Politics, but also grassroots governance — why India has gained 50 new districts since 2020

Former Union minister Veerappa Moily, who was the chairman of the second Administrative Reforms Commission, feels such decisions cannot be faulted even if they are guided by apparent political motives.

“Smaller districts help take the administration to the grassroots. The more districts you create, the more you take administration nearer to the people. That is the fundamental rationale and it is a good rationale,” he said.

These moves, he said, are often a response to the demands and aspirations of the people — and that is politics. “Politics is not just parties clashing in electoral contests. The commanding principle is bringing administration closer to the people,” Moily added. 

Meanwhile, according to retired civil servant Shailaja Chandra, who has served in various capacities at the Centre and in states, the creation of new districts was bound to happen.

“Some Indian states are nearly as big as some countries in Western Europe in terms of area. After all, people want their area to get attention and it comes by virtue of it attaining the status of a district,” Chandra told ThePrint.

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Newly formed districts

In April 2022, the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh doubled the number of districts in the state from 13 to 26.

Five months later, in September 2022, the Bhupesh Baghel government in Chhattisgarh created five new districts — Mohla-Manpur-Ambagarh Chowki, Sarangarh-Bilaigarh, Khairagarh-Chhuikhadan-Gandai, Manendragarh-Chirmiri-Bharatpur and Sakti.

On 25 August this year, the Assam cabinet announced the creation of four new districts — Biswanath, Hojai, Bajali and Tamulpur. This came right after the Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh government notified Mauganj as a district. Rajasthan, which is also headed for assembly elections, had set up 17 new districts earlier that month.

Other than these, between 2020 and 2023, Punjab (Malerkotla), Karnataka (Vijayanagara), Tamil Nadu (Mayiladuthurai), and Arunachal Pradesh (Itanagar) witnessed the creation of one district each. Nagaland, meanwhile, saw the creation of five new districts — Noklak, Chümoukedima, Niuland, Tseminyü and Shamator — in the state’s first such move since three districts were notified in 2003, the data shows. 

Political implications 

Nearly every such announcement has led to the respective state governments inviting charges of indulging in “political gimmicks” for the sake of votes. So, if in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress is the one levelling the allegation against the BJP, it’s the reverse in Rajasthan.

Before the move last month, the last time a new district was created in Rajasthan was in 2008, when a BJP government led by then chief minister Vasundhara Raje had carved out Pratapgarh from Banswara, Chittorgarh and Udaipur. 

With the latest reorganisation of districts by the Ashok Gehlot government, ThePrint’s analysis finds that most of the new districts formed were in regions where the Congress did well in 2018, and Gehlot’s move appears to be an attempt to consolidate the party’s gains. This can be gauged by the fact that Mewar, which has traditionally been a BJP stronghold, got only one new district.

After Gehlot’s announcement in March, Raje sought to buttress the point on expenditure, alleging that the government’s decision had put the state’s finances at stake. But for the ruling Congress, it has come as an opportunity to boost its political prospects, as many of these districts were long-pending demands.

According to both Moily and Chandra, the cost implications cannot hold up such decisions keeping the “long-term gains” in mind.  

“Just because the creation of a new district entails a rise in administrative cost, you cannot deny people their demands and rights. We must remember that some people had said reorganisation of states in terms of language would lead to the disintegration of the country. But it was a successful experiment and helped integrate the country, as the ruling class responded to the aspirations of the people,” said Moily. 

Chandra asserted that the creation of a new district also vests in its people a “sense of ownership and pride”. However, immediate political gains or lobbies dictating such decisions are undesirable, she added. 

“In the case of Rajasthan, it obviously comes across as a decision triggered by the need for immediate political gains. Why could not they do it before, maybe in phases? But even then it cannot be termed a wrong decision per se,” Chandra said. 

“Obviously there was a public demand for it. If there is a demand and the authorities see some virtue in that, the expenses that will come along are peanuts compared to the overall expenditure that goes on in running a government,” she added.

Moreover, the creation of new districts also entails a spike in expenditure, as it involves the creation of new government posts, such as district collectors and superintendents of police among others, and the building of new collectorate offices. In other words, every new district comes with a whole new administrative apparatus, Chandra said.    

According to her — because everything in a district ultimately revolves around the collector, however strong the local MP or MLA may be — the tasks of implementing all government schemes, carrying out development work, and maintaining law and order lie very substantially with the collector. 

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Impact on governance, development

Does the creation of new districts improve governance? The evidence isn’t clear.  

Before last month, the average size of the districts in Rajasthan was 10,370 sq km, more than double the national average of 4,198 sq km, government records show. After the creation of the new districts, the average size has been reduced to 6,844 sq km, which will bring governance closer to home for many — at least on paper.

Despite this, the drop in the average population per district in Rajasthan has been marginal — from 18.9 lakh in 2011 to 18.2 lakh (estimated) in 2023 — due to population growth.   

The creation of the new districts in Andhra Pradesh, too, helped in bringing down the average area per district from 12,323 sq km — which was the highest in the country — by half to 6,161 sq km. It was among Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s major pre-poll promises. 

But the approach of the YSRCP government in this regard led to a great deal of criticism, with opposition parties as well as civil society groups alleging that the exercise was carried out without holding wider consultations.  

Yamini Aiyar, president of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, argues that in the absence of data, whether or not the creation of new districts helps improve governance remains an open empirical question, and that reduction of the size of a district cannot be the sole criterion guiding such decisions.   

“On paper, the creation of smaller districts makes eminent sense. But size is only one parameter that we are looking at,” Aiyar told ThePrint. 

One also needs to look at whether it goes hand in hand with capacity building and strengthening of local bodies, she said.

“By capacity building, I am referring to the need for higher funding, pumping in more trained human resources and putting in place a generally responsive and accountable administrative structure,” Aiyar added. 

(Edited by Richa Mishra)

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