Cut the district collector down to size

The post-colonial state must be challenged

Sixty years after independence, the District Collector—the name and the position a construct of the British colonial government—remains all powerful.

This unelected official, ostensibly free of political bias, has the power to decide what you cannot watch on television. The district collector of Ahmedabad has banned several television channels showing footage of the Tehelka sting. Now, how some channels handled the broadcast is questionable. But the district collector of Ahmedabad shouldn’t be the one with the power to tune the channels out.

India needs to sort out the balance of power between the citizen and the state. India’s governments have been only too keen to ban this channel, that book and the other movie. Concerned citizens should take this executive overreach to the courts. Long live the district collector. But death to his untrammelled powers.

13 thoughts on “Cut the district collector down to size”

  1. Is it not the same executive in the case of UP elections few months back, banned the controversial CD allegedly brought out by BJP ?

    How the media handled then can be questioned with the light of this Tehelka episode and ahmedabad collector banning the TV channels.

  2. It is in the interests of the political powers to keep the district collector powerful as demonstrated in this case. There is no political will to debate the over-arching powers of the unelected bureaucrats. The unholy nexus does work conveniently for both the parties involved.

  3. You said
    > Concerned citizens should take this executive overreach to the courts

    Do you mean a PIL filed in court ?

  4. The district collector is THE person with the knowledge of the situation on the ground. He should have the powers to take such measures as he deems fit to prevent the outbreak of violence in his jurisdiction. Visual imagery — particularly television — has great inflmmatory potential, and the problem is further compounded by the fact that there is no regulatory code that keeps our media disciplined. Recall the mob violence perpetrated on a Delhi teacher recently because of a fradulent “sting”. Recall also the riots and killings caused by pictures allegedly showing the burning of Quran. A civil servant is accountable in the end to what happens in his area of authority, but in what way is a media tending on the roguish side accountable? Bloodshed and possible loss of life in violence are far more serious matters of concern than blacking out a nasty TV channel for a day or two.

  5. Oldtimer,

    While fully understanding the need for the district collector to do what is necessary to ensure law and order, I’d vehemently disagree vesting that officer with the power to ban and censor the media. If extenuating circumstances if such measures are required, what’s preventing the executive from seeking a judicial injunction? As it stands now, there are absolutely no safeguards, no checks and balances on what the district collector does with his powers. Like in Ahmedabad, citizens didn’t have a clue where the orders came from. That sounds more like the country Gujarat shares a border with.

  6. Sorry for persisting:

    >>As it stands now, there are absolutely no safeguards, no checks and balances on what the district collector does with his powers.

    And there are no checks and balances on the media either. Furthermore, the lack of checks and balances on the collector is not known to have caused great public harm, but the destructive powers of the media are much in evidence.

    Obtaining judicial injunctions makes sense, but ought to be complemented with a regulatory code for media. These injunctions need to be obtained in real-time — right when Barkha Dutt is flagging a burning Quran for all to see, for example — and that requires an elaborate infrastructure, which can only be avoided by making sure that there’s a reasonable chance that there is no need for it.

    A regulatory code for the media remains the best bet, failing which, a (judicial or administrative) mechanism that demands explantion from the executive _after_ the fact.

  7. Oldtimer,

    There’s a fundamental difference between checks and balances on a government official (or branch), and the media. The government, not least the district collector, is a monopoly. It has no competition. It has immense, direct, palpable, violent power.

    The media—for all its irresponsibilities—is very different. You and I can start a television station tomorrow, and broadcast whatever we like. But you and I can’t set up a parallel district collector’s office tomorrow and do whatever we like. (Well, the latter is not strictly true, as Nagaland and the Naxalite infested areas exemplify).

    the lack of checks and balances on the collector is not known to have caused great public harm

    Depends what you mean by harm. To the extent that the district collector represents the post-colonial state (the government is the “ruler”, the citizen is the “subject”), I think it has.

  8. Nitin,

    The District Collector is held responsible – formally – for the overall law & order situation in the District. As long as that holds true, he has to be given powers commensurate with that responsibility.

    If you cut him down to size, make sure that his burden of responsibilities is also eased a bit.

    On a slightly unrelated note.. we have tens of 24 hour news channels now.. all of them showing the same trash all the time. Start a news channel soon, please 🙂

  9. BOK

    The District Collector is held responsible – formally – for the overall law & order situation in the District.

    What about law & order in the state, and in the whole country? Who is formally responsible for this? And does that person have untramelled powers too?

    But I agree with the point that powers and accountability have to be consistent. That’s why my argument is one of re-balance; to retain the district collector, and even give him powers. The emphasis is on the word untramelled, rather than on powers.

  10. Nitin,

    I think your tirade against the District Collector is a bit knee jerk! First we don’t know whether the DC took the decision on his own or was ordered to. Anyway, it is exactly the job of DCs, DMs and SPs to maintain law and order in districts. Preventing rumors and hate material gets top billing in any place in the midst of a riot or heading towards one. Channels like AajTak are any DCs worst nightmare. If Ahmedabad DC decided to be safe than sorry, he is only doing his job.

    Media once in a while gets into this “we know everything” and “we’ll criticize everything” mode. I think its the journalist in you, who is taking on the DC.

  11. Nitin

    Your method of limiting untrammelled powers in one person is to take the matter to another person with similar untrammelled powers simply because the latter is a bit more sympathetic to the press (since it improves their chances at promotion).

    The problem is not with untrammelled powers. Far be it the power is restricted by statute and court, and superior authority who can be approached for redressing the greivance.

    …and even injunctions cannot be enforced by a Court unless it uses the power of contempt. For enforcing any order, a Court is dependent on the Executive to carry it out. If the Executive is reduced to a body that is incapable of doing anything without a court order, the governance of this country will be shot to pieces in a few weeks.

  12. Unfortunately any political system is only as good as the combined effectiveness of each of its individual components, coupled with a vigilant public oversight. If the elements in the package are not strong, then aberrations occur. But fortunately enough in the recent years, these elements have all been getting stronger and ever more vigilant, across the country. Maybe ten or fifteen years back the Collector could have actually done this and got away.

    For all its flaws, our post-colonial administrative system has enough inbuilt checks and balances, both between agencies and within the bureaucracy itself, to take care of the fears of an all powerful District Collector. In fact, I personally do not think the District Collector is vested with any draconian power, which is not adequately restrained by appropriate checks and balances. Fortunately these checks and balances are becoming more robust every day – judiciary, RTI Act, vigilant press, bureaucratic oversight etc. And administration is increasingly becoming or is being forced into greater transparency, as these checks and balances become more vibrant. Though excesses by all the agencies in the public domain are common, it is only that executive excesses get highlighted more (and I hold that it should be so).

    I have no idea what happened in Ahmedabad, (I quite regularly come across cases of mis-reporting and even blatantly taking liberties with facts in news reports, to believe the black and white version) but it is certainly not quite as simple as the Collector deciding what we cannot watch on TV. Surely all of us will agree on the following
    1. Law and order situations are inherently volatile, with potential for serious damage.
    2. Governments have the responsibility to maintain law and order.
    3. Maintaining law and order would, under very exceptional circumstances, involve forcing some form of self-restraint among the opinion makers.
    4. Some agent of the Government, acting in the field, should be empowered to enforce this self-restraint.
    5. But this action should be filtered through very transparent and rigorous procedural mechanism, so that there is an inherent deterrent on its misuse. There should also be robust mechanisms for post-event scrutiny of any such events.
    Further, from some experience of such situations, I will claim that an element of human judgement will have to be exercised and decisions taken, on certain critical occasions. Given this, the District Collector has to be adequately empowered to face such situations. But he has also got to be made responsible for his decisions, and here the role of the other aforementioned elements in our political system is important.

    If, in this case, as is being claimed, the District Collector acted on his own (or on the behest of somebody else) and suppressed freedom of expression, then there are enough instruments available to bring it to light – RTI, judiciary (WP/PIL), administrative action, Lok Ayukta, Press Council of India, political system, press, Election Commission etc. (And believe me, Gujrat is a volatile mileu of all these institutions today, for any such action to go unpunished) There have been instances of such issues being initially highlighted by one agency, only to be picked up by the others, and action being initiated against them.

    Finally, as Oscar Wilde (or was it Lord Byron) said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. Instead of throwing out the proverbial baby with the water bath, we need to have ever vigilant and active institutions in place that can act as healthy checks and balances within our system. And let me also add, believe me on this, the days of the bureaucracy and the executive taking law into their hands and acting as the custodians of public morality and individual choice, is fast disappearing.

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