We Don’t Need The District Collector!

The name “Collector” or “District Collector” was given to the functionary in charge of an administrative unit in India during the period of the British East India Company (EIC) as well as after the British Crown took charge of India in 1858. He was entrusted with the responsibility of land revenue collection. Apart from this task, he also functioned as the representative of the EIC and the Crown in managing the affairs of a fairly large area with a substantial native population. Independent India continued with this tradition in the absence of strong local government institutions. With the Indian state extending its reach to almost every area of social and economic activity, the Collector (Deputy Commissioner in some states) became the lynchpin of the administrative structure at the district level, functioning as the eyes and ears of the state government. Functions as diverse as law & order, food supply, guaranteed rural employment, natural calamity relief, conduct of elections and overseeing functioning of local urban bodies were entrusted to him (and increasingly to her).
The first inroads into the Collector’s powers came with the introduction of the panchayati raj systems for rural self-government. States like Maharashtra & Gujarat, followed by many others, including Karnataka (with its bold experiment of devolution of powers to rural local bodies in the 1980s), implemented fairly robust reforms to empower rural local government bodies. The political system and the bureaucracy at the state level saw this development as a threat to their powers of patronage and, using the old British argument that “the natives are not ready to govern themselves”, the powers of these rural institutions were whittled down over time. Urban local bodies had functioned under rules legislated by the state governments right from pre-independence days and the state had never ceded any significant decision-making powers to these bodies.
The passage of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution was intended to devolve powers to the local bodies. In practice, state governments have been parsimonious in parting with their powers and, as of 2014, we are in a position where local bodies (whether rural or urban) still do not exercise any significant authority in performing their functions. State governments need to acknowledge that charity begins at home: if you clamour for devolution of powers from the central to the state level, you should be equally willing to shed your powers to the local level. It is here that the present discussion on the utility of the Collector’s post assumes relevance. The Collector represents the fulcrum of state administration at the district level and a debate on her relevance is also an assessment of the need for so many state government dominated departments at the district level and below.
The land revenue collection duties of the Collector can easily be handed over to local bodies. This revenue, along with local body cesses, is finally transferred to local bodies: there is no reason why, like property tax, local bodies cannot themselves levy and collect revenue on land. Maintenance of land records, too, is a specialised function, especially with the availability of sophisticated GIS tools. There has been too much debate and too little action on developing processes for guaranteeing land titles, as has been done in most developed nations. An independent authority (or a private organisation) can perform such a function quite effectively, once the necessary legal systems are in place. All quasi-judicial functions performed by the Collector can also be transferred to the judicial system.
Law & order maintenance and criminal justice systems administration are areas where the District Magistrate’s role and relevance have been steadily diminishing over the years. In major urban areas in most states, the Police Commissioner has effectively done away with the need for an executive magistracy. Over time, law & order functions in urban and rural areas need to be taken over by the respective local bodies, with police forces reporting to these bodies. As far as criminal justice is concerned, the entire process is managed by the judicial system: the few sections in the Criminal Procedure Code relating to prohibitive powers of the executive magistracy can be administered by the local police. Granting of parole to convicts may be one of the few functions that can vest in the state government.
Supply of essential commodities (officially termed “civil supplies”) is one area which is in urgent need of professional management. The present civil supplies machinery under the Collector lacks the capability and the expertise to efficiently manage the distribution of even foodgrains, let alone other commodities like pulses and edible oil. Handling the supply-demand balance and intervening to keep food prices stable can be managed by a company (as is already done in a number of states).
Nearly all the remaining areas handled presently by the Collector can quite effectively be managed by the respective local body, rural or urban. Natural disaster management, rural employment schemes, etc. should be within the purview of local bodies assisted, where necessary (as is the case today), by specialist units of the state and central governments. Elections to urban local bodies are already being conducted by the local municipal administrations. Management of the election process to the three tiers of governance – national, state and local – can be entrusted to local bodies under the supervision of the Election Commission of India and the respective State Election Commissions.
With local bodies, specialised agencies and the judicial system handling all the functions hitherto vested in the Collector, it is apparent that there is no further need for this institution, which had a major role to play in the first two centuries of its existence, but is today becoming an anachronism. Perceptive readers will observe that this also calls into question the role that a generalist service like the Indian Administrative Service can play in the years to come. Indeed, with growing specialisation of functions and an emphasis on local governance systems, there is need to focus on the entire range of civil services recruited at the central and state levels to see how they need to be recast to meet the administrative needs of India in the 21st century. But this will need a separate blog, given the ramifications involved…So, more anon.

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2 Responses to We Don’t Need The District Collector!

  1. Brig (Dr) CPJoshi says:

    1. I agree with this. 200 %. Have been saying this for 10 years .
    2. Imagine matching saving of 200 redundant posts put to use in Education and Health Depts !
    3. My salute to author. Sharing it widly.

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