Archive for July, 2014

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Damodar Penwale eased through the glass doors of the New Administrative Building after swiping his identity card and crossed the foyer towards the lifts. He smiled at the receptionist seated towards his right hand side. She was immersed in directing a visitor how he should proceed to meet the Commissioner of Industries. The visitor’s face seemed faintly familiar to Penwale; maybe it was some captain of industry who had come to discuss his new project with the Commissioner. Not that there were too many such visitors nowadays, he mused. The process of automatic online approvals for all industrial projects approved in 2010 had done away with the need for industrialists to visit government offices to get their proposals cleared. He still remembered how, as a young clerk newly recruited in government at that time, he had heard his wizened Under Secretary, Harihar Kamdar, grumble that the move spelt the death knell of the bureaucracy. Prophetic words indeed, he thought, as he eased into the lift and headed for the seventeenth floor. The lift was one of those superfast Otis lifts that seemed to cover the vertical distance to his office in seconds, a far cry from the lifts he remembered when he joined service. Then, it was often a wait for anywhere from ten to twenty minutes while the lift huffed and puffed its way up to the top and then, just as reluctantly, made its way down. Nowadays, one never had to wait for more than a couple of minutes before entering the lift. Probably, one should give twenty percent credit to the technologically advanced lift and eighty percent credit to the reduced stream of visitors, he surmised.
He stepped out on to the carpeted passageway and made his way towards his department, located to the left as one emerged from the lift. Approaching his work station (office was such a dated term to use in this day and age!), he smiled at his co-worker seated in the cubicle to the left and switched on his computer. Ever since the advent of the paperless office in 2015, there was no need to conduct any work using paper or to maintain any paper records. He pressed his right thumb on the fingerprint recognition panel on the computer to access his files. In fact, a message had already gone to his supervisor intimating her that Penwale was at his seat. No more of those days when you could enter the building and make a beeline for the canteen to enjoy a cup of hot tea, he wistfully mused. But then, the installation of the self-serve tea and coffee machines (two on each floor) enabled any employee to get her tea/coffee as and when she wished, at just one rupee for a cup of tea and two rupees for a cup of coffee.
There was an urgent email from one of the districts communicating the daily rainfall figures; Penwale frowned – the data should have been automatically uploaded by the district in the ready-made software. He made a note mentally to inform the district that emails transmitting such routine data would not be favourably viewed by his department. Oh, yes.. sending material by the old postal system was now considered almost a crime!
A buzz on his intercom awoke Penwale from his reverie. It was his superior, alerting him that the note for the cabinet had to be expedited. Cabinet notes, too, were no longer transcribed on paper: an electronic copy, after approval by the departmental Secretary & the Minister, went to the Chief Minister’s office via the Cabinet Secretary. Ministers could only scan the cabinet notes on computer monitors in their office; the software prevented printing of paper copies. Thank God, thought Penwale, at least they were spared the allegations of leakage of cabinet papers to the press before the cabinet meetings! Even at Cabinet meetings, the notes for each item on the agenda flashed on the consoles in front of each Minister, who was not allowed to carry any paper in or out of the Cabinet Room. Penwale had once cajoled his friend in the Cabinet Secretariat to allow him to take a peek at the Cabinet Room: the technology on show there had awed him, what with huge LED screens and dozens of computer monitors. There was even a provision for cabinet meetings to be conducted through videoconferencing, when no face to face discussions were felt necessary or when the Chief Minister needed to convene a meeting at short notice.
Penwale was just putting the finishing touches to the cabinet note when a message flashed on his computer screen, informing him that the Joint Secretary of the department would be videoconferencing in half an hours’ time with all the supervisors and assistants to review the action plan of the department and the items pending for action. There were now only four levels of officials in any department — the Secretary, Joint Secretary, Supervisor and Assistant. The Secretaries and Joint Secretaries were on five-year contractual appointments and the renewal of their contracts crucially depended on their achieving the action plan goals. Not that Supervisors and Assistants were any more secure, Penwale reflected; a perceived indifferent performance could cost them their jobs, as three of his colleagues had experienced recently.
It was almost 11 a.m. and Penwale calculated that he had just enough time to go down the corridor and grab a cup of coffee. As he made his way down the corridor, he exchanged pleasantries with a number of supervisors and assistants, who were moving purposefully in the same direction. Discussions around the tea-coffee machine ranged from the latest movie releases to India’s prospects in the upcoming World Cup cricket tournament. Sipping his coffee with relish and participating in the conversation around him, Penwale never noticed how time slipped by, till, glancing inadvertently at his watch, he realised, to his horror, that it was 11.27 a.m. and he had to be in his seat in two minutes to be in time for the videoconference with his martinet of a Joint Secretary. Crumpling his paper cup and turning sharply around, he lost his balance and collided with a portly supervisor standing just behind him…..
…..Penwale was jerked to wakefulness by a growing murmur of discontent from the employees milling around him, one of whom had accidentally bumped into him, throwing him off his balance. As Penwale’s consciousness returned to the present, he realised that both the lifts had stopped functioning. Many employees had been complaining for weeks about the weird noises and jerks emanating from the aged lifts as they went up and down on their daily business. Trust that crotchety Deputy Secretary in charge of building administration not to have cleared the file for annual maintenance of lifts, he thought resentfully, as he turned to the staircase and commenced the Sisyphean climb to his seventeenth floor office for the third time that week, past paan-stained walls.

We Don’t Need The District Collector!

The name “Collector” or “District Collector” was given to the functionary in charge of an administrative unit in India during the period of the British East India Company (EIC) as well as after the British Crown took charge of India in 1858. He was entrusted with the responsibility of land revenue collection. Apart from this task, he also functioned as the representative of the EIC and the Crown in managing the affairs of a fairly large area with a substantial native population. Independent India continued with this tradition in the absence of strong local government institutions. With the Indian state extending its reach to almost every area of social and economic activity, the Collector (Deputy Commissioner in some states) became the lynchpin of the administrative structure at the district level, functioning as the eyes and ears of the state government. Functions as diverse as law & order, food supply, guaranteed rural employment, natural calamity relief, conduct of elections and overseeing functioning of local urban bodies were entrusted to him (and increasingly to her).
The first inroads into the Collector’s powers came with the introduction of the panchayati raj systems for rural self-government. States like Maharashtra & Gujarat, followed by many others, including Karnataka (with its bold experiment of devolution of powers to rural local bodies in the 1980s), implemented fairly robust reforms to empower rural local government bodies. The political system and the bureaucracy at the state level saw this development as a threat to their powers of patronage and, using the old British argument that “the natives are not ready to govern themselves”, the powers of these rural institutions were whittled down over time. Urban local bodies had functioned under rules legislated by the state governments right from pre-independence days and the state had never ceded any significant decision-making powers to these bodies.
The passage of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution was intended to devolve powers to the local bodies. In practice, state governments have been parsimonious in parting with their powers and, as of 2014, we are in a position where local bodies (whether rural or urban) still do not exercise any significant authority in performing their functions. State governments need to acknowledge that charity begins at home: if you clamour for devolution of powers from the central to the state level, you should be equally willing to shed your powers to the local level. It is here that the present discussion on the utility of the Collector’s post assumes relevance. The Collector represents the fulcrum of state administration at the district level and a debate on her relevance is also an assessment of the need for so many state government dominated departments at the district level and below.
The land revenue collection duties of the Collector can easily be handed over to local bodies. This revenue, along with local body cesses, is finally transferred to local bodies: there is no reason why, like property tax, local bodies cannot themselves levy and collect revenue on land. Maintenance of land records, too, is a specialised function, especially with the availability of sophisticated GIS tools. There has been too much debate and too little action on developing processes for guaranteeing land titles, as has been done in most developed nations. An independent authority (or a private organisation) can perform such a function quite effectively, once the necessary legal systems are in place. All quasi-judicial functions performed by the Collector can also be transferred to the judicial system.
Law & order maintenance and criminal justice systems administration are areas where the District Magistrate’s role and relevance have been steadily diminishing over the years. In major urban areas in most states, the Police Commissioner has effectively done away with the need for an executive magistracy. Over time, law & order functions in urban and rural areas need to be taken over by the respective local bodies, with police forces reporting to these bodies. As far as criminal justice is concerned, the entire process is managed by the judicial system: the few sections in the Criminal Procedure Code relating to prohibitive powers of the executive magistracy can be administered by the local police. Granting of parole to convicts may be one of the few functions that can vest in the state government.
Supply of essential commodities (officially termed “civil supplies”) is one area which is in urgent need of professional management. The present civil supplies machinery under the Collector lacks the capability and the expertise to efficiently manage the distribution of even foodgrains, let alone other commodities like pulses and edible oil. Handling the supply-demand balance and intervening to keep food prices stable can be managed by a company (as is already done in a number of states).
Nearly all the remaining areas handled presently by the Collector can quite effectively be managed by the respective local body, rural or urban. Natural disaster management, rural employment schemes, etc. should be within the purview of local bodies assisted, where necessary (as is the case today), by specialist units of the state and central governments. Elections to urban local bodies are already being conducted by the local municipal administrations. Management of the election process to the three tiers of governance – national, state and local – can be entrusted to local bodies under the supervision of the Election Commission of India and the respective State Election Commissions.
With local bodies, specialised agencies and the judicial system handling all the functions hitherto vested in the Collector, it is apparent that there is no further need for this institution, which had a major role to play in the first two centuries of its existence, but is today becoming an anachronism. Perceptive readers will observe that this also calls into question the role that a generalist service like the Indian Administrative Service can play in the years to come. Indeed, with growing specialisation of functions and an emphasis on local governance systems, there is need to focus on the entire range of civil services recruited at the central and state levels to see how they need to be recast to meet the administrative needs of India in the 21st century. But this will need a separate blog, given the ramifications involved…So, more anon.