The oldest existing statute is the Bengal Districts Act of 1836. It is a statute with a single sentence and says the following, “Power to create new zilas: It shall be lawful for the State Government, by notification in the Official Gazette, to create new zilas in any part of West Bengal”. This is the text as it stands today, not as it was in 1836. There have been amendments in 1874, 1903, 1920, 1948 and 1950. The parallel legislation still exists in Bangladesh.
Two questions follow. First, why is such an old statute still on the statute books? Aren’t old laws being cleaned up and scrapped? The answer has to do with Article 372(1) of the Constitution. The Bengal Districts Act of 1836 will have to be repealed by the West Bengal Assembly. Second, why does Bengal (West Bengal) alone need a specific statute to create a zila (district)? Other states have sufficient powers under relevant land revenue legislation to create and define districts, sub-divisions of districts and even villages. The answer probably lies in the way land revenue legislation evolved. Since states can create and change districts, the number of districts varies. The 2001 Census had 593 districts, the 2011 Census had 640; the number has crossed 700 now. With that 2011 base, Uttar Pradesh had 71 districts and Lakshadweep had one.
Though not explicitly stated, more districts are presumably created for administrative convenience and delivering public goods and services better. Take the Upper Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. In 2011, this had a population of 7,984 and a geographical area of 9,129 square kilometres. This makes it India’s largest district, but one with the lowest population density. The district headquarter is Anini and you can imagine the distance of other parts of Upper Dibang from Anini.
When deciding on new districts, there are obvious criteria like population, geographical area and the distance from district headquarters. But the right answer isn’t always obvious. Once revenue laws have determined districts, government development programmes work through DRDAs (District Rural Development Agency), at least on the rural side; there are also elected representatives, through zila panchayats or parishads (ZPs) or district councils, further down to blocks and villages. The number of ZPs is 618, a little lower than the number of districts, because there are urban districts too. (All such numbers change, depending on the year.)
Once there is a new district, barring time-lags, there will also be a new ZP, through the relevant state election commission. Think of various entities involved in a district’s development — the district collector/district magistrate/district Commissioner, the DRDA, the MP, multiple MLAs and ZPs. Unless they work together, a lot of resources, not just financial, will be frittered away.
Because of the DRDA structure, it probably works at the district level. I am not suggesting it works perfectly. For instance, making the ZP president the chairperson of the DRDA doesn’t necessarily mean the ZP works in tandem with the DRDA. Below the district level, I don’t think it works at all.
There are 6,603 intermediate-level panchayats and 2,49,016 gram panchayats. At the district level, one can at least argue the DRDA chairperson has oversight about the district’s development and MPs or MLAs are part of the DRDA. In principle, it should be possible to work on district-level planning. That’s true even if the DRDAs are replaced by something like rural development cells in ZPs, to function as district planning committees.
However, I don’t think one can be that unambiguous at the sub-district level. Going back to the 1950s, government development programmes are through community development blocks (CD blocks), under the overall charge of a BDO (block development officer). Let’s take Andhra Pradesh as an example. The sub-unit of a district is a revenue division and the sub-unit of a revenue division is a mandal. I don’t need to give instances from other states since the point is a simple one. In different states, it is called a mandal, circle, tehsil, taluka, sub-division, CD block, but there is often a revenue division or circle above it.
Other than the BDO, there is the tehsildar/talukdar and the intermediate-level panchayat, variously referred to as the mandal, taluka or block panchayat or panchayat samiti. Sure, the BDO, MP and MLAs are members of the panchayat samiti. But there isn’t a sense that there is a coherent governance structure at the panchayat samiti level, straddling the elected, the executive and land and revenue administration, the last specifically mentioned because development typically requires land issues to be sorted out. Stated differently — no single entity is clearly responsible for a block’s development.
That argument extends lower down, to the gram panchayat, and these have got a substantial amount of resources, courtesy the Fourteenth Finance Commission. I am not merely making standard points about capacity, a lack of devolution of functions, funds and functionaries, convergence and separate cadres. Perhaps those are prerequisites before one can answer my question. Decentralised planning is meant to start from below and “below” doesn’t mean the district. Gram panchayats/gram sabhas are supposed to have several “planning” functions. The intention is to make planning participatory. But unlike the district, and like the block, we don’t have a coherent governance and administrative structure. Unlike even the panchayat samiti, there is no direct link between the executive and the elected in the gram panchayat.
Thus, unlike the district, who “owns” the planning and development functions in panchayat samitis and gram panchayats? I don’t think anyone does. Hence, whenever we talk about decentralised planning, we tend to think of districts — and nothing below.