India, as one State, has never been larger. Like Ashoka’s great empire, the Mughal Empire never went down southwards and eastwards very much. The British ruled directly only in the three great presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay and the four smaller units of Punjab, the United Provinces, the Central Provinces and Berar, and the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Even after the “doctrine of lapse” was repudiated, the 601 princely states continued administering themselves and managing their day-to-day affairs quite independently, as long as Britain was acknowledged as the paramount power in India.
Since land revenue was the main source of income for the State, the maintenance of land ownership records and a continuous stream of information pertaining to its productivity, produce and prices became the central aspects of administration. Since taxpayers are, irrespective of the age, extremely unwilling to part with even a part of their earnings, the most appropriate coercive mechanism -- the police – to enforce this went hand in hand with revenue administration.
This led to a very interesting division of labour between the imperial and traditional governments. Often while a capital offence like murder was a matter for the traditional court, brigandage and highway robbery became a matter for the imperial government because it had the potential to derail the status quo. Then, like now, quite often robbers became chieftains and chieftains became rulers. The easy transition from daku to baghi is quite an ancient institution.
India was thus governed for almost 2,500 years, unchanging despite a quick turnover of empires, its traditions continuous and often oppressive even when very different from those of its many ultimate rulers, a patchwork of nationalities, regions, communities, vocations and practices united by a stoicism that finally and happily shows signs of giving in to exasperation. All this ended with the 1857 revolt.
The abortive revolt had three great consequences. It marked not just the end of the Mughals and Maratha power in Central India, but also the end of the East India Company rule. This “First Great War of Independence” actually further enslaved India when on November 1, 1858 Lord Canning, wearing court dress and riding a black horse emerged out of the fort in Allahabad to read a long proclamation by Queen Victoria.
In 1861 the Indian Civil Service (ICS) came into being. Each one of the 400 district officers in British India was henceforth an ICS officer as were all members of the higher bureaucracy. At no given time were there more than 1,200 ICS officers in India.
Two other significant events took place in 1861. Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s codification of Indian law came into effect and the Indian Police Act introduced uniform police service throughout India. In addition to the British district officer, each district in British India was henceforth to have a British superintendent of police. Below this came the largely Indian and uncovenanted civil servants of the police, medical and forestry services, and in the agriculture and engineering departments, all adding up to another 2,000 civil servants. This much-vaunted “steel frame” of India consisted of no more than 4,000 British and Indian officers at even the worst of times.
The bedrock of this system were the 400 district officers, variously called collectors and district magistrates or deputy commissioners, who administered the districts, each with an average size of 4,430 square miles, conciliating disputes, dispensing justice and collecting revenue. An ICS officer became a district officer soon after the completion of his probation and was usually in his twenties lording invariably over a million people. Each ICS officer was carefully chosen and was an eclectic combination of brilliance, personality and integrity. It was probably the finest civil service ever, drawing its men, usually, from Oxford or Cambridge and after a tough entrance examination that included “the ability to jump a five barred gate on horseback with arms folded and stirrups crossed”.
They were well paid and cared for, and usually incorruptible with a well-deserved reputation for accepting no gifts other than flowers or fruit. They wore their three initials with pride and saw themselves “as the modern equivalent of Plato’s Guardians, men bred, selected and trained to govern, selflessly and devotedly”.
In 1947, all that changed. Preserving the status quo was no longer the major priority of the government. As national goals ostensibly changed, newer taxes replaced land revenue as the government’s chief source of income. Serving rather than ruling became the impulse driving the government. India was to be transformed into a modern and progressive democracy.
The district officer is no longer a mere collector of revenue, preserver of order and responsible for the projection of imperial authority, but the prime change agent of the government and the administrative pivot of all development activity. Yet the old steel frame of the Raj, now largely rusted, run down and rapacious, endures. A typical district officer is still usually in his twenties or early thirties. But unlike his ICS predecessor, the IAS district collector or deputy commissioner has neither the unquestionable authority conferred either by racial exclusivity or superb education or social class or all three to dominate and control the lower bureaucracy.
As required in a democracy the executive is subservient to a government by elected politicians. According to a study by S.K. Das, IAS, the average tenure of a district officer is now about seven months. He or she invariably falls victim to the constantly changing and treacherous currents of an intensely competitive political system. The lower and permanent bureaucracy has adjusted well to this essential change and has become a tool in the hands of the politicians.
Clearly, we need to restructure the government and administration in each of India’s 590 or so districts. The collector/deputy commissioner, like his ICS predecessor, must become the executive head of the district with all branches of government subject to his/her authority and power. This must particularly include the police.
The district officer must be redesignated as the commissioner and should be an officer with over 16 years of service, a mature and seasoned individual with the seniority and clout to exercise complete authority over the administrative apparatus. This seniority will also give him/her the experience and guile needed to deal with the political system. Above all, the commissioner must have a fixed tenure of at least five years and a board consisting of elected representatives of the district as well as administrative superiors must make his/her selection to the position.
Reforming the public administration system means making tough calls and hence best left to the next government!...