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The district is the principal subdivision within the state (union territories are not subdivided). There are 476 districts in India; the districts vary in size and population. The average size of a district is approximately 4,300 square kilometers, and the average population numbered nearly 1.8 million in the early 1990s. The district collector, a member of the Indian Administrative Service, is the preeminent official in the district (see The Civil Service, this ch.). During the colonial period, the collector was responsible for collecting revenue and maintaining law and order. In the 1990s, the collector's role in most states is confined to heading the district revenue department and coordinating the efforts of the other departments, such as agriculture, irrigation, public works, forestry, and public health, that are responsible for promoting economic development and social welfare.

Districts are subdivided into taluqs or tehsils , areas that contain from 200 to 600 villages. The taluqdar or tehsildar , who serves in much the same capacity as the collector, is the chief member of the taluq revenue department and is the preeminent official at this level. Economic development and social welfare departments are also likely to have offices at the taluq level. Although the revenue department may have village representatives, generally known as patwaris (village record-keepers), to maintain land records, the development and welfare departments generally do not have offices below the taluq level.

Article 40 of the constitution directs the government to establish panchayats to serve as institutions of local self-government. Most states began implementing this Directive Principle along the lines of the recommendations of the government's Balwantrai Mehta Commission report. According to these recommendations, the popularly elected village council (gram panchayat ) is the basic unit. Village council chairs, elected by the members of the village council, serve as members of the block council (panchayat samiti ). A block is a large subunit of a district. In some states, blocks are coterminous with taluqs or tehsils . In other states, taluqs or tehsils are divided into blocks. The district council (zilla parishad ) is the top level of the system. Its jurisdiction includes all village and block councils within a district. Its membership includes the block council chairs.

Deficient in funds and authority, the panchayats in most states were largely inactive until the late 1970s. However, efforts were then initiated to reinvigorate the panchayats . West Bengal led the way by transferring substantial funds and authority over rural development projects to the panchayats and then holding popular elections for panchayat representatives at all three levels in which political parties were allowed to field candidates for the first time. In the mid-1980s, the state of Karnataka also made important efforts to revive the panchayats .

In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi's government took two major initiatives designed to enhance the panchayats' role in local government and economic development. It initiated the Jawahar Employment Plan (Jawahar Rozgar Yojana), which provided funding directly to village councils to create jobs for the unemployed through public works projects. Rajiv Gandhi's government also proposed the Sixty-fourth Amendment Bill to make it mandatory for all states to establish a three-tiered (village, block, and district) system of panchayats in which representatives would be directly elected for five-year terms. Panchayats were to be given expanded authority and funding over local development efforts. Despite the popular appeal of transferring power to panchayats , the Sixty-fourth Amendment Bill was rejected by the Rajya Sabha. Its hasty introduction in an election year made it appear to be a popular gimmick. Opposition to the bill also arose from those who feared that the transfer of authority from state governments to panchayats was designed to reduce the power of state legislatures under opposition control and promote "greater centralization through decentralization" by enabling the central government to establish direct relations with panchayats .

On December 22, 1992, the Congress (I) government passed the Seventy-third Amendment, which gave panchayats constitutional status (previously panchayat matters were considered a state subject). The amendment also institutionalized a three-tiered system of panchayats (except for states with a population of less than 2 million), with panchayats at the village, block, and district levels. The amendment also stipulated that all panchayat members be elected for five-year terms in elections supervised by state election commissions.

The 26 percent of the population living in urban areas are governed by municipal corporations and municipal councils. The municipal corporations governing the larger cities are composed of elected councils and a president or mayor elected from within the council. The state governor appoints a commissioner who acts as the chief executive of the municipal corporation. The municipal councils administering the smaller cities have elected committees or boards. The municipal government is responsible for education, health, sanitation, safety, and maintaining roads and other public facilities. The country's municipal governments have long been troubled, in part because of their limited authority and lack of funds. The frequent intervention of state governments to suspend the activities of municipal administrations has also undermined them. For instance, state or union territory governments suspended the elected bodies of forty-four out of sixty-six municipal corporations in 1986. The Seventy-fourth Amendment was passed in December 1992 in order to revive municipal governments. Among other things, it mandates that elections for municipal bodies must be held within six months of the date of their dissolution. The amendment also provides for financial review of the municipalities in order to enable recommendations concerning the distribution of proceeds from taxes, duties, tolls, and fees.

Data as of September 1995

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