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Telangana Chief Minister Makes Cornwallis Turn in His Grave

Kingshuk Nag (kingshuknag@gmail.com) is a senior journalist. He recently retired as resident editor, Times of India, Hyderabad.

K Chandrasekhar Rao has increased the number of districts in Telangana from 11 to 31 ostensibly to improve administration. But the move seems aimed at consolidating his party’s support base.

Charles Cornwallis, who became commander-in-chief of British India in 1786, was said to have been instrumental in initiating reforms in civil administration and land management practices for the country’s colonial rulers. Lord Cornwallis is today turning in his grave. Two hundred and thirty one years after he brought in the Permanent Settlement in the dominions of the East India Company and set up a new system of administration of India, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) has taken it on himself to dismantle the system irreparably. He may not realise what he is doing to an administrative system that has lasted for centuries.

For those who came in late, Cornwallis, with the main objective of collecting of taxes for the rapacious Company, created the concept of a district—a nomenclature for a contiguous piece of land from where taxes could be collected efficiently—and with it, its administrative head, the district collector (DC). Most of the revenue collections would be from taxes on land taxes. Since many farmers could refuse to pay the harsh taxes, especially in times of drought, a law and order machinery was set up under the collector to ensure that nothing went out of hand. Thus came into the being the office of the superintendent of police (SP) reporting directly to the DC who was also the district magistrate. This was the bulwark of the Indian administration system that stood the British in good stead till it left India.

After independence, the system of administration should have changed. But the Republic of India that was the successor state to the British Indian state showed no inclination to upset the system. So the institution of the DC and the SP continued, never mind the fact that land revenue collections started shrinking over the years and the administrative duo had very little to collect in terms of agrarian imposts. The no-change approach also disregarded the fact that India had sought to become a social welfare state wherein the government was supposedly meant to work for the development of backward areas and tried to establish industries in areas where there were none. To cater to these requirements, the governments in some states created the position of district development officers (DDOs) who worked independently of the DC but under her/his overall leadership and supervision.

Over the last 50 years, more so over the last two decades, competition has intensified among state governments of different political persuasions to provide various benefits, or doles, to people with a clear but unstated objective of creating an enduring political base, sometimes called a “vote bank.” No government in power has been an exception to these trends. But it goes to the credit of India’s newest and 29th state Telangana to refashion an administrative set-up geared to collection of revenues to one whose job is to deliver “goodies” to people.

On the day of Dasehra 2016, Chief Minister KCR—in a sudden and unprecedented move—increased the number of districts in Telangana from 11 to 31 at one go. As he himself stated, the average population of each district would now be a mere five lakh making the administration “compact” enough to deliver “welfare schemes” to the people efficiently. In an exaggerated manner, KCR said that under the new dispensation the collector would know all the people by their names.

Overnight, small towns in Telangana have become districts. One erstwhile district, Karimnagar, has been divided into six districts! Since there are not enough officers belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS) to occupy the new collectorates, KCR has decided to post fresh recruits as DCs. In the coming days, non-IAS and non-IPS officers are expected to be posted as DCs and SPs (in bureaucratic parlance, they are termed “non-cadre” officers posted to “cadre” posts).

Some of the newly-appointed collectors and SPs are without offices and homes and are reportedly running around in circles in search of the bare minimum amenities that they require to fulfil their administrative responsibilities. In some places the new appointees have occupied guest houses of state public sector enterprises and some have even commandeered resources from private individuals and firms. In other places, the new officers have occupied living quarters reserved for their juniors leading to a game of musical chairs of sorts.

The head of the Congress party in Telangana, Uttam Reddy has labelled KCR as a modern day Muhammad-bin Tughluq, hinting at the “madness” that has marked the exercise to reorganise districts. Reddy could be wrong. There is a method behind the madness. By making junior officers—many of whom would be non-cadre officers—as collectors, KCR is ensuring that they are pliant and obedient to him. It is well known that junior officers have less spunk to take on ruling party politicians. In the last two years, KCR has stuffed his Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) with defectors of many hues from various opposition parties.

The challenge before the Chief Minister now is to find work for these assorted netas who are increasingly getting restive. With more districts there can now be more district level party posts. It goes without saying that these district leaders will try and dominate the new, relatively weak collectors by directing them about how to distribute the goodies, how much and to whom. In other words, whatever be KCR’s stated objective, the real aim of the exercise is to fashion the official machinery in a way in which it becomes subservient to the party and works to strengthen the party and its functionaries. The district-level government officer will thus, in effect, become a loyal party worker!

This is not the first time a state government has sought to provide more powers to district-level officers. In West Bengal, similar exercises have been undertaken over the last 35 years, first under successive Left Front governments and then the Trinamool Congress government. But there is an essential difference between the approach of West Bengal governments under the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress and that deployed by the TRS government. While the apparatchiks of the Left Front overwhelmed the district administration through their sheer numbers and pushed for land re-distribution programmes and other schemes to empower sharecroppers in the 1980s, the government apparatus was allowed to remain as it was, while being rendered ineffective and irrelevant.

But what the TRS government led by KCR has done is to dismantle the official administrative machinery and destroyed it altogether. This may cause irretrievable damage to the quality of administrative and defeat the very purpose for which he has created many new, small districts.

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