina' is made available.

The writer is the now retired-Director of the India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are personal

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