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District Collector, Magistrate, Development Commissioner: what to call an IAS officer?

A new debate has just begun about the best title to describe the work of an IAS officer posted in a district. What’s in a name? Heaps of colonial baggage, apparently.

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In Modi’s new India, it is not only the names of cities and streets that are changed. The decolonisation project has now reached the civil servant’s designation too. The first posting of an IAS officer at the district level is now part of a new debate about administrative reforms.

District Collector? District Magistrate? Or Development Commissioner? What the IAS officer is called signals what the role entails, how far India has travelled from the British colonial era construct, and more importantly, brings uniformity across the country.

Vidhi Center for Legal Policy recently released a book titled From Rule By Law to the Rule of Law — 25 Reforms to Decolonise India’s Legal System. It puts in perspective the administrative challenge that India faces.

“The services at the district level and the considerable accumulation of power in the hands of the District Officer was a key innovation of the British administration of Indian and the continued reliance on this functionary is the biggest vestige of colonial administration in the services at present. This fact, coupled with the recognition of this institution in the public mind as the prime mover of governance at the district level impedes the growth of any other local authority at that level,” read the book.

The chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council Bibek Debroy has also waded into this issue. He has worked on doing away with at least 248 redundant, outdated colonial laws. In an article in The Indian Express, Debroy wrote that all the policies are being unified across the country, so the designation and role of the District Collector should also be included in it.

“Many policies are now being unified throughout India. It is one country. Shouldn’t functions of DCs/DMs also be unified and standardised as well? Those who are aware know that the antecedents go back to 1772, so these questions do have a colonial legacy,” said Debroy in his article.

Not everyone agrees that a mere name change can automatically change mindsets.

Also read: Statue of Unity is central to IAS officers for Modi’s Aarambh course

One post, multiple hats

A DM does many things. They coordinate with multiple departments — health, revenue, education etc. Retaining the name as well as the powers under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) is imperative. The current role helps serve development, revenue, protocol, and interdepartmental issues.

“Changing the nomenclature from DM to Development Commissioner is quite simple but not desirable. Covid was managed well because under the NDMA, it was the DM who had the powers. This will also hold true for elections and a host of miscellaneous functions at the district level,” says Sanjeev Chopra, ex-director of Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) and Festival Director of the Valley of Words.

From books to movies to Netflix series, the IAS officer’s life has been fodder for many significant characters. In popular imagination, the IAS officer lords over a district like a king or queen. IAS Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel English, August brought out the dizzying power and banality of a district magistrate’s life and work.

Then there is the Bollywood movie Insaaf—The Justice. Vishwanath Prasad, played by Sanjay Suri, is an IAS officer who lives in Bombay and fights for justice. The film portrays the dark side of politics and power. Unable to deal with the harassment at the hands of the State, politicians and their goons, Prasad commits suicide.

Also read: Modi govt takes IAS promotions to next level—Additional, Joint Secretary now come closer

The administrative overlap

Many retired civil servants said that a change in nomenclature of a DM’s post will bring confusion to the roles and in the distribution of power.

A District Collector supervises the matter of revenue administration in the district and District Magistrate is the chief in-charge of the general administration, also responsible for maintaining law and order. In almost every district of India, a DM also has the District Collector’s power.

In states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra, the posts of the Collector and Chief Executive Officer of the Zilla Parishad are distinct. If the Collector is named Development Commissioner, there would be confusion between the roles of the Collector and Chief Executive Officer.

“If the Collector is designated as Development Commissioner, the problem of dual control of their functions by the Zilla Parishad and state government would need to be resolved. The issue of giving greater financial and administrative autonomy to local bodies, both rural and urban, is yet to be addressed,” said V Ramani, retired IAS officer.

District Administration is the domain of state governments. In Punjab, Haryana and regulation districts, the preferred term is Deputy Commissioner. Though the legal terminology is always District Magistrate. The CrpC defines a DM, says Sanjeev Chopra. The notification is issued by the Home Department.

In most cases, the same individual is also vested with revenue powers by the Department of Land Revenue.

Some said that if India wants to come out of the colonial mindset, then there is a need to change a lot more than just the name.

To get out of the colonial mentality, we need to make the system between Zilla Parishad and Zilla Panchayat strong.

“Nothing will happen by changing the name. Whatever it may be called — District Officer, DM, or Collector, the status in his/her mind remains the same. They consider themselves the king of the district. Panchayat people do the work in the district, these officers take the credit. So changing the name is not an option, it is the problem of the institution itself, which has to be solved,” said retired IAS officer T.R. Raghunandan.

“I agree with the same names. With more urbanization and people moving across states, it does create confusion. Name should be the same, not sure whether the Development Commissioner is the right term or not,” says Jitin Yadav, a 2016 batch IAS officer of West Bengal cadre.

Also read: Amit Shah’s new ministry is more of the same. Cooperatives must not depend on govt

Decolonising Indian administration

The Narendra Modi government has launched an ambitious project of decolonising decades-old rituals that are being followed unthinkingly. It is both a political and nation-building endeavour.

Earlier this year, the traditional Christian hymn Abide by Me from the Beating Retreat ceremony was replaced by the evergreen Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo. A few months ago, the cross of Saint George on the Indian Navy’s flag was replaced by a seal featuring the Maratha warrior king Shivaji’s emblem.

PM Modi urged the country to remove all vestiges of colonialism from India on Independence Day. “We will move forward with bigger resolves and resolve of developed India and we will erase all the traces of servitude from within and from around us,” Modi had said in his speech. The PM inaugurated the ‘Kartavya Path’ in the national capital. The statue of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was installed at India Gate, replacing the statue of British emperor George V.

At the beginning of this year, the Amar Jawan Jyoti was merged with the flame at the National War Memorial.

In 2019, Nirmala Sitharaman drew the attention of the nation when she replaced the colonial practice of carrying a briefcase to bahi khata (ledger book). The Modi government also renamed the Race Course Road to Lok Kalyan Marg. Since 2014, the government has repealed more than 1,500-old and obsolete laws. Most of these laws were remnants of the British era.

But beyond a mere change in nomenclature, what is required is change in attitudes and work culture in India’s steel frame. Some change is visible, starting from social media.

“With social media and other advents, DMs have become more accessible and relatable. Previously people rarely knew officers. That babudom mentality is slowly fading away,” says Yadav.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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