This post will focus on couple of critical systemic challenges and limitations facing governance and administration at the district level in India.
The original Indian Civil Service (ICS) under the British rule had clearly defined the role of the District Collector as maintaining law and order and land administration, including maintaining land records and collecting land revenues. Besides, he was also responsible for performing statutory functions like holding elections, census, and attending to disasters and emergency relief. This was understandable since the role of the State under the British rule was essentially a regulatory one.
After independence, the State took on more developmental responsibilities in addition to its regulatory ones, and has became increasingly omnipresent and all encompassing. This benevolent developmental State assumed responsibilities as varying as providing welfare services like education and health care, to building roads and irrigation dams. Naturally, the responsibilities of the District Collector expanded to cover these newer functions. As a development administrator, the District Collector came to monitor the activities of the numerous functionally specialized line departments. Increasingly, the developmental State displaced the regulatory one as the primary focus of the District Collector.
Even as the role of State expanded in scope beyond recognition, the basic framework of administration has remained the same. The District Collector became the administrative head of all Government departments in the district, both regulatory and developmental. The line departments have their own full-fledged administrative machinery, with District heads and subordinate staff who implement their annual action plans and various departmental schemes of both the State and Central Governments.
Both the State and Central Governments find it convenient to monitor important departmental schemes through the generalist District Collector, and not the professionally competent Head of Department in the district. This has led to the systematic erosion of the independence and motivation of the line departments. Given this loss of authority and responsibility, the HoDs now see a limited role for themselves and many even use this opportunity to pass on the buck. On the other hand, the District Collector has become too heavily over-burdened to make effective enough interventions in the functioning of various government departments.
To go back to the Economist article, it is something similar to Ms Helen Clark running New Zealand as a super Prime Minister, holding all the Ministerial portfolios herself! Ironically, the more powerful and omnipresent the institution of the District Collector has become, the greater has been the decline and atrophy of the line departments!
The second area of concern relates to the functional and operational flexibility of the line departments. The line departments implement their regular annual action plans and specific schemes and programs of the State and Central Governments. The implementation of these schemes and programs is governed by pre-defined norms and components, most often designed for the entire country or state, and without any consideration for the specific local needs and requirements.
The financial allocations are generally made based on population distribution. The sectoral and geographical allocations within the program, the beneficiary selection criteria, the implementation mechanism, executing agency and delivery channels are all pre-defined within the program guidelines. The role of the department is limited to implementing the scheme in accordance with the prescribed guidelines.
Surely, the Agriculture or Animal Husbandry departments cannot have the same roles and strategies in areas as widely different as Telengana and coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, there cannot be the same straitjacket of guidelines under PMGSY for Kerala or Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir. The health care and education priorities of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are vastly different from that of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
This one-size-fits-all approach to delivering development, consistent with the regulatory ethos of the bureaucracy, denies even the minimum operational flexibility to the departmental heads. What exacerbates the problem is that the weakened HoDs at the district level, used to free riding on the Collector's, rarely pay any attention to the preparation of even their regular departmental action plans. A mechanistic process of regurgitating some routine programs is the result.