Originally Published 2014-08-11 00:00:00 Published on Aug 11, 2014
We need to restructure government and administration in each of India's 568 districts. The District Collector/Deputy Commissioner, like his ICS predecessor, must become the executive head of the district with all branches of government subject to his/her authority and power. This must particularly include the police.
Modifying the district administration

When Dr Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister in 2004, in his very first speech he said that the reform of the bureaucracy was his topmost priority. He didn't achieve very much. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi contemplates breaking the bureaucratic gridlock, he must begin with the tier that interacts with people the most -- district administration.

India, as one state, has never been larger. With 1.3 billion people under its flag, today's India is a fractious and youthful democracy with a billion unsatisfied aspirations would easily be the toughest public administration challenge in the world. In 1950-51, the total revenue of the Central and State governments was a mere Rs.627 crores. In 2012-13 it was Rs.17, 51,123 crores. This should tell you something about the change in size, scope and complexity of government.

India's system of public administration evolved over the millennia as a system of exercising imperial authority, maintaining law and order, and raising revenues. In return, the state offered security and stability, leaving the myriad communities to manage their everyday affairs in the traditional manner. This ended with the 1857 revolt.

The abortive revolt had three great consequences. It marked not just the end of the Mughals and Maratha power in central India, but also the end of East India Company rule. This "first great war of independence" actually further enslaved India when on November 1, 1858 when Lord Canning, wearing court dress and riding a black horse emerged out of the fort in Allahabad to read a long proclamation by Queen Victoria. The Queen then still 38 years old and still happily married to Prince Albert who was considered to be somewhat of a progressive, insisted that the "document should breathe feelings of generosity, benevolence and religious tolerance."

In 1861, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) came into being. Each one of the 400 district officers in British India was henceforth an ICS officer as were all members of the higher bureaucracy. At no given time were there more than 1200 ICS officers in India. Two other significant events took place in 1861. Thomas Babington Macaulay's codification of Indian law came into effect and the Indian Police Act introduced uniform police service throughout India. In addition to the British District Officer, each district in British India was henceforth to have a British superintendent of police.

The ICS was divided into separate departments: the executive, which administered the districts, and collected the land revenues and taxes; the judicial, which provided judges for the district and high courts; the political, which provided officers for the diplomatic corps, residents and agents in the princely states; and the secretariat, which provided senior officials for both the central and state governments. Below this came the largely Indian and uncovenanted civil servants of the police, medical and forestry services, and in the agriculture and engineering departments, all adding up to another 2000 civil servants. This much-vaunted steel frame of India consisted of no more than 4000 British and Indian officers at even the worst of times.

The bedrock of this system were the 400 district officers, variously called Collectors and District Magistrates or Deputy Commissioners, who administered the districts, each with an average size of 4430 square miles conciliating disputes, dispensing justice and collecting revenues. An ICS officer became a district officer soon after the completion of his probation and was usually in his twenties lording invariably over a million people. Each ICS officer was carefully chosen and was an eclectic combination of brilliance, personality and integrity. It was probably the finest civil service ever, drawing its men, usually, from Oxford or Cambridge and after a tough entrance examination that included "the ability to jump a five barred gate on horseback with arms folded and stirrups crossed."

They were well paid and cared for, and usually incorruptible with a well deserved reputation for accepting no gifts other than flowers or fruit. They wore their three initials with pride and saw themselves "as the modern equivalent of Plato's Guardians, men bred, selected and trained to govern, selflessly and devotedly." But what helped them most to stay that way was that they were servants of a foreign empire and agents of an authoritarian system. In 1868, the first Indian, Satyendranath Tagore of that famous family, went to London to take and pass the ICS exam. The last Englishman in the ICS, JPL Gwynn, retired in Hyderabad in the early 1968.

In 1947, all that changed. Preserving the status quo was no longer the major priority of government. As national goals ostensibly changed, newer taxes replaced land revenue as the government's source of income. Serving, rather than ruling, became the impulse driving government. India was to be transformed into a modern and progressive democracy.

The district officer is no longer a mere collector of revenues, preserver of order and projection of imperial authority, but the prime change agent of government and the administrative pivot of all developmental activity.

A typical district officer is usually still in his twenties or early thirties. But unlike his ICS predecessor the IAS District Collector or deputy Commissioner has neither the unquestionable authority conferred either by racial exclusivity or superb education or social class or all three to dominate and control the lower bureaucracy. As required in a democracy the executive is subservient to a government by elected politicians. According to a study by SK Das, IAS, the average tenure of a district officer is now about seven months. He or she invariably falls victim to the constantly changing and treacherous currents of an intensely adversarial and corrupt political system.

Clearly we need to restructure government and administration in each of India's 568 districts. The District Collector/Deputy Commissioner, like his ICS predecessor, must become the executive head of the district with all branches of government subject to his/her authority and power. This must particularly include the police. The district officer must be re-designated as the Commissioner and should be a mature and seasoned individual with the seniority and clout to exercise complete authority over the administrative apparatus, and to deal with the politicians. The Commissioner must also have a fixed tenure of at least five years and the selection made by a board consisting of elected representatives of the district as well as administrative superiors. This will go a long way to make India more republican and better served.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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