The idea is not to give those districts an option. The idea is to succeed.
Come April and the Niti Aayog — Government of India’s think tank — is reported to be coming out with a ranking of 115 backward districts, also called aspirational districts, on 10 parameters which will include nutrition, education and health. Should it rank them? Please read on.
If any district has remained relatively backward despite years of development all around, there are some good reasons for it. Such districts suffer from certain inherent disadvantages in terms of remote location, challenging topography, tribal population having its own mindset, long-drawn social unrest and so forth. As a result, some districts have remained backward despite being rich in natural resources. Limited economic activity and poor human development indicators are the result of both demand and supply conditions that are not easy to change. To put it differently, relative “returns” from investing resources in those districts is far lower than “returns” from similar investments elsewhere.
Yet, on equity considerations, such backward districts deserve extra attention and special development thrust. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is absolutely right in saying that relative backwardness of these regions is an injustice to its people. If, after 70 years of Independence, these districts have remained backward, there is every reason to believe that development on its own will not percolate down in future too. Mr Modi is right again in saying that regional imbalances should not be allowed to increase indefinitely. Hence the need for a concerted, affirmative action for which the time is now.
In calling to achieve visible results within three months — on the eve of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in mid-April — Mr Modi underscored the need for building positive momentum necessary to “change the negative psyche and mindset in these areas”. While it is important to reach out for low hanging fruit, it is equally important to sow the seeds for sustained development of the backward districts.
In thinking about their longer-term development, each backward district has certain peculiarities that have been holding back its development. Cracking their development challenge requires identifying local strengths and constraints, determining local priorities, developing local strategies and solutions for the organic growth of these districts.
While the government may focus on specific parameters for rapid transformation of these districts, such focus needs to happen alongside unlocking of their development potential. This is essential for sustaining the gains to be made in specific indicators of health, education and nutrition. Implementing national programmes, applying national norms and so forth is not necessarily the best way to go. Recognising this fact means recognising that each district will have its own development trajectory or pathway, even as we seek their convergence overtime on specific development parameters.
Then, does it make good sense to rank these backward districts along certain predetermined indicators?
Based on their own development blueprints, each district needs to decide on its own development interventions, and determine the indicators on which it would like itself to be tracked and held accountable over a specified period. Relentlessly monitoring progress of each district along their chosen indicators is what is needed, and not their ranking along common indicators. Even if the indicators were common across districts, ranking of backward districts will have limited usefulness. The main advantage of ranking lies in naming and shaming of the lagging districts as well as in generating competitive spirit among the districts. But none of these is the intention behind the development of the backward districts. The idea is not to give those districts an option. The idea is to succeed. It is for this reason that a strong coordination structure is proposed under this initiative, with senior officers of the rank of additional secretary and joint secretary made officers-in-charge of coordinating efforts of the Centre and states. Still, addressing development challenges of the districts is going to be a heavy lift for an expanded period of time.
One could argue that in a large federal country like India where development is a shared responsibility of the Centre and states, ranking of districts on certain indicators may have some value. Such ranking is likely to spur action in specific areas if the information about their ranking is made a public knowledge for everyone to see.
But when the majority of the selected districts are either in the BJP-ruled states or in states where the BJP is an ally to the ruling party, it should not be difficult to give a strong push to this major policy initiative in backward districts. How about the backward districts in the non-BJP ruled states? Well, some of the non-BJP-ruled states (West Bengal, Kerala and Odisha) have already opted out of the scheme, reducing the total number of identified backward districts from 115 to 102. This further reduces any limited benefit that ranking of districts may offer.
In a nutshell, laying special focus on the development of selected backward districts is a creditable move. However, seeking rapid transformation of these districts on specific parameters such as health, education and nutrition need to happen alongside unlocking of their development potential. This is essential for sustaining the gains on specific parameters. In this context, recognising development trajectory of each district, relentlessly tracking district’s progress on its chosen interventions and indicators is probably a better approach.
Unlike several unsuccessful attempts by successive governments in the past, we cannot afford to not succeed this time. For it is a part of Mr Modi’s grand vision of transforming India by 2022.
The writer is a development economist, formerly with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank