The State has sufficient powers under relevant land revenue legislation to create and define districts, sub-divisions of districts and even villages. The answer probably lies in the way land revenue legislation evolved. Since states can create and change districts, the number of districts varies.
Though not explicitly stated, more districts are presumably created for administrative convenience and delivering public goods and services better.
When deciding on new districts, there are obvious criteria like population, geographical area and the distance from district headquarters. But the right answer isn’t always obvious. Once revenue laws have determined districts, government development programmes work through DRDAs (District Rural Development Agency), at least on the rural side; there are also elected representatives, through zila panchayats or parishads (ZPs) or district councils, further down to blocks and villages.
Once there is a new district, barring time-lags, there will also be a new ZP, through the relevant state election commission. Think of various entities involved in a district’s development — the district collector/district magistrate/district Commissioner, the DRDA, the MP, multiple MLAs and ZPs. Unless they work together, a lot of resources, not just financial, will be frittered away.
Because of the DRDA structure, it probably works at the district level. Making the ZP president the chairperson of the DRDA doesn’t necessarily mean the ZP works in tandem with the DRDA. Below the district level, works rarely get done at all.
There are 182 gram panchayats and 1522 wards. At the district level, one can at least argue the DRDA chairperson has oversight about the district’s development and MPs or MLAs are part of the DRDA. In principle, it should be possible to work on district-level planning. That’s true even if the DRDAs are replaced by something like rural development cells in ZPs, to function as district planning committees.
Going back to the 1950s, government development programmes are through community development blocks (CD blocks), under the overall charge of a BDO (block development officer). Let’s take Goa as an example. The sub-unit of a district is a revenue division and the sub-unit of a revenue division is a Taluka.
Other than the BDO, there is the Zilla Panchayat. Sure, the BDO, MP and MLAs are members of the panchayat samiti. But there isn’t a sense that there is a coherent governance structure at the panchayat level, straddling the elected, the executive and land and revenue administration, the last specifically mentioned because development typically requires land issues to be sorted out. Stated differently — no single entity is clearly responsible for a block’s development.
That argument extends lower down, to the gram panchayat, and these have got a substantial amount of resources, courtesy the Fourteenth Finance Commission.
What’s hampering development is a lack of devolution of functions, funds and functionaries, convergence and separate cadres. Perhaps those are prerequisites before one can answer the question.
Decentralised planning is meant to start from below and “below” doesn’t mean the district. Gram panchayats/gram sabhas are supposed to have several “planning” functions. The intention is to make planning participatory. But unlike the district, and like the block, we don’t have a coherent governance and administrative structure. Unlike even the panchayat , there is no direct link between the executive and the elected in the gram panchayat.
Thus, unlike the district, who “owns” the planning and development functions in gram panchayats? I don’t think anyone does. Hence, whenever we talk about decentralised planning, we tend to think of districts — and nothing below.