Leading the change
Through their creativity, innovative skills, and problem-solving approach, District Officers can transform the lives of people by facilitating good governance
Citizens in any nation expect good governance from the government. This requires the formulation of policies which will solve the grievances of the people and also bring about the economic development of the state and the country. However, it is often said that policies are good but implementation is the problem. Execution of government policies and implementing projects and schemes and giving good administration to the citizens is the responsibility of the civil service. Civil servants advise the political executive in policy formulation and once a decision has been taken, it is their job to see that it is implemented in letter and spirit. The IAS along with officers of the state services has a very crucial role to play in getting things done at the ground level. The most important institution which performs this task is that of the District Magistrate who across various states are known as District Collectors, Deputy Commissioners or District Officers. The term Collector is a legacy of the colonial regime when the collection of revenue was the primary duty at the district level. This is no longer true and the term Collector does sound like an anachronism. The district officer today coordinates all activities at the district level and, therefore, we will use the term District Officer in this article as it best signifies the role that the officer performs at the district level.
The institution of the District Officer has faced scrutiny over the years but it has evolved and gained strength as it has the faith and confidence of the people and it is the single point at the district level to solve their problems. During the colonial regime, this post was vested with a lot of powers and had direct control over all the departments at the district level including the police. However, governance has become more complex and now every department has its own line functionaries at the district level who report to the departmental head at the state level. The role of the District Officer is now to coordinate the activities of all the departments at the district level and ensure that the government schemes are implemented effectively. Even though direct authority over the departmental officers is no longer there the role of the District Officer has become increasingly more important. Every department involves the District Officer in the implementation of its schemes and it is his leadership quality which makes the difference at the district level. The leadership quality required involves the capacity to build a team at the district level, align them with the goals of the government, develop a work culture which is responsive and accountable to the citizens, ensure transparency in government work, motivate the employees to give the best and deliver results and outcomes.
The job of the District Officers today is not merely maintaining the status quo but he is an agent of change. He has to use his creativity, innovative skills and problem-solving approach to bring about a quality change in the lives of the people of the district and bring about overall development. It is one post in the IAS which gives you a great opportunity to transform the quality of the lives of the people and make a difference to every person living in the district. There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the District Officers and also a great opportunity to make a difference in society. No wonder this is one of the most sought-after postings in the IAS. This job is so enriching and can give so much satisfaction that after retirement if you talk to an IAS officer he will remember his days as a District Officer and the initiatives he took to influence the lives of the people. People join the IAS to become District Officers. The institution has evolved and various Prime Ministers have hailed the contribution made by the District officers to the process of development.
My experience has shown that young District Officers have come out with innovative ideas which they have implemented at the district level which has brought about quality governance. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation about these achievements and the general public is not aware of the kind of work many young officers are putting into the service of the nation. It is in this light that I must appreciate the governance awards given recently by The Indian Express to outstanding works done by young District Officers and celebrating them as agents of change. It was heartening to see that the Union Home Minister was himself present to give away the awards and many important people attended the function. The awards appreciated the innovative solutions to governance challenges at the district level across the country. The Union Home Minister said that development envisaged by the Constitution is only possible through good governance at the district level through the institution of the District Officer. The award-winning District Officers did innovative governance in areas like providing telemedicine to villages, quality education, disaster management, micro irrigation in terrorist-infested districts and others. There is another organization called ‘Nexus for Good’ founded by ex-IAS officer Anil Swarup which has done a great job in documenting the outstanding works done by the young IAS officers in various capacities in the government. Yet, much more documentation and recognition of the work done by young District Officers is required to inspire other officers and make the people aware of the excellent work being done by them.
The pandemic was one challenge where many District Officers responded using all their leadership qualities, as under the pandemic act it was the District Officer who was responsible for all aspects related to the handling of Covid. There are many success stories in this regard. The vaccination programme was such a success because of the exemplary leadership of the District Officers. There have been officers who eliminated manual scavenging and there have been others who created online grievance redressal systems to solve the problems of the citizens. I recall implementing a literacy project in Agra where 5.50 lakh adult non-literates in the age group of 15 to 45 were made literate through purely voluntary efforts using the young boys and girls of the District. I also recall starting the computerization of land records in the districts where I was posted which later on became a template for other districts to follow. The mettle of the District Officers is genuinely tested when he conducts free and fair elections and also handles natural calamities like floods, droughts and earthquakes.
The young District Officers must realise that this post affords them a tremendous opportunity to bring about a positive change in society. They should work with total honesty, integrity and dedication and should focus on the development of the underprivileged sections of society. The institutions need to be further strengthened and a reasonable tenure given to the District Officers so that they can make a mark. The work done by them and the best practices must be documented to make people aware of their work and serve as an inspiration to young officers. The District Officers must utilize their time in the districts to touch the lives of the poorest of the poor and make a transformative contribution to society.