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Saturday, June 14, 2003

During colonial times, the British Raj used to administer its provinces in India through Governors and “Resident Agents” (in princely states). And within each province/state, the head of administration for each district was the “Collector” who used to report directly to the Governor. Not withstanding the fact that many civil servants of that era have done an outstanding job in public service, they still used to function as the agents of the Crown/Raj.

One would have expected that this colonial tradition would be discontinued in an independent and democratic India and be replaced by sovereign, elected democratic heads of government at various levels accountable to the people. Unfortunately, owing to various reasons which are outside the scope of this column, this colonial practice continued in independent India through the largely ceremonial office of the Governor and more importantly through the still all powerful office of the ‘District Collector”.

Currently, a big storm is brewing in the state about the role of collectors in the district administration with many MLAs and ministers from the ruling party themselves protesting against their exaggerated role. It is surprising that the chief minister chose to invite all the district collectors for a meeting to discuss his agenda/plans, without involving any of the elected local government leaders! In fact there wasn’t even a pretense of trying to involve local governments in the decision making/planning/implementation process. So much for the much hyped devolution of powers!

1. In fact the chief minister has explicitly instructed all the collectors that they will be held responsible for implementation of all the welfare schemes that were launched recently and that they should report to him directly. In addition, the chief minister has also created a separate district fund to the tune of Rs 2 crores, which is kept at the disposal of the District Development Review Committee (DDRC), headed by a Minister. All these measures raise some serious concerns on the nature of governance in this state: What is the role of a “ district collector” in a democratic society? What ought to be the relationship between the chief minister and the collectors? Why is a State Minister getting involved in matters which ought to be handled by local governments? What is the role of the elected local governments in administering their own districts?

In modern India, the district collector continues to function as in colonial times – i.e. as an agent of the chief minister. S/he is the uncrowned king of the district much in the same fashion as the colonial times and is answerable to no one except the CM. In fact some of the elected Zilla Parishad chairpersons complain that even in their own council meetings, the collector holds the centre-stage and they are relegated to the sidelines. In this day and age of specialization, it is absurd to have a collector in charge of every facet of administration ranging from health care to law and order. This ubiquitous role also violates the very basic foundations of a democratic society.

Only in a highly centralized setup does the state feel the need to exercise direct control over each and every district. Germany’s population is comparable to that of AP. And yet, in Germany there are 16 provinces with elected governments (called Landers), and over 4000 municipal governments at local level – all with clear and exclusive authority and resources! This whole notion of the chief minister directly controlling all functions and functionaries in the state is a throw back to the days of monarchy.

The same principle applies for a Minister also. S/he has absolutely no role to play in the management of issues which are the natural responsibilities of local governments. The current practice of having ministers as heads of the DDRCs is blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution calls for a District Planning Committee constituted with elected members of the local governments. The role of a minister is in administering his/her own department and articulating his/her constituents’ demands in a legislative capacity.

We have ended colonial rule long ago, and it is high time we buried the last vestiges of the anachronistic Raj’s practices that have stayed on.

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