Evolution of district administration in India

For over 250 years, district administration has had a deep root in India. Under different regimes, viz., the Mughal Empire, East India Company, British Empire, and Independent India, the district has been administered under different perspectives. Under the Mughal Empire, it was primarily operated from an organizational2 perspective, that is, to collect taxes, and in its later part, it was also operated from an institutional3 perspective. Under the East India Company, the district administration primarily functioned as a branch office (organizational perspective) of the company to collect taxes. Under the British Empire, it also functioned as a tax collection unit and facilitated sourcing of raw materials for the British Empire (organizational perspective). Since 1947, when India became independent, district administration functioned from an institutional perspective in the early years and gradually it functioned more from an organizational perspective. Initially, the head of district administration had the judicial function, along with other development functions. The title District Magistrate and Collector comes from this dual function. However, with time, the judicial role in most states (provinces) has been removed and the role of implementing government programs and schemes increased. Thus, over time, the classic organizational functions have increased for the DM and district administration.

The present systems of public administration in general, and district administration in particular, in India can be traced back to the Mughal Empire of the 16th century. The Emperor, Diwan, or Wazir (Chief Minister) and other key officials formed the central government. Under the central government was the provincial administration. The key officials in provincial administration included the governor (SipahSalar/Nazim) and Bakshi. Among other officials in the provincial administration was the administrative head of district (sarkar) who was called Faujdar. Further, under the provincial administration was the local administration which formed the third-level administration in the whole empire.

The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 paved the way for the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in India. As a result of weak political governance by the Mughal Empire, the East India Company from Great Britain found a foothold in the Indian subcontinent and subsequently established its hold over governance in several parts of the country. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 paved the way for real authority to land in the hands of the company. Following the Mughal Empire rule, the history of district administration can be divided into two parts, viz., (a) the administrative system before 1858, when the East India Company governed, and (b) the administrative system from 1858 to 1947, when the British Empire directly took over the governance and administration of India.

In 1757, Robert Clive conquered Bengal. As a gift, the Great Mughal offered him the Dewani (power of civil administration) to the states of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, and so the civil administration of these states was passed into the hands of the East India Company. The functions of the East India Company was however limited to supervising the collection and disposal of revenues, and the direct responsibility of the administration still remained in the hands of specific states (Singh & Singh, 2011).

In 1769, the overall governance mechanism changed. The collection of revenues was not done by the officials of East India Company, who were given the designation of supervisors. The main functions of the supervisors were to lay a foundation upon which a revenue system could be built. However, the supervisory' scheme failed because the company officials did not have the requisite training for such role, but had a significant impact in the evolution of district administration.

Warren Hastings, who arrived in Bengal as Governor and President of the council at Fort William, renamed the position of the Supervisors to Collectors in 1772. The Collectors were to take over the entire care and management of the revenue. The district became a common unit of revenue and judicial administration and the Collector was vested with both revenue and judicial powers. The district gradually became the pivot of focal administration. Despite not having any legislative wing at the district level, the District Collector was empowered with authority to administer the district.

The 1773 Act was vital in the growth of public administration in India. This act restricted the power of the presidencies from making war or treaties and from declaring war or signing treaties without the sanction of the Governor General in council. The British Parliament gained control over the activities of the East India Company through this 1773 Act. However, the new arrangement led to some challenges. In 1774, the Collectors were withdrawn from their districts, and after about 12 years, in 1786 the Collectors were made a permanent feature of district administration. Further, in 1829, Divisional Commissioners were appointed to supervise the administration of a group of districts, and this marked the beginning of a divisional system of administration (Singh & Singh, 2011).

Finally, through the Government of India Act of 1858, the rule of the East India Company in India came to an end. This act abolished the Board of Control and Court of Directors, and powers were given to the newly created office of the Secretary of the State of India. The office of this Secretary was known as India Office.

Further, in 1859 Lord Canning introduced the Portfolio System Act. This act introduced a provision whereby a member of council would be appointed in charge of one or more departments of the government by the Governor General. Later, the Act of 1861 (Indian Councils Act) transformed India’s Executive Council to function as a Cabinet run on the Portfolio System. Six departments, viz., finance, home, law, military, public works, and revenue, were part of this Cabinet. The 1861 Act restored the Legislative Powers of the local government without affecting central control.

The Mayo Resolution of 1870 was a vital step toward establishing local government in India. Due to the Mayo Resolution, municipal acts were passed in various provinces between 1871 and 1874 to relieve the burden on imperial finances by levying local rates and cesses and also to extend the elective principle. However, the major change toward local self-government came in 1882. Local self-government (Resolution of 1882) was introduced by Lord Rippon, also known as the father of local self-government in India. This Resolution resulted in the “enactment of a series of municipal acts and enactments” of rural areas. Subsequently, there were a few more acts that complemented the spirit of the Rippon Act of 1882.

In 1909, the Decentralization Committee spoke about the village Panchayats and gave suggestions for their revival and growth. The commission also suggested the reduction of government control over local bodies and augmenting the source of income of those bodies. But then again, neither the Government of India nor the provincial government faithfully carried out the Rippon Resolution. In 1918, the Montague Chelmsford Reform analyzed the system of local self- government in the country and suggested improvements toward establishing local self-government in the country.

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