In both academic and common parlance there’s plenty of movement-based metaphors surrounding housing and land in India – capital ‘flows’, housing ‘booms’, land is ‘grabbed’ and so on. However, what is usually missing in analyses is an understanding of who or what makes things flow, boom or move. This is especially true in regards to the ‘lower rungs’ of the market. We know very little about the sort of people who bring small pieces of land or property into the market, or help move it from one party to another.
With this in mind I wrote an article for a special issue on property in urban India in the Journal for South Asian Development about land and housing brokers in Mangaluru (formerly Mangalore). Brokers are those individuals who bring two parties together and make a profit on any deal which comes about afterwards. They not only search out deals, but also mediate characteristics such as class, gender, age, religious community and jati (caste). They share many common traits with those middle-men (it is usually always men) who can be found in many different contexts in India – promising college places, driving licenses or marriage partners.
To my mind, not only are such people key for understanding how the land and housing market operates, but they are also truly fascinating individuals. Accordingly, the article – available here and here – details the everyday lives and life stories of two brokers, whom I call Mr. Pai and Saleem, as their fortunes rise and fall as they move through their lives and through the city linking parties together.
As I discovered whilst researching amongst these and other brokers, the links brokers have to buyers/tenants or sellers/landlords function as a sort of property themselves. The link’s value is predicated on the worth of the piece of land or housing (as broker’s commission was set by the price), and these links can also be divided amongst two or more brokers – for instance if a broker only knew a seller but not a buyer and another seller they would come together and divide the commission.
Moreover, these links have a certain rhythm. Often, especially in the rental market, they had to be ‘cashed in’ quickly. There are uncountable brokers – or potential brokers – who would step in if one broker failed to find something for a buyer or renter. This pushed the brokers, but they also had to keep good relations with sellers and landlords, often whom came from their own jati or neighbourhood. Negotiating this asynchrony was an important yet difficult part of the job.
I often wondered if the housing or land markets would function without such individuals. The increasing use of the internet will certainly cut them out to a certain degree, but they offer a service beyond just their ability to forge links. They also traverse the tricky demands people have in regards to jati, religion, gender or age – the sort of demands people often don’t like to put down on paper (or online), but that are there nonetheless. Brokers not only help parties navigate such social categories in the market, but in doing so they also help uphold them – after all the existence of these categories is, in part, what justifies their role.
Capital flows, housing booms and the market moves, but it does not do so without the labour of people working in different ways and in various contexts. Brokers are crucial, if often unnoticed, players in the continued commodification of land and housing in India – a category of people whose labour and lives I hope the article sheds some light on.