Prospects of district administration

Evolving the role of district administration

The role of district administration has gradually evolved since the colonial rule in the 1750s to the present times. The primary role under colonial rule was to collect taxes from the people and maintain law and order in the district. The title of the head of district administration as the District Collector comes from the above primary function of tax collection. The role of tax collection continues even today though in the form of stamp duty collection and the responsibility to operate the treasury at the district level. Both the urban and rural districts viz., Bhopal and Osmanabad, respectively, illustrate the stamp duty collection and treasury functions.

The second critical function of District Collector since the colonial period in India has been to maintain law and order in the district. From mere maintenance of law and order, the head of the district was increasingly assigned with the judicial functions i.e., to function as a judicial magistrate at the district level. As India became independent in 1947, the judicial role of district administration was emphasized to fill in the limitations in the institution of Justice in the country. The title of the head of district administration was accordingly changed to District Magistrate and Collector. This post therefore progressively graduated to become a coveted administrative leadership post in every district of India.

Since 1947, though every district in India has gradually developed to be a full system of police administration headed by an Indian Police Service officer, the Superintendent of Police, in every district, the police administration has been under the District Magistrate and Collector since the beginning.

With gradual improvement and establishment of institutions of Justice, viz., the Indian Constitution, Supreme Court, High Courts, and Lower Courts in the country, several states, or provinces of the country gradually let go the magisterial power of the head of district administration. In that sense, in the last two decades, the role of the head of district administration was curtailed (to an extent) and limited to maintenance of law and order and tax collection in the district. The official title of the head of the district in several states in India remains District Collector. As India gradually emerged to be a welfare state with increasing budget for overall infrastructure development, and rural and agricultural development, the district administration was accordingly loaded with the additional responsibility of development administration at the district level.

Given the enormity of development functions, a separate unit viz. District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) was set up in several states/provinces in India. This was headed by a Project Director, usually by another bureaucrat, who reports to the District Collector. All the development projects, and social security schemes of the respective state government and the federal government are administered by this unit at the district level.

Governance within the district that is from Gram Panchayats (GPs) and wards to district as per the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Indian Constitution is another critical function of district administration. The District Collector oversees and facilitates the smooth functioning of Zila Parishad (ZP), a body of indirectly elected representatives of the people of the district through another bureaucrat in the district.

With increasing developmental role of district administration and issues of local governance the senior officials and legislators of the state and the federal governments visit the districts. The District Collector is expected to directly monitor and facilitate the protocol of these VIP visits. To impress the higher- ups on their work in the district, the District Collector often gives high priority to these protocols as expected by their higher-ups. These engagements do have some meaningful professional outcomes and purposeful ideations. In a rural district, this could imply to about 10%—15% of their time. In an urban district, this figure significantly jumps to over 20%-30% of their time. The detailed study of the two districts clearly exhibited this phenomenon, and our experiences in other districts corroborate these facts.

Further, as the overall administrative head of the district, the District Collector is mandated to be the Chairperson of all district-level committees in respective districts. Some districts in India have as many as 170 committees and the District Collector is the Chairperson of all these committees. Perhaps, this gets aggravated due to the feudal past of the nation. As a representative of state bureaucracy, the District Collector is required to supervise and monitor the functioning of various line departments of respective states in the district.

Indeed, the role of district administration and that of the administrative head has dynamically evolved over the last quarter of a millennium period in India. During British India that followed from East India Company, the role of district administration was to collect taxes. The district administration at this stage functioned much like that of an organization, whose purpose was to primarily ensure tax collection from the people for the British Government in India.

With India becoming independent in 1947, the head of district administration was assigned the institutional role of judicial magistrate and to maintain law and order in the district. Gradually as the Justice system developed in the country, the judicial function of the administrative head of the district was removed. However, the formal responsibility of maintaining law and order continues with the District Collector. With increasing development role of the states, the District Collector has been assigned to oversee and supervise the development activities of a district.

In other words, the role of the district administration has evolved from organizational perspective to institutional perspective and then back to an organizational perspective with some quasi-institutional functions. This overload of responsibilities on the head of district administration limits them from operating the district by taking it from a holistic systems perspective. Interestingly, the studies of the two districts showed that the head of district administration can be more efficient as well as effective to meet people’s need when they take a system perspective to district administration (please see Chapters 3 and 4).

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