District as an optimal unit of public systems management

Whether a district is an optimal unit from both the local context and global context could be accessed from its broad characteristics - in terms of geographic size, population, resource base, and natural diversity; a district appears to have the variety, size, and strength (competence) to operate independently at the lowest level of habitat and also has the effectiveness to connect with global entities. Let us first look at some basic characteristics viz., geographic size, population, natural resource base, and its economic viability as well as the administrative and governance structures in India before we provide some comparative perspectives.

Geographic size and agro-climatic zones-. In India, geographic size of districts can broadly be classified into rural districts and urban districts. The average extent of rural districts is about 8,000 sq.km, whereas it is about 3,000 sq.km in urban districts. Rural districts are relatively larger in geographic size. They also have different agro-climate zones that allow the production of a variety of crops, vegetables, fruits, pulses, and cereals. It is also suitable for production of various livestock.

Resource base. Rural districts are also endowed with much natural resource base in terms of forest cover, water bodies, minerals, flora, and faunas. Urban districts have relatively more resource bases in terms of larger infrastructure in manufacturing, processing, and in services including banking, education, and logistics.

Population and economic viability. The population in a district in India ranges from 1.0 to 1.5 million. It also has the basic organizations and institutions to operate as a viable economic unit. China also has similar population in a prefecture (district equivalent). Countries such as France, the United States, Italy, Germany, and South Africa have an average population of around 0.5 million. However, highly urbanized districts {or municipalities) in industrially advanced countries have an average population of around 1 million. Population of districts in smaller nations as in the Scandinavian countries, geographically large but sparsely population countries like Russia, Canada, and Brazil have much lower populations. Please see Table 1.2 for more details. While very large, highly populated districts as in India and China could be restructured, the districts and municipalities in other advanced countries are just about optimal in size for social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

Top-down administrative structure: District has been one of three critical pillars of public administration in India. The District Magistrate and Collector who heads a district therefore has had the prime position in the administrative structure of a country and states/provinces in India. It is popularly said that public administration in India is carried out by PM-CM-DM i.e., the Prime Minister at the national level, the Chief Minister at the state level, and the District Magistrate at the district level. Young bureaucrats in India are first trained at the district- level field locations before they move up in the administrative hierarchy of the country.

Figure 6.1 provides the structure of public administration in India. Below the district, at tier 4 is the subdivision, at tier 5 is the Block Development Office along with the Office of the Tahasildar (for revenue Sc land-related issues). At the district level, law and order issues are headed by the Police Stations that are under the Superintendent of Police (SP). The SP of the district is however under the District Magistrate and Collector.

Bottom-up governance structure. People directly elect their representatives at three levels (a) national level to elect members of the lower house of the National Parliament, (b) state level to elect members of Legislative Assembly, and (c) elect representative at the Gram Panchayat or Ward level.

The elected representatives at the GP/Ward level are under special provisions of the 73rd and 74th Amendment to the constitution. Constitutionally, elections at this level are not to be based on political parties. It is independent of political affiliation and is meant purely for the development of the local community. While Sarpanch and Ward members for GPs are directly elected by the people in the GP/Ward, the lowest level of governance. These directly elected representatives elect Samiti Sabhyas (representatives) at Block Level. The indirectly elected Samiti Sabhyas elect one Zila Parishad member at the district level. The governance structure in a district is a four-tier structure as in Figure 6.2.

Structure of Public Administration in India. Source

Figure 6.1 Structure of Public Administration in India. Source: Authors.

Levels of Governance within a District in India. Source

Figure 6.2 Levels of Governance within a District in India. Source: Authors.

The district administration has an office of Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Zila Parishad to provide administrative support to the elected representatives, viz., Zila Parishad and Samiti Sabhyas at the district level. In municipalities, the district equivalent in urban areas, currently it is a two-tier structure viz., Corporator is directly elected at the Ward level and the Mayor and a Deputy Mayor are elected indirectly through the Corporators.

District as an ptimal unit for convergence: On the one hand, administration has often been top-down in India. Both the federal and the state governments rely on the district as their last critical point for administration. On the other hand, effective governance has been bottom-up, starting from the basic unit, the Gram Panchayat, the highest level of which ends at district. In the Indian context, district appears to be in a unique and optimal habitat for convergence of both top-down administration and bottom-up governance. District could also be the converging unit with the path of least resistance to existing structures of power and control in nation-states around the world.

Comparison of districts across countries for optimality. As already discussed, there is a large variation in both geographic size and population of districts across different countries of the world. Accordingly, the number of layers of administration and the levels of governance are different in different countries. However, we also observe a pattern of districts among the different countries around the world. Type 1 is of very large geography and very large population, such as China and India. Type 2 is of very large geography and relatively lower population, such as Russia, Canada, and Brazil. Type 3 is of moderate geographic size and moderate population, such as France, Germany, the United States, South Africa, and Italy. Type 4 is relatively of low geographic size and lower population, such as Sweden, Nigeria, Japan, and Australia. Table 6.1 below shows a rough pattern of districts in different countries. Highly urbanized cities, towns, and municipalities however have high density of population across countries in general, which may be categorized as Type 5. Table 6.1 provides a broad classification of the possible types of districts that we found as we compare a few sample countries across the world.

Table 6.1 Types of Districts (Level 3 Administrative Units) of a Few Sample Countries

Geographic Size ■) Population Ф





China, India

Highly urbanized cities, town, and municipalities in any country


France, Germany, the United States, South Africa, Italy





Sweden, Nigeria, Japan, Australia

Source: Authors.

The above table provides how districts in the sample countries we studied are demarcated in terms of geography and population. From among the different types, the moderate geographic size and moderate population districts seem to be most optimal for both administration and governance. Accordingly, countries could review their current system of administration and governance in the future. For instance, India could move a layer below the district to subdivision and make it the center of facilitation for administration and governance for overall optimality. All other departments of the state including the Police also need to activate their operations at this level. A district may serve as a monitoring and support unit for its subdivisions.

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