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Aspirational Districts: Symbol of ModiNomics

Sameer Kochhar, Author of ModiNomics, Defeating Poverty and Reforms Historian

There's consensus now across the political and ideological divide that even in the high- growth years, a large section of the population was not receiving the dividends of the progress India has made. There are a number of deeply-entrenched factors because of which every Indian has not been able to benefit from the GDP growth India has seen in the last two and a half decades post-liberalisation in 1991.

There’s consensus now across the political and ideological divide that even in the high-growth years, a large section of the population was not receiving the dividends of the progress India has made. There are a number of deeply-entrenched factors because of which every Indian has not been able to benefit from the GDP growth India has seen in the last two and a half decades post-liberalisation in 1991.

This is why, despite being the fastest growing large economy, India’s performance on the Human Development Index (HDI) released by the UNDP to rank nations in terms of life expectancy, average income and years of schooling of its citizens remains modest. In 2016, India was placed at the 131th position among 188 nations ranked.

The crux of the Modinomics philosophy quite clearly is to take development to those Indians that have been left out of the progress made by the rest of the country in the 70 years since Independence. While this is true of every programme and scheme Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched, the NITI Aayog’s Aspirational Districts programme has highlighted that the incidence of under-development relative to the rest of the country is concentrated in 115 out of the total 172 districts considered the most backward in India.

Around 15 percent of India’s total population resides in these identified districts and these quite clearly are the areas that need special attention. But if only the proportion of the population that is most deprived is looked at, then it is largely residing in these districts. The reasons are obvious. These districts have by and large lagged behind the progress made in the rest of the country on parameters of health, nutrition, education, skills basic infrastructure and poverty.

The baseline statistics collected under the programme for measuring, activating policy attention and monitoring the progress thereafter on the chosen 49 indicators, comprising 81 data points, for each of the identified districts bring this out quite clearly. Vizianagram, Andhra Pradesh had emerged at the top of the baseline ranking. Mewat, Haryana was at the bottom.

Interestingly, despite criticism the Modi government faces from the usual suspects for being partial to the Hindi belt, the selection of districts for this programme shows that the programme has not favoured the North over the South.

The other aspect of the programme is that in each of these districts it has brought together governments at various levels—centre, state and local— for pooling financial and other resources and administering focused and intense policy attention to these areas. The social capital of ASHA, ANM and Anganwadi workers is being drawn upon.

The flow of funds and information is getting streamlined at each level, and better choices of schemes, tendering process etc are being made, depending on the stage of implementation. The funds and other resources available are getting topped up by the private sector under their Corporate Social Responsibility programmes and some of the local funds available such as the District Mineral Funds. These are being utilised for critical gap funding.

Since its launch in January 2018, two sets of rankings of the districts have already emerged. Kupwara district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir was languishing at the 108th position in the first ranking that came out in June 2018. But in just four months, in the second ranking released in December 2018, it reached the 7th position. Similarly, Siddharthnagar in Uttar Pradesh, one of the states that have been traditionally called the BIMARU states for their slow pace of socio-economic progress, has gone from the 103rd to the 3rd position in the same period.

The programme is crucial to improving the living standards of the over 200 million Indians – equivalent to the population of Brazil – that reside in these districts. Its success is key to improving India’s overall ranking in the Human Development Indices, and, more importantly, making India’s growth more equitable, and spreading development to every nook and corner of the country. This includes directing resources towards the border areas, areas affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE), hilly areas, areas with high forest cover, and areas with high tribal/SC/ST population. Plus, regional disparities will get addressed meaningfully, which is essential to preserve the social and economic fabric of the country that comes under threat when inequalities rise.

In other words, progress of the Aspirational Districts will be the game-changer for India, and the shining demonstration of what Modinomics aims to achieve.

It must be said that the idea of focusing on backward regions is not an entirely new innovation. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-I government had launched the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF) in 2007 for addressing regional imbalances and strengthening programme delivery by local-level institutions. But convergence proved difficult to deliver for the erstwhile Planning Commission.

A key difference now is the involvement of the 8,603 Gram Panchayats in the identified 115 districts that are covered in the Aspirational Districts Programme. And the use of behavioural science. The officials in a district naturally feel the pressure to outperform their colleagues in other districts because of the ranking system, inherent in the design of the programme.

The first thing officials are likely to do to make sure that the district climbs up on the ranking, and make their own performance stands out among their peer group, is to identify the low-hanging fruit of say ensure vacancies in schools get filled up in a timely way or quickly infrastructure created but awaiting operationalisation. Basically, attend to the small bottlenecks and put in place mechanisms to ensure they don’t emerge again and institutional weaknesses or gaps are systematically addressed.  

This can be something as simple as following up on failed loan applications or reaching out to school drop-outs, a district administrative machinery can begin to change attitudes and make a difference..

(Sameer Kochhar can be reached at skoch@skoch.in)

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