One of the positive legacies that the British left behind for independent India was a sound administrative infrastructure at the district level that was empowered enough to handle the day to day demands and problems of the people there with its financial and judicial autonomy. Over the decades its form remains but the content has been totally eroded with the result that for anything and everything the citizens are having to run to the state capital - and even to Delhi - to get succour.
Political interpretations of federalism prescribed by the Indian Constitution have pushed centralization of authority to a point where the district administration appeared effete and too preoccupied with serving the political class to give relief to the citizens on the ground. India is the only country where a bright young man or woman can - on the strength of a national competition - get into the top government service, IAS or IPS, and become in 5-6 years the head of the district as collector-cum-district magistrate or the chief of thousands of men in uniform as the Superintendent of Police.
Between them, the Collector-SP duo would take responsibility for providing efficient public services and protection to all inhabitants of the district. These young officers in their early years took pride in their career while working among the people on the ground and were relatively unspoilt by the influences that would later compromise many of them.
They were the best bet for citizens as the first port of call in a democratic dispensation. Inadequacy of India's socio-political and economic progress is significantly attributable to the decline of district administration. It would be in India's interest if the leadership of the nation makes the district an effective unit of governance overriding political vested interest.
There are three distinct ways in which this could be done. First, the Collector-SP team can play a crucial role in ensuring that development and law enforcement, the two non-political instruments of a secular democratic governance, were on course. It should be tasked with monitoring the progress of implementation of development projects of both Centre and the state in that district segment - say on a quarterly basis - because these officials are in the best position to look into such matters as delay in land acquisition, loss of time due to lack of inter-agency cooperation and irregularities in payments to contractors, the police chief helping by handling deliberate breaches of law and order that came in the way of development. The Inter-State Council chaired by the Prime Minister can endorse this idea since it was well known that local politicians often created roadblocks in the implementation of schemes for their own power play.
Secondly, the state government should make the Collector responsible for monitoring the performance and adequacy of the Health and Education systems in the district including the output of officials specifically posted there by the department of the Centre or the state concerned. The role of the head of the district has been diluted in these vital areas of public interest with the result that authentic feedback from the ground where the people live does not travel to the political executive at the state and central level. In a country where 65 per cent of the population was below 35 years of age, the demographic dividend can turn into a liability rather than an asset if these two services did not perform at their best.
The third role of the district administration that needed to be reinforced is that of grievance removal. Where are the Collectors, SPs, SDOs and circle officers spending their time if a significant part of that was not systemically devoted to interacting with the aggrieved citizens? The abnormal rise in the cases of suicide by farmers could be effectively checked if a month before the harvest the Collector could appoint an SDO as a Special Officer to identify the small farmers who are faced crop failure so that they could be given a reasonable financial aid in time to keep them from running into extreme despair.
These methods can work only when the district administration was totally attuned to the people on the ground and had the power to take decisions on its own. The Chief Secretary and Commissioners are desk bound officials with very little empowerment to strengthen the district administration and, likewise, the DGP is helpless in improving the working of the police stations because his SP cannot even suspend a rogue policeman. The country must move towards making the district the effective hub of good governance and this will happen only if administrative decisions and their implementation were freed of political tints.
This is a serious matter as the pace of progress of the country has been marred by the politician-bureaucracy-'criminal' nexus and its growing spread on the ground. The malfunctioning of the municipal units and zila panchayats illustrates this. The district administration's financial oversight function in respect of these bodies has been usurped by the politicians in the name of local self-governance and the Collector has lost his earlier relevance as a monitoring functionary in this regard. The SP has become ineffective because the Thanas have been manoeuvred by the politicians in power. The advantages accruing to all law abiding citizens from a people-oriented state have also been diluted because of the caste and sectarian ways of the politicians who have tried to browbeat their way through in their pockets.
While the political executive led by the Prime Minister that rules the country has to enlist the support of the states in providing clean and effective governance right in the district segments, the Centre should become a little pro-active in ensuring that the bright young officers of the All India Services received a supportive oversight of the Government of India to encourage them to continue performing without fear or favour in the larger national interest. In our constitutional scheme of things it is the Centre that recruits, trains and allocates these officers to different states and it should also, therefore, find a way of following up on their performance and giving due recognition to their work which had to be entirely non-political and non-partisan in line with their administrative mandate.
Now that the Supreme Court has given UPSC a decisive role in the selection of the DGP of the state, the Centre must seek a similar definition of the process by which it would have a say in the appointment of the Chief Secretary as well. Once this happens the quality of governance will traverse down the vertical hierarchy and work for the strength and public orientation of the officials in charge of the districts. Permissiveness of politics in administration is in play because it suits all concerned except the people at large.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)