Structural limits to level of responsiveness by the DMs
In each of the two districts that we studied, the DM was responsible for a very large geographical area and a very large population. As the Chairperson of over 150 committees in the district, the DM seemed to be structurally responsible for everything in the district. Historically, as well, from the times of great emperors, East India Company, the subsequent colonial rule to recent strong centralized governments, the DMs have been the arm of the ruler to administer the district. The structure and role perception of a DM has been accordingly defined.
Both the DMs we studied share the same frame of role perceptions. The DM has three major functions namely revenue, magisterial, and developmental. Apart from these major functions, many miscellaneous functions are also entrusted to him/her by state and central governments, depending on the needs of the government.
The District Collector of Osmanabad was very clear about the primacy of the above roles as he said,
The Government has posted me in a district to primarily take care of these three key functions; other works including execution of development programs in the district are secondary. It is only after 1 meet these three primary functions that I can devote my time for any development works. So, I have to work very long hours to actively engage in the various development programs that we have implemented in the district.
The District Collector of Bhopal who initiated the “Samarpan program” while in Hoshangabad district also worked extra hours outside the official duties both in Hoshangabad and Bhopal to give hope to millions of children with early childhood disabilities through Samarpan.
The historical role perception of a District Collector and public administration from a top-down perspective seems to have bottled the power of decentralization in public systems management in general and functioning of district administration. The responsiveness of DM is measured from how he/she responds to the higher-ups in the administrative structure than how he/she responds to officials and people lower down in the system. Optimality in geographic size and population has been little discussed and acted upon.
Optimality in size and span of engagement. While the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution were brought in to facilitate decentralization, the centralized top-down administrative thinking in the ecosystem has limited the operationalization of the above Acts. In the above context, the role of district administration could change from an administration to facilitation perspective, the optimal center for effective facilitation may need restructuring from the current district level to the subdivisional level.
With people’s participation in the governance process, the speed of implementation could increase, and most importantly, the transaction cost of implementation would reduce, relieving the financial burden on the state governments and central/federal governments. Coordination and convergence in complex systems would increase reducing the pressure on administration. For instance, with regard to the implementation of rainwater conservation program, JSA, the DM of Osmanabad succeeded in raising the available funds from INR 250 million to INR 1,250 million through systematic convergence of resources, he also reduced the cost of implementation and enhanced the speed of implementation through people’s mass scale participation.
This book captures the story of only two DMs who went out the way of their normal expected duties to resolve some of the complex issues and meet the long-felt needs of the people especially in the Jalyukt Shivir Abhiyan (rainwater conservation) and Samarpan (early treatment of disabilities in children). There are indeed hundreds of young IAS officers in India who make such wonderful efforts out of their own efforts to make a difference for the people of their district: a dream for which they work very hard to join the Indian Administrative Services. Often, they all must work extra in addition to the given responsibilities by the state to fulfill the constitutional mandate. Should the formal administrative structures not be restructured to facilitate public systems in a district to respond better to the needs of the people?