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Why the BJP's much-feted aspirational districts scheme has failed to gain ground

In January 2018, building upon his declared intent of ‘sabka saath sabka vikaas’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the ‘Transformation of Aspirational Districts’ programme. It was meant to bring quick and effective development to the most backward districts of India. An elaborate ranking system identified over 100 such districts.

Through a convergence of central and state schemes and collaboration between different levels of bureaucracy, the program would identify ‘low-hanging fruits’ for immediate improvement. This would be tracked through an ‘online dashboard’ measuring real-time progress for each district. In a true marketing-savvy style that has come to be associated with the regime, the backward districts were to be henceforth called ‘aspirational districts’. A neat re-branding exercise to ostensibly remove the stigma associated with a district deemed backwards.

However, one year in, the Aspirational Districts Programme has not delivered the sort of ‘mass movement’ that the government envisaged, wherein not just the administration but common folks as well come together in the spirit of nation-building and lift their ‘aspirational’ districts towards greater heights. This is not surprising given that a closer examination of the programme reveals several gaps and unanswered questions.

At the first level, the aspirational districts were identified as such because of low scores on certain social parameters. However, the indices which have been created to measure their progress, don’t map back to the earlier set. In other words, the districts are ‘progressing’ on parameters which were not necessarily the ones they were weak as mapped during the identification process. For instance, one of the areas wherein an aspirational district must improve in is ‘agriculture and water resources’. This accounts for 20 percent weight of the ‘real-time’ ranking that a district will be reporting. Yet there is no index which measured if the aspirational districts in question were weak in this respect, to begin with.

Secondly, at its core, the Aspirational Districts Programme is a contest. The administrative machinery of these backward districts is to engage in ‘positive competition’. The Niti Aayog policy document states, ‘the approach of name-and-applaud or name-and-shame is quite effective’, and this underlying philosophy marks the foundation of the program.

 Why the BJPs much-feted aspirational districts scheme has failed to gain ground

Representational image. Reuters

Thus at a philosophical level, the government assumes the lack of recognition and applause is what is holding the districts back, and not macrostructural challenges. A little nudge is all that is needed to ‘inspire’ the local administrations. This is problematic because when ‘development’ is indexed, measured and reported in the form of dynamic rankings where fast-movers are applauded— issues of geography, climate, historical and cultural background are not considered. Quite simply put, there are deeper issues beyond administrative will and resourcefulness that are at the core of the slow pace of growth in some regions.

In this schematic, however, there is no room for such nuance. A contest flattens context.  There is an incentive for administrators to show great leaps in the rankings. Because no one wants to do badly at a ‘contest’. A cursory glance through the performances of the districts shows incredible rating jumps. For instance, Kupwara district in Jammu and Kashmir was languishing at the 108th position in June 2018, but in four months it had reached the 7th position. Siddharthnagar in UP had a similar rise, jumping from the 103rd  to the 3rd position in the same period.

These along with many others have been ‘applauded’ by the Niti Aayog as the fastest movers in its second Delta ranking. Whether these numbers are the result of a radical transformation on the ground or reminiscent of the widespread exaggerated reports during Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, should be the subject of an unbiased social audit.

Which brings up the third major issue with the programme, the lack of credible data verification procedure. Currently, the scores are either self-reported by the district administrators themselves or come from household surveys conducted by Niti Aayog’s ‘knowledge partners’ namely TATA Trusts and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (IDInsight). It is unsure what the terms of engagement for these partners are, and hence it is unclear in the case of data lapses, exactly what the accountability framework is.

Additionally, the self-congratulatory tone of the policy literature leaves no space for reflection or course correction. Instead of voluminous data sets which can be audited or researched, there are instead selected cases that are presented as success-stories. For instance, there is the reported story of Sunita Yadav, from Uttar Pradesh, whose life dramatically changed after opening her bank account under PMJDY and subsequently accessing her RuPay card. While it sounds like the script of a Bollywood film, there is no credible way of statistically ascertaining how many lives have been similarly transformed.

Most of the reported data issued by Niti Aayog has been reported in a similar fashion, where the focus is not so much as to report the actual policy performance but to insist on its success. While this is not the first regime to oversee such reports, but in the context of widespread data falsification and suppression—such editorial choices appear more dramatic on closer scrutiny.

For a regime often accused of cosying up to big businesses, a program to bring progress to the most underdeveloped areas would have been a boost for its political credibility. However, on the face of it, the Aspirational Districts Programme seems to be falling short of delivering that.

(The author is Assistant Professor, Literary & Culture Studies, FLAME University)

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 11:10:43 IST