The Why And What?
Aspirational Districts Programme- Economic Survey 2017-18 reported that the Indian economy grew at an average rate of over 7.5% between 2011-2016. Similarly, the World Bank projected that Indian economy would be the fastest growing for the next 3 years. However this economic growth does not reflect itself when viewed from the perspective of development of human capital. Take for example the Annual Survey of Education Report 2016 which reported that around 8 million children did not get enrolled in schools, around 80 million dropped out and did not complete basic education, 48% students of standard V could read standard II text and only 26% students of standard V could do basic math. These figures have only marginally changed in the 2018 report. Another example of gap between growth and development are the health indicators. Infant mortality rate has dropped from 44 to 34 since 2011 to 2016 but India still fares poorly than Bangladesh in health indicators. It is no surprise that India stands at 131 out of 188 countries in 2016 in the Human Development Index report of UNDP.
In an era of economic inequality there is little to no guarantee that in a mixed economy growth, progress and results of development would be shared by all. However, this burden of underdevelopment is confined to certain pockets of the country which makes it a challenge as well as an opportunity. Low level of physical resources, lack of basic infrastructure, low health, nutrition, education and skill standards and demoralised people due to years of poverty are some of the factors that have subjected these few pockets in a cycle of underdevelopment.
In a bid to break from this cycle of underdevelopment the ‘Transformation of Aspirational Districts’ programme was launched by PM Modi in January 2018. The programme was initially called ‘Backward Districts’ to highlight the challenges of these districts. But the nomenclature was changed by the intervention of the PM himself to ‘Aspirational Districts Programme’ (ADP) who wanted these districts to be seen as islands of opportunities rather than reminders of poverty and backwardness.
The Aspirational Districts Programmeconsists of 115 districts identified from 28 states with a focused transformational approach. The 115 districts were selected by a Committee of senior officers to the Government of India in consultation with state officials using a composite index. This Composite Index was developed by examining the data available in the core sectors of poverty, health & nutrition, education and basic infrastructure derived from the Socio-Economic Caste Census, key health and education performance indicators and the state of basic infrastructure. While selecting the districts poverty was given the maximum weightage because of its multidimensional impact on the wellbeing of a society. Of these 115 districts, 55 districts are under the various central ministries, 25 have been picked by the NITI Aayog and rest 35 districts which are affected by left wing extremism are under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Jharkhand with 19 districts tops the list, Bihar stands second with 13 districts and Chattisgarh with 10 stands third in the list. the only state which is not in the list is Goa which has no backward districts.
The Aspirational Districts Programme is tied up with the NITI Aayog and has 3 basic aspects:
- Convergence of centre and state schemes;
- Collaboration of centre, state ‘Prabhari’ officers and District Collectors; and
- Competition among districts
A major approach of this programme is the convergence of various centre and state schemes and streamlining of efforts. Officers of the rank of Joint Secretary/Additional Secretary have been nominated as ‘Central Prabhari Officers’ of each district who together with the state nodal and Prabhari Officers will work in tandem with the District Collectors. A dashboard ‘Champions of Change’ has been developed by the NITI Aayog in collaboration with the Government of Andhra Pradesh. The dashboard ranks districts across 5 sectors from 49 key performance indicators with 81 data points. The 5 sectors are health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion and skill development, and basic infrastructure. The ranking of the districts is made month on month and reflects the incremental progress is known as ‘delta ranking’. The first set of delta ranking was launched in June 2018. The delta ranking looks into the aspects of Sustainable development Goals and how districts have performed across them.
The How? – Aspirational Districts Programme Strategy
India is a land of myriad problems and is seldom known that it is also the land of myriad solutions. Each district identified in the Aspirational Districts Programme has its own set of difficulties. And in any respect, development needs to be multidimensional and holistic to be meaningful hence it needs a multi-pronged strategy. The strategies which have been envisaged under this programme are:
- The first and foremost strategy is addressing the negativity by removing the term ‘backward districts’ and avoiding the people from getting discouraged because they belong from a backward district because people ought to be the main agent and focus of development. Further, a Vision and Action Plan for 2018-2022 would be drawn by District Officials through public participation so that each district is a well-developed partner in creating a New India by 2022. Development should become a basis of mass movement in the district and people should aspire to make their district the best district in the state and then feature among the better performing districts in the country on key performance indicators.
- To break away from the cycle of under-development, the aspirational districts would need people from various walks of life. People who have been effecting change despite various challenges to come together. Many of these would be elected representatives of district, Panchayats and wards. These Champions of Change would be given a lead role to make the programme a mass movement. They would also help in providing real-time feedback for fine tuning the strategy.
- One of the most important strategies of this programme is the convergence of Central and state government programmes. In a way it is also to seek complementarity between public initiatives and private efforts of households. There have been innumerable central sponsored schemes because of intervention of the central government in the key social sectors and following the recommendations of the 14th finance commission for greater devolution of resources, state intervention has also been multifarious. For maximum impact of all these schemes they should naturally converge. For this very reason the Action Plan prepared by District Collectors would identify all such schemes addressing an issue, their implementation agencies and then set targets for rapid development. Since implementing schemes in silos can lead to errors in judging the paucity of resources, converging the financial and administrative resources can help in using them competently.
- The programme envisages states as the main drivers and District Collectors (DC) as the fulcrum on whom the programme rests. Senior central government officer of the rank of joint/additional secretary have been nominated as the ‘Prabhari’ officers of a district. There is a clear emphasis on team formation in the programme. The idea behind this strategy lies in the fact that the All India Services officers including the IAS are allotted a state cadre at the start of their service and they spend a large part service there. The Prabhari officer drawn for a particular district is from the same state and familiar with the problems. Further an empowered inter-ministerial committee at the centre with Secretaries of key Ministries/Departments would fine tune the existing schemes for maximum impact.
- The biggest impediment in any programme is lack of good quality data which hinders the targeting of those sections of the population which actually needs the government’s attention. Also, lack of evidence based approach prevents an objective assessment of a programme and the government is confined only to expenditure tracking. However expenditure tracking diminishes the importance of what a programme has actually achieved. Hence evidence based decision making is the mainstay of Aspirational Districts Programme. 5 Sectors namely health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion and skill development and basic infrastructure has been identified to collate data from 49 key indicators with 81 data points. Ranking of districts on the basis of performance also indicates that sloppy work would not be hidden any longer and good work would be noticed at an all-India level.
- As mentioned in the earlier that India is a land of myriad problems and a land of myriad solutions. For myriad solutions it would need an army of motivated functionaries or else even a robust programme with adequate funding is bound to fail. There are some persistent problems in India like though basic infrastructures in elementary schools have improved but learning outcomes have not. Similarly though institutional deliveries have increased but breastfeeding within one hour of birth has remained low. To address these problems there is a requirement of a professional team to assist the District team. For the very purpose NITI Aayog has partnered with Piramal Swasthya, ITC Social Investment programme, Piramal Foundation Education and Leadership), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation etc. to work in specific sectors in districts under this programme.
- The final strategy is the funding of the programme. Surprisingly, there is no additional funding for the programme. Given the various sources of assistance for districts and the convergence of the central and state government scheme there is no paucity of funds. In addition to these, various other sources such as corporate social responsibility and local funds such as District Mineral Funds are used for critical gap funding. Various ministries have also identified these districts in their respective programmes.
Data for 5 core sectors are collected from 49 key indicators with 81 data points. The key question here is how are they prioritised? The most important aspect of the programme to be remembered is that it is people centric. And while other sectors are also important for the well being of a society health, nutrition and education are important for determining the quality of life, economic productivity and therefore employability of a person. Hence are given more weightage than the rest. Agriculture and water resources are given higher weightage because agriculture, animal husbandry and horticulture are prevalent in these districts. For creation of infrastructure states and centre play a major role. Similarly in setting up ATMs and opening bank accounts the district level functionaries have a very limited role.
Health and nutrition accounts for 30% of the index. 13 indicators identified for the same, focus on antenatal care, postnatal care, health of newborns, gender parity, contagious diseases, growth of children and health infrastructure. Piramal Foundation is a key partner collaborating with NITI Aayog to assist district collectors of 25 districts across 7 states. In addition to this Piramal Swasthaya an arm of the foundation has conducted a baseline survey in these 25 districts to assess the gaps that exist in operations such as supply chain management, funds etc; infrastructure; human resources in health and service delivery. The root causes of these gaps differ spatially and hence would need a customised approach.
Education accounts for 30% of the overall index. 8 indicators have been identified based on learning outcomes, infrastructure and institutional indicators. NITI Aayog has collaborated with Piramal foundation to support district collectors and state governments. The education arm of the foundation works in 12 states impacting over 30000 students. the following challenges have been outlined by the foundation that has troubled education in these districts:
- Low motivation, meaningfulness, and joy at work
- Multiple roles and conflicts of interest
- Lack of staff at each level, especially at the block-level and vacancies at DIET
- Insufficient job competencies and inadequate professional development opportunities
- Challenging school-community collaborations, alignment of groups, departments & institutions
- Topographic and socio-economic complexities in district
Agriculture employs almost 50% of the workforce in India. 20% weightage for 10 indicators focus on outputs, inputs and institutional supports. Water use efficiency is essential for agricultural economy. Keeping this fact in perspective, one of the indicators measures the net sown area under micro irrigation. Other indicators measure the percentage increase in water bodies rejuvenated by MGNREGA scheme. The government has taken active steps for unification of agricultural markets. Percentage change of price realisation and district mandis linked to e-National Agricultural Market (e-NAM) are two sub-indicators of this core indicator. For unification of markets the district collector is required to link agricultural produce market committee (APMC) with e-Nam, upgrade mandi infrastructure, provide with electronic displays, hold awareness generation programmes and create storage facilities.
Financial inclusion and skill development together account for 10 % of the weightage. Six indicators have been identified which measure the reach of institutional banking (Jan Dhan Yojana), ease of institutional financing for small businesses (Mudra loans) and various central government schemes such as Atal Pension Yojana, Pradhan mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana etc. For skill development 5 indicators have been identified such as skilling of youth, employment and skilling of marginalised/vulnerable youth.
In the end Basic infrastructure has been assigned 10% of the overall index which focuses on the access to housing, water, electricity and road connectivity. Road connectivity, electricity, drinking water, and individual household latrines are addressed in 7 indicators. Internet connectivity in Gram Panchayats and common service centres in Panchayats are also tracked in districts.
The 81 data points comprises of input, output and outcomes of these 5 core sectors. Input and output data are captured on a monthly basis and outcomes are collected through quarterly surveys by two agencies nominated by NITI Aayog at the district level. This data will be available on the 24×7 online portal ‘Champions of Change’ which would facilitate measuring change. A State Best Value and Nation Best Value have been set for each indicator by the NITI Aayog. Also, the DC can enter the Annual Target value to be achieved against each of the indicators.
Delta ranking is calculated for the performance of the district over the previous period when data point is entered. Hence, the ranking of each district keeps changing moving upwards if improvements are there and downwards if others outperform them.
A Shift in Governance
The Aspirational Districts Programme shifts from a top-down approach to a more people centric governance. Moreover, it moves away from the one-size-fits-all attitude and brings out customised efforts for each of the identified districts in cognizance with the problems they face. There are 3 main policy shifts that have been attempted in this initiative.
Firstly, the initiative measures the ‘distance to frontier’ based outcomes. The socio-economic outcomes are at the forefront of the agenda rather than being a footnote. Progress is measured in achieving welfare targets rather than chasing financial targets.
Secondly, since there are no top-down approaches here, the DC would be provided with evidenced based recommendations based on best practices to tailor solutions based on specific contexts of their districts.
And thirdly, since data on socioeconomic outcomes were only granularly available, development policies have traditionally been input oriented and prescriptive. In absence of proper data, policymaking is anecdote driven rather data driven and last mile implementation largely go unaddressed. With a large number of samples of households in each district, the scope, scale and frequency of welfare measurements is unmatched in the history of India’s developmental journey.
The Aspirational Districts Programme initiative is still in the infant phase and one can only optimistically wish that it would bring innovative solutions to the problems of citizens and set a benchmark in policy making in India.