Dalali (India)

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Location: India
India map.png
Author: Nicolas Martin
Affiliation: Asien-Orient-Institut, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Original text by Nicolas Martin

The Hindi/Urdu word ‘dalal’ can be literally translated as ‘commission agent’, ‘broker’ or ‘fixer’, or ‘mediator’, and tends to carry negative associations due to the fact that dalals take fees and commissions and produce nothing themselves. Stock exchange brokers, ticket touts, pimps, matchmakers, real estate brokers, and the large number of people who unofficially mediate between ordinary citizens and the state are all occasionally referred to as dalals, and their occupation as dalali (fixing/brokerage). A vast assemblage of fixers surround the formal Indian state and claim to facilitate people’s access to it and its resources. Because they can be both helpful and exploitative, Indians frequently regard them as morally ambivalent characters. To emphasise their role as facilitators, some fixers describe their work as ‘social work’ or ‘seva’ in Hindi, as pyravee in Urdu (Reddy and Haragopal 1985[1]), or even simply as politics (rajniti). They rarely, if ever, describe themselves as dalals, or to their work as dalali, but their clients do so when they wish to emphasise how either they or their practices are exploitative and corrupt.

Fixers who mediate relations between citizens and the state can be found throughout the world in places where institutional channels necessary to gain access to state resources are weak. Fixers arise where institutionalised party structures are absent, and where citizens face difficulties gaining access to the state, either because decision-making centres are inaccessible or/and because of the lack of clear bureaucratic procedures necessary to gain access to state documents and entitlements. In low-income neighbourhoods in Argentina, they are referred to as ‘punteros’ or ‘referentes’, and in similar neighbourhoods in Mexico as ‘padrino politico’ or ‘cacique’ (Auyero 1999:302[2]). During the earlier part of the twentieth century in Chicago, they were referred to as ‘party precincts’ and played an important role in ‘machine politics’ (ibid). However one thing that is arguably distinctive about Indian fixers is their sheer number in proportion to the population. Thus James Manor claims ‘they are a major national resource which India possesses in greater abundance than just about any other less developed country’ (Manor 2000: 817[3]).

Scholars have attributed their large numbers to deepening party competition since the 1970s and to the concomitant expansion in the number of services that the Indian state provides, as well as to the decline in caste based power structures. Broadly, increased electoral competition has pushed competing parties to implement a growing number of schemes and services. The state’s limited capacity to implement these has fuelled both the demand for and the supply of fixers (Berenschot 2010[4]). The erosion of caste-based power structures has likewise fuelled the emergence of a large number of lower caste fixers. In Uttar Pradesh such fixers are known as ‘new politicians’ (naya netas) (Jeffrey C, Jeffery P and Jeffery R. 2008[5]), and they have partially overtaken the mediating functions once monopolised by members of the upper castes.

Among many other things, fixers help people gain access to credit, development schemes, electricity and water connections, caste certificates, land records, government jobs, and even to gain access to the police when they are involved in a dispute. Fixers are a common feature of Indian villages and poorer urban neighbourhoods. While they may sometimes provide valued services, people have no way of determining the legitimacy of the fees they charge, and of the commissions that they take. An illustration of this can be found in the case of fixers who offered people jobs in the state owned Bhilai steel plant in exchange for a payment of between 30,000 and 50,000 Rupees (Parry 2000[6]). The fixers claimed that much of this money was to pay officials in charge of recruitment. However Parry reports that it was in fact far from clear that officials were indeed taking money in exchange for jobs. It transpired that in many cases the fixers had managed to secure access to the shortlist of selected candidates, and had then offered jobs to those already being considered. If the candidates got the job, the fixers would take the credit for it, and if they didn’t, they would simply return some of the money (preferably as little as they could get away with).

Fixers essentially need people to believe that government officials are corrupt and that they take bribes in exchange for jobs, or services. They encourage this belief because otherwise people would think it futile to try to use them to bribe government officials. Thus it can be argued that fixers play a crucial role in magnifying the extent to which the Indian state is perceived as corrupt (Parry 2000[7], Oldenburg 1987[8]) and as a consequence, the Indian state is sapped of legitimacy. In turn, this notion feeds neoliberal agendas, which favour downsizing the state as the best way to reduce corruption (Parry 2000[9]).

While it is undoubtedly true that fixers greatly contribute to the perception that the Indian state is corrupt, there is nevertheless a body of literature attesting to the real and systematic nature of corruption in India. Officials in various departments—including public works, irrigation and police departments—need to take bribes to pay senior officials and politicians in order to secure promotions and desirable postings (Robert Wade 1985[10]). Officials may prefer to take these bribes through intermediaries in order to avoid being seen taking them. Citizens themselves may also prefer to approach officials through brokers because they don’t know the procedures necessary to pay a bribe, and because they lack the contacts necessary to approach the particular official they wish to deal with.

Where fixers do indeed collude with government officials—rather than merely claim to do so—they form an integral part of unofficial power structures that subvert state functions and drain the state of resources. They may for example subvert state functions by helping their clients obtain jobs they do not merit, or subsidies they are not entitled to. Moreover they may contribute to the depletion of state resources by taking a cut of funds destined for the construction of roads, or maintaining irrigation canals (Wade 1985[11]). Harriss-White (2003[12]) suggests that the informal assemblage of agents that includes fixers, advisers, political workers, crooks and contractors and formal state agents acting in an informal capacity constitute a ‘shadow state’ that deprives the poor majority of its fair share of government resources. The presence of this vast shadow state goes a long way towards explaining the fact that in 1989 Rajiv Gandhi declared that only 15 per cent of state subsidies ever reached their intended beneficiaries.

The Indian government has in recent years sought to curb corruption and fixing through the introduction of electronic technologies that simplify bureaucratic procedures. Citizens can now, for example, access their land records within minutes and for a fixed fee without the need to bribe officers (either directly or through fixers). However simple surveys, questionnaires and ethnographic research all reveal the extent to which citizens continue to gain access to a number of state services through fixers. On the other hand, to determine the extent to which fixers do in fact collude with corrupt state officials is more difficult, but can be researched through ethnographic methods by spending time with bureaucrats in government offices.


  1. G. Ram Reddy and Haragopal, G. 1985. ‘The Pyraveekar: “The Fixer” in Rural India’, Asian Survey, 25(11): 1148-1162.
  2. Auyero, J. ‘ “From the Client’s Point(s) of View”: How Poor People Perceive and Evaluate Political Clientelism’, Theory and Society, 28(2): 297-334.
  3. Manor, J. 2000. ‘Small-Time Political Fixers in India’s States: “Towel over Armpit”, Asian Survey, 40(5): 883-905.
  4. Berenschot, W. 2010. ‘Everyday Mediation: The Politics of Public Service Delivery in Gujarat, India’, Development and Change, 41(5): 883-905.
  5. Jeffrey C, Jeffery P and Jeffery R. 2008. ‘“Dalit Revolution? New Politicians in Uttar Pradesh, India’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 16(4): 1365-1396.
  6. Parry, J.P. 2000. ‘The Crisis of Corruption and the ‘Idea of India’: A Worm’s eye view’ in I. Pardo (ed), The Morals of Legitimacy: Between Agency and System. New York: Berghahn: 27-55.
  7. Parry, J.P. 2000. ‘The Crisis of Corruption and the ‘Idea of India’: A Worm’s eye view’ in I. Pardo (ed), The Morals of Legitimacy: Between Agency and System. New York: Berghahn: 27-55.
  8. Oldenburg, P. 1987. ‘Middlemen in Third World Corruption: Implications of an Indian Case’, World Politics, 39(4): 508-535.
  9. Parry, J.P. 2000. ‘The Crisis of Corruption and the ‘Idea of India’: A Worm’s eye view’ in I. Pardo (ed), The Morals of Legitimacy: Between Agency and System. New York: Berghahn: 27-55.
  10. Wade, R. 1985. ‘The market for public office: why the Indian state is not better at development’, World Development, 13(4): 467-497.
  11. Wade, R. 1985. ‘The market for public office: why the Indian state is not better at development’, World Development, 13(4): 467-497.
  12. Harriss-White, B. 2003. India Working: Essays on Society and Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.