A district has been the basic territorial administrative unit in India since times immemorial. The Mauryas were the first to constitute a district as the most important territorial unit where all the powers concentrated in a single officer called the Rajuka at its hierarchic apex. All the succeeding powers whether they were the Guptas, the Mughals or the British—in one way or the other worked on the administrative pattern set up by the Mauryas. The British, in fact, had consolidated their territories generally according the existing districts. Today, India is a classic pluralistic society and a massive federal polity, a republic with 28 States and 7 Union Territories constituting of 535 Administrative Districts. Chamber's dictionary defines a district as "a sub-division of a division" while the Oxford defines it as i "territory marked off for special administrative purpose". Thus, a district can be defined as "a sufficiently large territory with an overall unity, governed by common historical, geographical spatial and economic conditions". The size of a district can vary from place to place, as per the need but on an average the size of a district can be taken to be about 40,000 square miles.
At the district level, the common man comes into direct contact with the administration. A district in India has been placed under the charge of a district officer called either as the Deputy Commissioner, District Collector or the District Magistrate (if he is endowed with judicial powers too). This officer has been called as the eyes, ears and arms of the State Government.
A district collector is normally a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) at the senior level and is the highest and the essential functionary of the state government at the district level. Presently, his functions and duties can be divided into four categories—as a collector, as a district administrator, as a district magistrate and as a district development officer. In olden days, a collector's main duty was the collection of government's dues and land revenues and thus he got the name Collector. But today, his duties have expanded and powers have been enlarged. He supervises the collection of nearly all the government dues, excise revenue, mining cess and royalties, government loans, cop-operatives dues, water rates etc. He is also responsible for the collection of canal dues, distribution of agricultural loans and their recovery, relief of fire sufferers, all matters relating to land records, land acquisition, supervision of treasury and sub-treasuries, enforcement of Stamp Act etc. Besides being a collector of government dues, he is the head of revenue administration and is the king-pin of the relief operations in the district.
As a district officer and administrator, he is also responsible for posting, transfer and leave of the tehsildars and naib-tehsildars, dealing with pension cases of district staff, controlling, drawing and disbursing officers of the district staff, incharge of the treasury, and district stamp officer, acts as the chief protocol officer in the circuit house, to supervise the proper conducting of the civil suits in which states are a party, to appoint the district government counsels, and a panel of lawyers, interaction with members of public and officials, looking after the interests of the government in general and to ensure that public grievances against the government are effectively dealt with. He, in short, is the principal agency of government in matters of general administration in a district.
As a district officer (DO), he exercises control over field officers through his visits to sub-divisions and tehsil headquarters. He is the head of the rationing system of the government in the district and is expected to control black-marketing and ensure timely and equitable distribution of essential and controlled commodities.
The judicial functions of the collector have been greatly reduced with the separation of judiciary from the executive. He still continues to hear appeals against the orders of SDO and other sub-ordinate officers in respect of revenues, supply, arms and other miscellaneous matters under different special enactments. As a district magistrate, his main functions are to control and supervise the subordinate magistracy, to order magisterial postings during festivals, to make jail inspections, grant of superior classes to prisoners, release of prisoners on parole, as head of criminal administration of the district to control and direct the actions of the police, inspection of police stations once a year, labour problems, grant and cancellations of many kinds of licenses, recommendations on the issue of passport and visa, issue of permits for cutting trees, issue of certificates for domicile, scheduled and backward classes etc. He also executes National Security Act and Crime Control Act. A few other duties are now emerging gradually. He is normally now the District Development Officer. He is, therefore/now the incharge of famine works, anti-poverty programmes, the new 20-point programmes etc.
Thus, we see the powers and duties of a collector have increased in capacity, area and ambit. The quality of administration depends upon how the common man feels at this level when he comes in direct contact and touch with the administration. The district has been placed under a very powerful and capable unit of administration and it depends upon the ability of the officer and his/her administrative capacity the overall development of that district.