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The Royal Commission upon Decentralization

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In India the Provinces came into existence first and the Central Government came much later. What was then known as the Supreme Government could emerge only under the Regulating Act of 1773. Following the transfer of power of governance from the East India Company to the Crown in 1858, the power and functions of the Central Government in India began to expand steadily making the provinces more and more dependent on it. Governmental administration was becoming growingly centralized. Centralisation touched new heights under Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India during 1894-1904 and 1904-05. Departments after department, service after service was over-hauled. Principles were executed and standards were set causing excessive concentration of authority in the hands of Central Government. The Central Government had imposed detailed financial and administrative restrictions on the provinces, which fettered them in their plans of individual development. As a result, administrative behaviour got marked by loss of touch between officials and the people.


To contain the resultant unrest among the people, the Royal Commission upon Decentralisation was appointed in 1907 under the chairmanship of Sir Henry William Primrose. It was a six-member body including the Chairman, other five members being Frederic Lely, Steyning Edgerley, Romesh Chunder Dutt, William Meyer and William Hichons.

The Royal Commission upon Decentralization in India was appointed on 12 September 1907 to inquire into the relations now existing for financial and administrative purposes between the Supreme Government (i.e., the Government of India) and the various Provincial Governments in India, and between the Provincial Governments and the authorities subordinate to them and to report whether, by measures of decentralization or otherwise, those relations can be simplified and improved, and the system of Government better adapted both to meet the requirements and promote the welfare of the different provinces and, without improving its strength and unity, to bring the executive power into closer touch with local conditions’. The Commission submitted its report in February 1909. The terms of reference mandated the Commission to inquire primarily into the financial and administrative relations existing between:

  1. The Government of India and the Provincial Governments

  2. The Provincial Governments and the authorities subordinate to them.

The report falls under three heads. Part I deals mainly with the relation between the Government of India and the Provincial Governments. Part II deals mainly with the relations between Provincial Governments and their officials. Part III deals with village organisation and local self-Government. There are in all twenty chapters, divided into 873 paragraphs.

The Provincial Governments, with the exception of Bombay , were content with the general lines of the prevalent system, but all held that there was an excessive interference by the Government of India in matters of detail. The Commission made the following significant observation on the Indian administration:

…We are of the opinion that, both the Government of India and the Provincial Governments have hitherto been too much dominated by considerations of administrative efficiency. They have, we think, paid too little regard to the importance of developing a strong sense of responsibility amongst their subordinate agents, and of giving sufficient weight to local sentiments and traditions. In our opinion, the burden of work could be materially diminished if the Indian Government were to refrain from interfering in unnecessary detail with the actions of the authorities subordinate to them, an interference which results in large measure in every administrative authority in India having to do over again work already accomplished at a state below. Future policy should be directed to steadily enlarging the spheres of detailed administration entrusted to Provincial Governments and the authorities subordinate to them, and of recognising that they must definitely dispose of an increasing share of the ordinary work of Government.

The Commission expressed its concern at the increase in the Secretariat establishments.

We would also draw attention to the gradual increase of Secretariat establishments in India, this increase of establishments represents increase of work which is, no doubt, to some extent inevitable, the material, intellectual and political advance of the country bringing up new questions or necessitating the consideration of old ones, and calling for elaboration and specialisation in the various branches of the public services; while there is a growing tendency, on the part of all affected by the actions of Government officials, to appeal to the highest executive tribunal open to them. At the same time…there has been an unmistakable tendency on the part of all Secretariats to interfere in unnecessary detail with the action of the authorities subordinate to them.

Reports and returns were a passion even during this period. The Commission remarked: It appears to us that reports and returns are unduly numerous, and occasionally too elaborate.

The Commission found widespread evasion of the tenure system of staffing of the Secretariat and wanted its stricter enforcement. It wrote:

We have received evidence as to the tendency to keep an officer who has shown himself useful in Secretariat work upon this kind of duty, with the result that the Secretariats are not in sufficient touch with the difficulties of district officers and the needs of the districts, and tend to develop a paper government marked by undesirable uniformity and rigidity It seems clear, however, that steps should be taken to prevent an officer, however useful he may be in that capacity, from spending too much of his time in Secretariat or headquarters services. This constant flux and reflux of officers between the Government of India and the Local Governments with the superior posts in the Government of India Secretariat, go to men conversant with conditions in the Provinces.

The Commission sought an enlargement of the sphere of Provincial Governments. It also visualised a bigger role for the Provincial Governmental Institutions. It observed: It is most desirable to constitute and develop village panchayats for the administration of certain local affairs within the village. This system must, however, be gradually and cautiously worked. The headman of the village where one is recognised should be ex officio Chairman of the Panchayat, other members should be obtained by a system of informal election by the villagers. The Panchayat should be a small body of about five members, and only in exceptional circumstances should different villages be brought under the same panchayat’. It is also worth noting that the Commission envisaged a body at the sub-district level, that is, at the tehsil or taluka level. The proposed sub-district board anticipates the kshetra Samiti or the panchayat samiti of today.

We think that sub-district boards should be universally established, and that they should be the principal agencies in rural board administration. Ordinarily, a sub-district board should be established for each taluka or tehsil, but where sub-divisional boards have been working, or may be made to work, satisfactorily, the sub-division may remain the jurisdiction area. We do not, however, propose to abolish district boards or to make them mere councils of delegates from the sub-district boards for the settlement of matters of common interest. Nor, on the other hand, do we desire to place sub-district boards entirely under the control of the board for the whole district. We suggest a scheme under which the sub-district boards will have independent resources, separate spheres of duty, and larger responsibilities within these, while the district board, beside undertaking some direct functions for which it seems specially fitted, will possess coordinating and financial powers in respect of the district as a whole.

The Commission’s other major recommendations concerning the Central Government are summarised below:

  1. Provincial Governments should be subject in all respects to the general control of the Government of India, and their functions and powers should be varied by the Central Government or by the Secretary of State.

  2. Future policy should be directed to the enlargement of the spheres of detailed administration entrusted to Provincial Governments and the authorities subordinate to them.

  3. While, in present circumstances, we are generally satisfied with the financial relations now existing between the Government of India and the local Governments, we suggest

i)     That when fixed assignments in any province become unduly large, they should be commuted, as circumstances permit, into shares of growing revenue;

ii)    That when the revenues of provincial Government require general increase, this might be provided by gradually provincialising certain heads of revenue which are now divided;

iii)    That in respect of services for which they pay wholly or in part, Provincial Governments should receive the powers lately granted to Government of India as regards creation of appointments and alteration in their emoluments.

  1. The Commission suggested further enhancement of the powers of the Government of India, and of Provincial Governments in respect to the creation of new appointments and the raising of salaries.

  2. The restrictions on Provincial Governments in respect to the abolition of appointments or reduction in their emoluments, and to the creation, abolition, or reduction in pay of classes or grades of officers, should be done away with in the case of ‘Provincial’ and ‘Subordinate’ Services.

  3. If the provincial legislature obtains an effective control over provincial finances, the Commission considered that it would be necessary here after

(i) To give the provinces more distinct sources of revenue and greater powers over their budgets;

(ii) To allow Provincial Governments to impose special provincial taxation, subject to the preliminary sanction of the Government of India and the Secretary of State.

(iii) To give them large latitude in regard to appointments belonging to Provincial and Subordinate Services.

  1. The Commission recommended that the civil service regulations needed to be thoroughly         revised in accordance with the following principle:

(i) A number of rules are rigid and complicated, especially those relating to leave, traveling allowances and foreign services;

(ii) In respect of officers serving under them, Provincial Governments should usually have the same power to relax ordinary rules in special cases as is enjoyed by the Government of India;

(iii) The Provincial Governments should be allowed to delegate more responsibility to their lower formations namely Boards of Revenue, Heads of Provincial Departments, and Divisional Commissioners, large powers being vested in them.

  1. The Civil Account Code was unnecessarily minute and should be revised so as to confine it to the rules of procedure necessary from the point of view of imperial finance.

  2. Account rules and procedure and audit requirements should be simpler in the case of expenditure incurred by local bodies than in the case of Direct Government outlay.

  3. In land revenue, and in all other matters, rules which an Act permits to be made by a Provincial Government should be subject merely to the general control of the Government of India, and not to its previous sanction. 

  4. The Inspector-General of Forests should cease to be a de facto Deputy Secretary to the Government of India, and be simply an advisory and inspecting officer.

  5. In regard to the police, the control of the Government of India, apart from that vested in it by financial rules, should be limited to the prescription of general principles and lines of policy. Nor should it exercise any special control over ‘provincial’, and ‘subordinate’ police establishments in the provinces. Any material alteration in the police laws should be effected by provincial legislation.

  6. While desiring to maintain the Indian Medical Service as an imperial and essentially military organisation, the Commission recommended that Provincial Governments should have larger control over the Commissioned medical officers doing civil work in the provinces. In particular, they should be able to select the heads of their medical and sanitary departments.

  7. The Commission laid stress on the danger of Imperial Inspectors-General-who should be mainly confined to technical functions, inspections, and the giving of advice and information-being allowed usurping any administrative control in respect to provincial departments.

  8. The officers, of imperial services must retain a right of appeal against orders of a Provincial Government, which affect them prejudicially.

  9. As a means of reducing reports and returns, the Commission suggested a fresh inquiry similar to that set up by Lord Curzon’s administration, which should be of five years.

Executive Summary

Too much centralisation, particularly in financial and administrative matters led to the appointment of the Royal Commission upon Decentralization in India (1907-1909). The Royal Commission surveyed the relation between the Government of India and the Provincial Governments and also between the latter and the authorities subordinate to them and recommended a series of measures having for their object the relaxation of control by higher authorities and the simplification of administrative methods.

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