District Administration: the Key to India’s Political, Social and Economic Resilience
India as an independent nation was hastily stitched together under not very propitious circumstances in a matter of a few days and weeks, after the precipitous and ill-thought out departure of the British in August 1947. The horrors of Partition have started to fade, but the historical record is still fresh, and often fanned to flame by political leaders bereft of ideas who fall back on identity as the only lever to derive some political mileage. The story of how Sardar Patel and his able lieutenant V P Menon methodically went about the task of ‘persuading’ reluctant heads of erstwhile princely states to sign on the instruments of accession to the newly created country is well known. But the huge task they undertook, and executed so wonderfully, is often forgotten. India is a quilt made out of around 600 independent princely states and former British-administered provinces. The odds of this new nation surviving intact for long were discounted in major world capitals. Confounding many pundits of doom, India continues to survive not only as an independent nation but as a functioning democracy as well.
I have often wondered about the glue that kept this huge, ancient, diverse country together, when, during the post-WW2 de-colonization phase, all around the globe empires and federations were breaking apart. The mighty Soviet Union disintegrated into many independent countries, Yugoslavia split into bitterly warring factions, and many new African countries have come into existence carved out of larger entities. The process continues with Great Britain on the precipice of a breakup, becoming three or four separate countries. Spain is staring into an ominous separatist agitation that has been brewing for a long time, with Catalan separatist demands gaining in voice. A simmering linguistic divide in Canada could easily escalate into a bigger problem, and only needs a few opportunistic politicians of the far right to raise the spectre of immigration to fan frenzy among the people.
India, too, has had her share of centrifugal pressures, based on language, religion, ethnicity and other forms of identity, and these are by no means resolved. The North-East region simmers with identity being sliced into ever-shrinking slivers, with no solution in sight. Large states have been broken up into smaller ones, often with good results in terms of uneven regional development being corrected. This process will need to be carried through till some of the really large states are cut up into smaller-sized entities that are more manageable. But, despite all the adverse conditions and the raucous democracy that allows regional forces to raise calls for separatism, the integrity of the country does not seem to be under threat.
Several reasons have been put forward for the enduring ‘idea of India’, despite all these centrifugal forces at work. These include civilisational arguments, geographic reasoning and historic arguments, that all seek to explain why India has stayed together, despite its huge diversity that is based on linguistic, ethnic, historic, cultural and religious factors. While these factors have probably played a part in creating the idea of India, they do not work well when we try to understand why India has stayed together for the past 70 years. Europe, SE Asia and Africa have equally, or sometimes even more compelling arguments for coming together into large federations or commonwealths, but that has not happened. In fact, even the tenuous idea of a European Union seems to be under threat today, with others threatening to follow Britain out of the EU.
I propose that the reason for this resilience of India as a nation state is more to be sought in the way the country is governed and administered, than in history, geography, linguistics or social anthropology. Historically, India was made up of a few large kingdoms (some of which later transmogrified into colonial provinces), and many smaller entities called princely states which were self-governing, but enjoyed the ‘protection’ of the colonial power. The large provinces that were governed by the colonial administration were divided into districts which were placed under a District Administration (DA) charged with collecting revenues and maintaining law and order. There was little else that government did in those days, and schools, hospitals and other institutions of civil society were brought under administrative control only gradually, and reluctantly.
This meant that, effectively, a large province stretching across a vast area was administered from a distant capital, through the DA that directly reported to the capital. In order to ensure that this system worked well, all the powers necessary for the DA to function had to be delegated by statute so that nothing was allowed to come in the way of the DA performing its duties. The powers of the District Magistrate (who was also the District Collector) were therefore codified in the CrPC, equipping the office with original and inalienable powers to maintain ‘public peace and tranquility’, which was the mellifluous phrase used to describe the task of the DM. Similarly, the powers of the District Superintendent of Police were codified in the Police Act, to be exercised under the superintendence of the DM in matters relating to law and order, leaving the investigation of crimes as an independent area. Little in this arrangement was disturbed after the advent of Independence, leaving the system intact. Free India adopted the CrPC and IPC with few changes as the main statutes governing the legal system and administration of law and order, with little changed after the departure of the British.
This meant that the original powers of the DM and DSP remained intact, and are not derived from the Rules of Business promulgated from time to time by the State Legislature or from administrative instructions. Hence, the core work of the DA continued intact, insulated from changes in the political predilections of state governments that appeared and vanished at each election. While the tasks of the DA multiplied manifold after Independence, with many developmental tasks devolving on the DA, all that meant was that district-level posts were created to perform new tasks. These tasks were performed by the District Medical Officer, the Executive Engineer-PWD, the Executive Engineer-Irrigation, the District Veterinary and AH Officer, the District Education Officer, the District Agriculture Officer, the District Industries Officer and so on.
While these officials all reported to their department heads in the State Secretariat, there was a ‘dotted line’ reporting to the DA represented by the District Collector (DC), who was also the District Magistrate. This meant that the DC was the de facto ‘Head’ of the DA. This was explicitly recognised in the various protocol instructions, which stipulate that the DC will preside over a function held at the district level, irrespective of whether higher ranking officials participated in the meeting or not. In legal terms it has been held that all powers not explicitly delegated or assigned to a specific district-level official are deemed to vest in the District Collector. This served to elevate the position of the District Collector to something that was much more important and significant than being just the head of the law and order machinery, and the revenue collecting functions. The fact that the DC’s core functions were performed under the agency of statutes meant that they were exercised in a zone that was outside the active interference of the State Administration. This is an aspect of the DA that has not received the attention it deserves.
The remarkable thing about the DA, apart from the structure, form, and source of its authority and powers, is the fact that it is exactly replicated in every district of the country, with no variation at all! In other words, across 725 districts (at last count) across all the States spanning the length and breadth of this vast and diverse country, what is completely identical and easily recognisable is the system, structure and manner of functioning of the DA anywhere in the country. The district has, without premeditation or design, come to be the unit of planning of any administrative change. If a State is carved up into smaller entities, it will be done in such a way that complete districts are assigned to the newly-created state. In special cases, a coupe of tehsils or talukas may be sliced off, but that would not be common. With the growth of population, and often in response to local demands, new districts are carved out of a larger one, leading to a growth in the number of districts.
Most of the needs of a citizen living and working in a district would be dealt with by offices located in the district. Normally there would be few reasons for a citizen to have to go to the State Capital to get a matter addressed. One of the problematic issues that has emerged from the way representative democracy has worked itself out over the years in India is that many matters that were routinely dealt with at the tahsildar or even village officer-level, are now handled by the DA, or sometimes, even by the State Government. This tendency for matters to be escalated unnecessarily has cut at the very foundation of the effectiveness of DA,and is something that must be viewed with concern.
My thesis therefore is: even when the State administration is brain-dead due to political reasons, the district administration is able to continue functioning since the powers and resources to operate are inherent and inalienable. The ordinary citizen is therefore insulated to some extent from the frequent “storms’ in tea cups that flare up, usually due to horse-trading leading to petty political realignments and disputes between coalition partners. This has also ensured that while the political executive at the state level or even at the Centre, may pursue a particular political agenda, the quotidian tasks of government continue to get done, because that is the mandate of the DA.
This marvelous managerial structure has enabled junior officials to manage the various tasks of governance in a large and diverse (and therefore difficult to manage) country. The analogy I like to use is that of the Roman Catholic Church, which oversees and runs a vast operation spread across the globe, with just four levels in the administrative structure: Priest, Bishop, Cardinal and the Pope! This simple structure, allied to clear delineation of tasks and responsibilities, and the requisite powers, enables a vast and complex system to be effectively run. In the same way, despite the almost pathological tendency of government functions to proliferate, splinter and duplicate and hence, become inefficient, the DA has remained intact, continuing to perform its tasks with the same vigor and firmness and effectiveness, across the length and breadth of this country. The DA proves the famous maxim of systems theory that ‘structure determines behavior’.
Going forward, I would advise the State Government and the Central Government to leave this system intact, and enable it to perform its tasks better through better use of technology. Central and State Governments should resist the temptation to centralise more in the mistaken belief that local decision making is no longer needed, with the advent of technology. While commercial banks may resort to that logic, and take away powers of branch managers and centralise them, and thereby reduce the scope for errors, the same cannot be said about administration, which must continue to be close to the ground and to the people being governed. Only in that way can the flow of feedback and information both ways continues unabated, which is the only protection against mistakes and man-made disasters like famines and communal conflagrations, but also against negative political tendencies and subversive developments from gaining too much traction before counter measures are initiated. It is the District Administration that ensures that early warning signals of potential social and political problems are monitored and action taken to ensure that they are contained.
In a large, diverse and chaotic country, that has chosen to stick to the messy and dilatory route of democracy to accomplish its social and economic goals, it is the system of District Administration that has enabled us to keep going, even when the governments have been brain dead. In a country where standardisation has been observed more in the breach of rules and standards, the system of governance and administration at the district level has enabled the everyday tasks of government and life to go on. Any experiment with local government and devolution of powers should be mapped on the framework of District Administration, and should not replace or tamper with it.