Expanding the role of District Magistrate

When the East India Company secured the Diwani rights of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, the Office of the Collector was established. Afterward, further steps were taken in creating local self-government in India. Consequently, all provinces were divided into districts and were further grouped into divisions. Further, districts were divided into subdivisions which were further divided into tehsils or talu- kas, which would be in charge of a number of villages. Each unit in the district should be headed by an official who had to be a Collector, District Magistrate or Deputy Commissioner, Subdivisional Officer, Tehsildar (in UP), Mamlatdar (in Maharastra), or Karnam (in Andhra Pradesh). The essence of British administration was to use the existing local institutions to fall in line with the general approach of administration at the level of a district.

The district officer would further be assisted by specialist officers such as district Superintendent of Police and Executive Officer. To facilitate and strengthen the administration, services like Indian Civil Service (ICS) and Indian Police Service (IPS) were created by the British Government in India. These services were created to man the higher posts at the center and the states. Other administrative services were also established at the center and the states to assist the ICS and IPS officers. After Indian independence, the Indian Civil Service was renamed as Indian Administrative Service.

The functions of the Indian Civil Service pre-independence were primarily to maintain law and order and collection of revenue; the motive was not the welfare of people. As part of maintaining law and order, the Collectors had the judicial function in the district. Hence, a District Collector was also given the title of District Magistrate (DM). After 1960, in the projects that were initiated by the government(s), the Collector was assigned to be the representative head of the district monitoring committee in most of the projects initiated by the governments, both national and state. However, in the early 1980s, the area of rural development was given due importance. Henceforth, the government(s) developed a large number of projects in agriculture, primary education, rural development, and health care. The District Collector’s role in this was mainly supervising the work in these projects as well.

As can be gathered from the above discussions, in the last two centuries, the role of the Collector or the District Magistrate (DM) was vital to public systems management in India, in general, and district administration in particular. The role of the Collector, however, changed from the pre-independence era to the post-independence era. Before independence, when the economy was primarily agrarian, the Collector was the head of land revenue administration and was given wide powers under criminal laws. In the post-independence era, when the economy diversified with the growth of industrialization and tertiary activities, and pressure for rural development and removal of regional imbalances increased, the role of the DM gradually expanded. This has continued in the last two decades of the internet-linked socially alive world.

Over the years, while the office of District Collectorate seemed to fairly execute the policies of the state government and federal government, it seemed less responsive to the challenges at the lowest level of communities in a district. To fill in this gap in public administration, the 73rd and 74th Amendments were made to the Indian Constitution. Under these Constitutional Amendments, the role of the DM has been revised. Through these amendments, the structure of the government too changed. Prior to this amendment, the government was only two tiered, comprised of Union (central/federal) and State government. These amendments led to the establishment of Panchayat Raj Institutions and Municipal Bodies. The DM was to be responsible for improving human capabilities, creating physical infrastructure, improving economic opportunities for the marginalized sections of society, and resolving the challenges posed by disasters which people face.

Besides being the head of the district administration responsible for all coordination in the district, the DM was responsible for the judicial function including maintaining law and order, maintenance of land records, revenue collection and treasury function, development programs, conducting elections, and disaster management in the district. The DM represented the government for all ceremonial functions at the district level and was also in charge of the protocol for all visits of senior officials of the state and the national government. Table 1.1 provides the key positions and major responsibilities of a DM.

In any matter of public importance which is not categorized or assigned in the sphere of any government department, state or central, the DM in the role of principal administrator is required to take cognizance of the matter in public interest. The DM would be responsible for solving problems including, but not limited to, land disputes, scarcity of essential commodities, and any crisis in the district (Government of India, 2009). Given the enormity of responsibilities that a DM is assigned with, there are a number of administrative offices and officers to support the district administration. Please see Table 1.2 for a list of administrative support available to a DM in a district.

The extent of responsibilities is so high that the working day of a DM is very hectic. Please see Table 1.3 to appreciate the typical daily work schedule of a DM in a district.

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