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Is the Institution of District Magistrate Still Necessary?

Created in the mid-19th century by the colonial rulers to manage their affairs in India, the district magistrate was in charge of administration and collection of revenue. Today, the post has created a dichotomy between the district administration and various self-government institutions at the village and district levels. Given the administrative and bureaucratic problems that arise from such a structure, a pertinent question is whether this office is still functionally valid.

Is the Institution of District Magistrate Still Necessary?

Created in the mid-19th century by the colonial rulers to manage their affairs in India, the district magistrate was in charge of administration and collection of revenue. Today, the post has created a dichotomy between the district administration and various self-government institutions at the village and district levels. Given the administrative and bureaucratic problems that arise from such a structure, a pertinent question is whether this office is still functionally valid.


he institution of the district magistrate (DM) as an essential ingredient of the Indian governance and polity has been embedded in the Indian psyche for over a century and a half. The Indian rural populace being accustomed to the autocratic and arbitrary rule of the ‘zamindars’, ‘jagirdars’, petty chieftains and local overlords accepted it with some relief that this autocracy was at least to some extent governed by imperial laws. The institution was able to give an impression that it would dispense justice (‘insaf’) fairly and evenly. As a result, during our freedom struggle the entire vitriolic rhetoric of the movement was directed against the imperial power in England and its representatives in India – the viceroy and governor general and the provincial governors. The leaders hardly ever talked of the autocratic system of district administration through which the raj controlled the Indian empire. People came in touch with the empire through this non-responsive apparatus. This was taken for granted as a normal phenomenon.

The basic features of this highly personalised bureaucratic structure were laid out in the scheme of governance promulgated in the Government of India Act, 1858. This structure was custom designed to build a coercive power of the state of a very special kind. Different from the structure provided for by London for Australia, Canada and New Zealand, it was based on the paranoia on the part of the sovereign power, which was apprehensive that the people of India might rise again against the empire. In this autocracy, the relation between the raj and its subjects was conducted almost entirely at the district level by a district officer called the district magistrate or the collector or the deputy commissioner. He had the authority of a “mini-monarch”, exercising power vested in him under more than 100 laws and statutes regulating all aspects of public life (Mubashir Hasan, Powerless in Power: Mainstream, New Delhi, September 2006).

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

Though the leaders of the freedom movement were aware of this problem of unbridled authoritarian rule at the district level and below, they hardly spent any time on what should be done about it after independence. In his autobiography Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, “But of one thing I am quite sure, that no new order can be built as long as the spirit of the ICS pervades our administration or public services. Therefore, it seems to me quite essential that the ICS and similar services must disappear completely, as such, before we can start real work on a new order” (ibid). By the “spirit of ICS” Nehru meant the authoritarian district administration.

After independence, Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors did not and, perhaps, could not change the structure of the district administration, which was too deeply entrenched in the countryside to be dislodged easily. The dichotomy between a vibrant democratic system at the centre and the state headquarters and the nonaccountable and non-responsive autocratic district administration still continues to be an unsolved conundrum in the Indian polity and governance.

Ashoke Mehta Committee

In a note on the 1977-78 report of the committee on decentralisation, headed by Ashoke Mehta, E M S Namboodiripad raised this unresolved issue. He said that under the Indian Constitution there was democracy at the centre and the state headquarters but bureaucracy all along down the line. He strongly objected to the concept of panchayat raj institutions (PRIs) as “development only” institutions of local government. According to him, no distinction should be made between the regulatory and the developmental functions of the state, while devolving functions and activities to the PRIs, which were to be the representative governments at the district level and below. He was, perhaps, a little too ahead of his time.

The 73rd constitutional amendment undertaken in 1992 introduced institutions of self-government in three tiers from the village panchayat to the district panchayat. It also introduced a fourth tier in the form of the gram sabha, which bore a strong resemblance to the Athenian system of direct democracy. Unfortunately, the 73rd amendment superimposed a structure of representative institution of local governance over the already entrenched system of district administration headed by the collector or deputy commissioner or district magistrate aided by the district superintendent of police. In the course of the last two decades, however, state after state introduced reforms making the police independent of the magistracy, thereby snapping the link to a channel of grievance redressal. This system went totally against the vestige of accountability that the police had to the magistracy during colonial rule. It should be mentioned that the imperial rulers appreciated the fact that in a turbulent country like India, the police may be involved in some activities that transgress the law. Since that might have an adverse effect upon the legitimacy of government, the rulers provided a channel of justice through the institution of the DM who was projected as the head of district administration, including the police. Law and order was thus entirely in the domain of the DM. After independence, the check upon the untrammelled power of the police through the magistracy was removed. The police became a convenient tool of political manipulation by ruling groups in every state resulting in a sharp deterioration of the standard of district administration. The district administration became nonresponsive to people’s needs and aspirations. Rajiv Gandhi observed, “the experience of the vast majority of our people at the grassroots has been that, at the interface between the people and the administration, the administration is unresponsive, inefficient, unsympathetic, often callous, sometimes even cruel to those whom they are meant to serve” (D Bandyopadhyay and A Mukherjee, New Issues in Panchayati Raj, Concept Publishing Co, New Delhi, 2004, p 149).

The 73rd amendment had, in reality, introduced a diarchy in the system of district administration. The Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution indicated that 29 subjects/ functions could be devolved to the different tiers of panchayat bodies. To make them really effective, functions should be devolved along with the functionaries and finances, since the state government is supposed to divest itself of the devolved functions. Unfortunately, with a few rare exceptions, the PRIs continue to be elected extension agencies of the district administration. The relationship between the collector and the zilla parishad (ZP) and that between the similar offices and panchayats at lower levels remain highly nebulous resulting in a stalemate in the functioning of both the developmental and regulatory functions of district

Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

administration. This is detrimental to good governance, the lack of which is manifested in various forms of local militancy to push forward demands originating from perceived economic, linguistic or ethnic injustice. (We are contradistinguishing here the externally supported terrorism, which is the other name of low-intensity warfare.) If we broadly consider the demands of various groups of the Naxal movement, we would find a commonality of origin in the non-responsiveness of the local administration in areas of governance – revenue, police, forest or irrigation and the like to the genuine grievances of vast masses in the rural society. The militants find a safe haven among the disgruntled citizenry who are being denied justice from the various organs of the state operating at all levels. The disaffected citizens find that the militants are more responsive to their grievances and resort to settling some of their disputes through direct violence or threat of violence. As such, 160 districts spread over 12 states have been declared to be “Naxal infested” by the ministry of home affairs, where the writs of the Indian state do not run. This area is about 30 per cent of main Indian land mass.

In this context one has to think radically, by bursting asunder the stereotyped mould of district administration with the DM and the SP being the ‘mai-baap’ of the citizens. The classical district administration might have played a useful role historically, but currently it is failing to respond to various demands, aspirations and expectations of the different sections of society. The violent response of the state to the violence of the extremist groups would never bring about peace. It would only exacerbate the cult of violence.

This can only be stopped by vesting the regulatory and developmental powers of governance to the elected functionaries at the village, intermediate and district levels. In fact, the ZP should be the representative district government, subsuming all existing line departments including the police under its ambit and control. Being representative in character, the ZP is expected to be much more responsive to the needs of people than the stipendiary civil servants. Thus, the duties of the DM and the district superintendent of police would be shouldered by the elected representatives who would form the district government at different tiers. The DM may be the CEO or some such equivalent, so also would be the case for the district head of the police and other heads of the line departments.

Unless the PRIs are given full responsibility of all aspects of district administration, the present hiatus between the DM centric district administration and the development-oriented PRIs would result in nongovernance or mal-governance and acute dissatisfaction of the citizenry at large. The civil servants may provide the professional and technical support to the different tiers of the PRIs, but they should be directly accountable to the elected representatives.

Under such a system, the chairperson of the ZP would be an equivalent of a chief minister in respect of the territory over which he would preside, with the erstwhile DM acting as his chief secretary. A number of detailed gap filling exercises have to be undertaken to make the idea of representative governments at the district and subdistrict levels functional and effective. This can be done, provided it is decided to democratise the district administration with stipendiary bureaucracy at the local level functioning under the full control of the local representatives. If the elected panchayat members at different levels fail to respond to the people’s genuine grievances and aspirations, they will feel their wrath and would face the possibility of not being re-elected. This system would be more responsive and accountable to the people than the one introduced in 1858.

The Administrative Reforms Commission should look into this issue with a fresh mind and instead of attempting to fine tune a system with its basic anti-democratic bias and structure, the commission should suggest its total and frictionless integration with three tiers of the panchayats. A serious study of local governance in other erstwhile British colonies which did not have this or its equivalent system like government agents in the old Ceylon (Sri Lanka) would be worthwhile, in order to suggest a new system of representative, responsive and responsible district governance.



Economic and Political Weekly November 25, 2006

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