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Senior IAS officer or young blood: Who makes a better district magistrate?

Topics IAS officers

Leh district in Ladakh spans 45,110 square kilometres, which makes it larger than the entire state of Kerala. As the deputy commissioner of the district, Avny Lavasa would have set a record of sorts in terms of the travel she put in the region before she moved on last year. The scale of travel necessary to reach the corners of districts the size of Leh is an often formidable argument IAS officers offer to explain why district collectors, or deputy commissioners as they are now more usually called, need to be young. She became the deputy commissioner of Leh in 2017, four years into her service as an IAS officer. “It was vast. It was a pleasure to travel through that landscape, but still there were areas I couldn't reach,” she says. 

For this piece, one did an online dipstick survey among civil servants in India. The question was simple: Given the sharply rising responsibilities allocated to district collectors or magistrates and the size of the discretionary purse they wield, is there a case for posting more senior officers to the districts?

The answers came in broadly three baskets. Serving IAS officers were unanimous that an officer should be in charge of a district after having completed six or seven years of service, which is the current trend. Retired IAS officers and from other central services were willing to ask for older hands. The non-IAS officers, in service or otherwise, were clear that there should be more senior officers as district collectors.

Of all the positions the IAS fraternity guards fiercely, the position of district collector or magistrate or the more recently named deputy commissioner ranks at the top. It was expected that opinions would diverge widely on opposite sides. Bringing in any changes too is, therefore, a fraught exercise.

T R Raghunandan, a former IAS officer puts it succinctly in his feisty book, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Bureaucracy But Were Afraid to Ask. Of all the positions from which IAS officers fear the dilution of their power and position the most is the “hoary position of the district collector, a generalist do-it-all rank that continues from the colonial era till today, virtually unchanged in the range of formal and informal powers that he or she exercises”.

Rising pressure

Yet, as the Central Government has begun to sharply strengthen the delivery of public services, it has put far stiffer responsibilities on the district administration. On an average, each of the 739 districts in India (this number will change) has a budget close to Rs 1,000 crore. The number of employees, including those working in schools or in health departments under a DM is vast. In Madhya Pradesh for instance, the state government portal of district-wise employees shows the average number of employees per district is close to 4,500. Few will ever see the district commissioner even once in their career. Yet all those employees will be expected to carry out the collector’s orders to reach education or medical support, as in the current Covid-19 crisis, diligently. The number of people whom they will serve in any district averages close to 1.5 million. The comparable scale of operation for the district boss is the position of a CEO of a major listed company. And IAS officers, till recently were often appointed to the post when they had not completed even four years in some states. The few exceptions are states like West Bengal, where the number of districts has remained almost unchanged at 23 (it was 17 till 2014). At the other end is Telangana, which has cracked its 10 districts to form 33 when the state was formed.

If all this created a pressure cooker-like situation, it has worsened of late. For the past few years the Centre has constituted special teams, each time led by a joint secretary rank officer to work in each district on projects like water rejuvenation, education and, this year, on employment. These officers are available for at least five days a month at the district, commandeering men and materials to deliver on their projects. In each case the officers are far senior in rank to the district collector but it is the latter whose command ensures the projects are taken forward.

It creates an anomalous position where the other officers pulled in from other departments are not sure whose writ runs over the projects. No senior officer wants to come on record. “We have to smoothen egos at several stages, and that is when the project begins to show traction,” said one of them picked up for a stint in Madhya Pradesh.

Rajeev Kapoor, former IAS, who was Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie where IAS officers are groomed for their roles after the entrance examination, says there is a case for pushing appointments to some of the key districts to those who have served for over ten years. “In Uttar Pradesh, officers who serve as district magistrates in places like Kanpur or Varanasi are never greenhorns,” he says. There is a word for these posts—Kabaltowns, picking up the first letter from the traditional five major towns of the state. These cities are: Kanpur, Allahabad (now Prayagraj), Bareilly, Agra and Lucknow. 

An older officer does not necessarily mean a grey beard. In 2018, launching the aspirational districts programme, which brings together 115 of India’s poorest ones, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said there was a need to reduce the age profile  of the district magistrates. “Usually, the average age of a district collector is around 27, 28 or 30. Young IAS officers with three-four years’ experience take  up such assignments. But I found in these districts (most) district collectors were 40 plus…” There are two reasons. One is that a larger number of older people are joining the services now, thanks to the greater number of attempts and age relaxations given to write the qualifying exams. A department of personnel and training analysis shows the average age for entry in the service has risen to 27 years for the years 2014-16. The Niti Aayog has thus recommended reducing the upper age limit to apply for the exam from the current 32 years. The other reason for some older people to populate the corner rooms in poor districts is that those were considered soft postings till recently and so demanded less exertion.

Yet they too are greenhorns by all reckoning. And the presence of a greenhorn district boss forces the administration to dilute accountability to keep them at the top of the organisational chart. It does not encourage development as the experience with local self government shows.

Developmental compromise

After the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution was passed in the late eighties, Karnataka introduced an experiment. It appointed an officer in each district, senior to the district collector to be called the chief secretary for the district. He was answerable and accountable to the elected local body the zilla parishad. The confidential reports of chief secretary was to be written by the president of the parishad. In effect, the district boss became also answerable to the elected bodies. “The system resulted in a radical and fundamental shift in the power structure, both among politicians and bureaucrats,” notes Raghunandan.

So the officers body found a way out. To speed up rural development, the Centre had formed district rural development agencies (DRDA) in the 1970s. Once the elected local bodies including panchayats came up, it was natural that the role of the two should merge. It was also the recommendation of the second administrative reforms commission (chapter 12, part VI) under the UPA government in 2005. Instead the chairmanship of the DRDAs passed on to the district collectors or often to one of his deputies, the sub-divisional officer to offer a quick promotion.

It clearly emasculated the authority of the third tier of governance. If an MP, for instance, became the president of the zilla parishad, he would assume a subservient role to the district magistrate, who was just a few years into his job. It is not something the political leader will look forward to. Yet, as Uma Mahadevan, principal secretary (panchayati raj), government of Karnataka explains, the 6,000-odd panchayats in the state “have risen to the occasion”. They have taken the pressure off the district administrations, she felt acting as “the first responders in a disaster of this scale because they had been given powers for decades”.

District collectors or magistrates are supposed to play this very role as generalists instead of specialists, providing relief and rescue. But as the Covid-19 pandemic or the recent cyclone Amphan has shown, it now needs a specialist to do the job well, often as a doctor or as a disaster-relief person. An entrant to the service with six years of experience thus has a double disadvantage. She is yet to get familiar with the ropes of the service and in addition will spend just about a year-and-a-half in the post. The quality of delivery could suffer. At any stage there are 17 Central Government programmes running in any district, notes an administrative manual. And this often means quick transfer for non-performance.

To get over the problem, states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu post senior officers to sensitive districts. As Kapoor notes, the reasons why grizzled officers are chosen in some of these states to run difficult or prestigious districts is that the assignment also carries a sense of prestige. “The officers also do not mind, reckoning it at par with a job in the state secretariat,” he says. In cities, the equivalent of the deputy commissioners, the municipal commissioners are usually expected to be into their second decade of service.

Echoing the sentiment, a very senior IAS officer in charge of one of the constitutional bodies said district magistrates certainly have more money to play around with today. “He has a far greater responsibility, but he does not have the level of authority which he used to in the past,” this officer said. There are far too many new centres of influence at the district level and that dilutes his command. For instance, in a city like Ludhiana in Punjab, the revenue service officer running the direct tax administration is a joint secretary-level officer far senior to the deputy commissioner, even though the latter too had already put in eleven years in the service.

But these are still in patches. A recurring theme among the IAS officers one spoke to is that a district posting is often a rough one. “It needs energy with telephone calls often coming in at 2 a.m. in the morning,” argued one of them. It does not make sense to put an officer already into her middle age to try to reach 150 km at short notice, it is argued, as Lavasa does. That problem is however getting eliminated as states carve out smaller districts (87 were created since 2011). It might offer more confidence to the population to see a more seasoned boss under the circumstances. 
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