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Seek to decolonise: Why we need to restructure the district collector’s role

Bibek Debroy writes: Many policies are now being unified throughout India. Shouldn't the functions of district collector also be unified and standardised?

The 15th report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) had a section on district administration.
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The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy is known for its research and advocacy on law-related issues. It has just brought out a slim book, “From Rule by law to the Rule of Law”, with a sub-title “25 Reforms to Decolonise India’s Legal System”. The colonial brush still tinges several of our policies and procedures, not just in the domain of law, narrowly-defined. Thus, one of the 25 reforms flagged by Vidhi is the role of the district collector. If you travel throughout the country, in the districts, you are liable to be confused. Is the person a district magistrate or district collector, or both? Is the person simply a collector? Or is it the deputy commissioner? Differing nomenclature in different parts reflects different kinds of administrative evolution in various parts of British-administered India.

The 15th report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) had a section on district administration. It ducked the problem a bit. “With the constitutionally mandated establishment of panchayati raj institutions and municipal bodies, it has become necessary to re-examine and re-define the role of the district administration. It is imperative that the devolution of decision-making to local levels should face no impediments. It is equally imperative that the unique administrative experience, expertise and credibility of the office of the district collector built up over a period of two hundred years is properly utilised”.

What does a DC or DM do? The list, from the 15th report, is the following. One, head of land and revenue administration; two, district head of the executive magistracy and overall supervision of law and order and security and some say, police matters; three, licensing and Regulatory Authority (such as Arms Act); four, the conduct of elections; fifth, disaster management; sixth, public service delivery; and seventh, Chief Information and Grievance Redressal Officer. Three questions arise. First, how many of these functions are important today? For instance, regardless of its historical importance, is land and revenue administration still a priority, as the name collector implies? Whose responsibility will that be? Yes, there are powers under the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code), but how important is the magisterial function today, as the name magistrate implies? Article 50 of the Constitution states: “The State shall take steps to separate the judiciary from the executive in the public services of the State.” Accordingly, DMs don’t try criminal cases, as CrPC makes abundantly clear. The magisterial function is limited to the preventive and there is no longer any direct control over the police.

I said, the 15th Report hedged. “Though the recent amendments in the Police Acts by various States have removed the clause which placed the police of the district under the general control and direction of the district magistrate, the collector still continues to be recognised by people as the overall in-charge of law and order in his jurisdiction. The deployment and movement of armed forces in the district in times of emergency and crisis is done under his guidance. He is the authority that issues various kinds of licences in the district (under Arms, Explosives, Cinematography Acts). In many states, it is the collector who is the overall supervisory authority responsible for the proper management of jails and remand/juvenile homes in the district. He is also the authority empowered to issue detention orders/custody warrants under special security/anticrime laws.” This doesn’t sound very convincing. The nomenclature, collector or magistrate, is no longer relevant. With liberalisation, licencing should also become less important. Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name?” Quite a bit, because the name suggests the priority in the job function. That’s the reason the name used to be different in different parts of the country. Once we have eliminated the revenue and magisterial functions, what truly remains is developmental schemes. In other words, a district magistrate or district collector should be called development commissioner, unless that causes further confusion.

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Let me now quote from Vidhi’s book. “As opposed to popular democracy that is envisaged in the Indian Constitution, state laws promote ‘collector raj”. The lack of devolution of powers and responsibilities to local governing bodies is an indication of the vested interest in mystifying governance. While there are claims that the introduction of panchayati raj institutions (“PRIs”) in a large number of states has reduced the role of district collectors to that of providing guidance and advice, there is scope to create greater accountability of this office to PRIs themselves…All of this requires a wholesale restructuring of the administrative machinery at the district level.” This is the second question, where the 15th report of Second ARC hedged, the relationship between district administration and elected bodies and respective responsibilities. This is not a problem that only characterises the district, it exists lower down too. But the tensions are probably more palpable at the district level. Third, and this is related to the second question, many policies are now being unified throughout India. It is one country. Shouldn’t functions of DCs/DMs also be unified and standardised? Those who are aware know that the antecedents go back to 1772, so these questions do have a colonial legacy. And hence, we should certainly seek to decolonise, in the 75th year of Independence.

The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

First published on: 08-12-2022 at 07:31 IST
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