Guest Column| Redefining administrative geographies for optimal governance - Hindustan Times

Guest Column| Redefining administrative geographies for optimal governance

ByKaran A Singh
Jun 03, 2024 01:16 PM IST

Some tweaks have been made to governance structures over the years, it is timely to redefine them to align with evolution of tech systems and people’s requirements.

The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita 2023, the Bharatiya Nagrik Suraksha Sanhita 2023, and the Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam 2023, shall come into effect on July 1, 2024, and replace the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Criminal Procedure Code, 1898, and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. These three laws that formed India’s criminal jurisprudence were enacted during the British occupation. It can be nobody’s case that these laws are still very much within their “best before” date. Society, family, technology and most importantly, the very nature of government and state have changed immensely since these laws came into existence. A fresh look was thus certainly warranted.

We can achieve optimal governance by consolidating administrative units, standardising nomenclature, and restructuring organisations to improve financial and administrative efficiency. (Representational photo)
We can achieve optimal governance by consolidating administrative units, standardising nomenclature, and restructuring organisations to improve financial and administrative efficiency. (Representational photo)

The present governance structures and administrative geographies are also creations of the British Raj. While some tweaks and reorganisations have taken place since independence, it is timely to redefine them to align with the evolution of technology systems, and people’s requirements.

Our nation is a union of states, and at independence, we formed our Union by merging 17 provinces directly administered by the British and about 565 princely states. For administrative functioning, most of the states are divided into divisions, then districts, and further into subdivisions. In some states, the subdivisions are coterminous with tehsils that are subdivided into sub-tehsils, and further into “kanungo”, and finally, the basic unit, i.e. villages. However, in some states, a subdivision may have more than one tehsil and may not be divided into sub-tehsils. This may all sound very complex. But wait, this is just the land administration set-up. The development side also features a layered administration. At the district level, there is a zila parishad, subdivided into community development blocks or panchayat samitis; they are then further subdivided into gram panchayats, which may sometimes comprise more than a village. Alternatively, a large village could have more than one panchayat.

Simultaneously present, of course, are also the administrative units in the urban and urbanising areas. The urban areas have elected municipal councils or corporations depending on their size. Further, most states have urban development authorities for urbanising regions of varied forms and terminology.

Then there are units of administration in the police, where sometimes an administrative district may have more than one police district (like in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir), or some areas may be under the police commissioner’s set-up, such as Delhi, Mumbai, etc. Then there are the police sub-divisions, which have police stations, which may further have chowkis. As if this intricate web of administrative units was not confusing enough, each department (PWD, water resources, agriculture, cooperation, etc.) has its functional units, which may or may not be coterminous with the administrative subdivision or the district boundaries.

Another aspect is that these administrative geographies are also non-uniform in size. Today, the Union has evolved into 28 states and eight union territories. These are further divided into 785 districts. There is a massive variation in the size of the states and the number of districts they comprise. On one side, we have states as big as Rajasthan, measuring about 3.42 lakh sq km and as small as Goa, spread over just 0.37 lakh sq km. In terms of the districts, while Uttar Pradesh has 75, Goa has only two.

Further, there is a considerable variation in the size of the districts as well. Kutch in Gujarat is spread over 45,652 sq km; Leh in Ladakh measures about 45,110 sq km; and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan is over 38,400 sq km. These are the three biggest districts in the country in terms of land area. Similarly, when it comes to population, urban districts like North 24 Parganas and Thane have a population of over one crore. In contrast, Dibang district in Arunachal Pradesh has a population of less than 10,000 people.

While the states are created and dissolved by the Parliament of India, there has been a tendency (especially on the eve of elections) by the state governments to create districts without assessing the impact on administrative efficiency and finances. In 2023, on the eve of elections, the then government in Rajasthan created 19 new districts, raising the number from 31 to 50. Estimates reveal that, on average, a new district requires capital expenditure of about 200 crore to build new offices, etc., and an annual recurring expenditure of around 20 crore. Appropriately, with increased road connectivity, availability of information on the internet, digital governance, etc., we should have seen a consolidation of the administrative units of districts, sub-divisions, sub-tehsils, etc., rather than their proliferation. This repeated fission effectively bloats the size of the government.

On the lines of the 15% ceiling of assembly seats on the number of ministers in a state, the number of districts should also be limited to 15%. Further, each district should have only four subdivisions and each subdivision should have only two blocks. Each block should be coterminous with the police station. Some variations may be required for the hill states, islands, desert areas and the metros. For example, if this were to be implemented, districts in Punjab would be consolidated into 17 from the existing 23, and Haryana would see a consolidation into 14 districts from the existing 22.

Further, the districts must be redrawn into shapes and sizes that make them more uniform in terms of their population and spread. Of course, this exercise is detailed and also needs to consider the views of different stakeholders. While consensus in such matters is impossible to achieve, the body that carries out this task of reorganisation should have only one objective — optimal governance.

Second, even after 75 years of independence, we still do not have a uniform administrative nomenclature across the country. Each state follows its legacy system depending upon whether you were a province under direct British rule or a princely state. The nomenclature associated with the heads of these administrative units also varies from state to state. As an illustration, the head of the district in some states is designated as a “deputy commissioner”; other states continue with the designation “collector”, and in some states, the same office is designated “district magistrate”. Of course, the officer is vested with the authority and functions of a collector, a district magistrate and a deputy commissioner, irrespective of the popular designation in the state. The same holds for the police set-up and other state departments. There is a strong case for uniformity in nomenclature, not only in the district administration but across the board in all departments in the country. This would take care of many issues of coordination and improve efficiency.

The Government of India should set up a body to bring uniformity to these governance structures and nomenclatures. We can achieve optimal governance by consolidating administrative units, standardising nomenclature, and restructuring organisations to improve financial and administrative efficiency. This comprehensive reform is crucial for a modern, effective and citizen-centric governance framework.

(Karan A Singh, a former chief secretary, is chairman of the Punjab Water Regulation and Development Authority. Anirudh Tewari, former Punjab chief secretary, is chairman of Mahatma Gandhi State Institute of Public Administration. Views expressed are personal.)

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