Is the Aspirational Districts Programme Merely A Political Device?

As the 2019 Lok Sabha elections approach, the Modi government’s failure to fulfil the promise of development is gaining more attention. The Transformation of Aspirational Districts Programme, launched in early 2018, is now being promoted in order to salvage the government’s reputation on this account. An ambitious programme, launched after the dissolution of the Planning Commission and in the age of the NITI Aayog, it is not merely a political device. The programme also reflects what has become of the development project in India under neoliberalism, especially after the end of planning. This article comments on some of the programmatic strengths and weaknesses of the Aspirational Districts programme alongside its approach to and discourse of development.

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, “development” emerged as a crucial campaign strategy for the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Many even attribute the BJP’s resounding successes in many successive state-level elections to this commitment to development. Yet, one of the first actions of the government when it came to power was the dissolution of India’s long-standing executive development apparatus, the Planning Commission, in August 2014. This was replaced by the more advisory NITI Aayog in January 2015. As the next Lok Sabha elections come closer and the Modi government’s delivery on the promise of developmental gains is called into question, it is worth considering what has become of the development project in India. One of the government’s recent flagship programmes, the Transformation of Aspirational Districts Programme (henceforth ADP), reflects some of these changes. 

Anchored in the NITI Aayog, the ADP was launched in early 2018 (NITI Aayog 2018a). It is widely known that it was initiated in anticipation of the recently concluded state elections (in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram) and upcoming national elections in order to boost the government’s development credentials. In fact, the government’s public outreach to demonstrate its successes, complete with quizzes and game shows, will be centred on these districts (Venugopal 2018). 

The programme identifies 115 (out of 172) most backward districts of the country and tries to bring to them renewed attention for development. To be fair, this focus on backward regions is not entirely new. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-I government had also launched the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF) in 2007 in order to address regional imbalances and to strengthen the functioning and programme delivery by local-level institutions (Planning Commission 2014). 

The ADP is different in trying to monitor the improvement of these districts through real-time data tracking. Moreover, the districts will be ranked on the basis of this data. The indicators being used include health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion and skill development, and basic infrastructure. The programme seeks to develop convergence between selected existing central and state government programmes. Operationally, this is sought to be achieved through collaboration between officials at the central and state levels. District “Prabhari” officers have been appointed by the centre and the states and they will in turn work with the district collectors. The programme is targeted, not towards any single group of beneficiaries, but rather towards the population of the district as a whole. However, some of the indicators do focus on specific target groups more than others. For example, women and young children under health, and youth under skill development. 

In what follows, I discuss some programmatic strengths of the APD as also its limitations, both in terms of its structure, and its discourse and imagination of how development works. 

Programmatic Strengths

A key strength of the ADP is the collection of baseline data and follow-ups at regular intervals.  Based on such data, the NITI Aayog has already released two sets of rankings since its launch in June and December 2018. Sustaining this effort would create a robust compilation of statistics for use by both researchers and policy-makers. In doing this, the government also brings much-needed attention to human development and a willingness to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Moreover, at least on the face of it, there is some incremental progress being made in the chosen districts as reflected in the rankings. Districts such as Kupwara in Jammu and Kashmir and Ranchi in Jharkhand have made marked improvements in the period between the two rankings (Khanna 2018). 

The ADP’s focus on managerial improvements of already-existing schemes in the area, through the appointment of nodal Prabhari officers, can also present an opportunity to strengthen existing institutions and use resources more efficiently. The BRGF had also adopted a similar strategy, but suffered from various problems in smoother administration and utilisation of resources (Planning Commission 2014). Yet, in and of itself, it is certainly more desirable to focus on improving existing systems.  

The programme also claims to be “non-partisan and unbiased” and geared towards all-India growth. The selection of districts indeed suggests that the programme (taken in isolation from any other issue) has not favoured the North over the South, a long-standing concern of the southern states in the planning decades (Panneerselvan 1996) and more recently, in relation to resource distribution by the Finance Commission (Sreevatsan 2018). To some extent then, it does appear to address issues of regional imbalance and neglect. 

It is also commendable that the programme seeks convergence of central and state schemes anchored around specific activities. For example, if the objective is to prevent stunting, the district officers will work to coordinate the efforts of different schemes like Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) and public health and sanitation towards this. In the past, convergence has proven to be difficult for watershed development programmes (Rao 2000). It would be interesting to understand the extent to which the ADP is able to achieve this in the long term.

Despite these strengths, there are strong reasons for scepticism regarding any long-standing transformative impact of the programme.

A Sceptical View

In a recent EPW article, Haque and Joshi (2018) have pointed out the programmatic limitations of the ADP with respect to agricultural development. Using the case of Bihar, they argue that the programme’s selection of districts itself is problematic. In fact, it actually excludes the most backward districts because per capita income, the most basic measure of development, has not been considered. 

Moreover, there seems to be some ambiguity around the issue of whether the programme is concerned only with improved access or also with the quality of service provided. In principle, the programme does note the importance of quality of life and quality of services available. In that vein, some of the steps to achieve the targets include quality-issues such as improving schools or medical infrastructure and conducting follow-ups on failed loan applications or school drop-outs. However, the ranking itself is largely focused on assessing quantity (that is, coverage of access) rather than quality. 

But more importantly, there are some significant structural developmental issues that seem to have been given short shrift by the programme. While the ADP has made progress in accounting for aspects of regional imbalance in development initiatives, aspects of inequality within districts have not been adequately addressed. We know that capitalism thrives on inequality and creates patterns of uneven development among people and places. In other words, many developmental problems are actually structural. In India, this also means a strong connection with issues of caste, tribe, religion, and gender. One manifestation of this is that Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims are the worst off in terms of human development indicators. To the extent that the programme seeks to address these, it has some progressive potential (although the programme does not articulate its agenda in these terms). But these indicators are not defined relationally, rather they are static human development indicators that do not see people mired in dynamic social relations. For example, there is a focus on women and children, but only in terms of basic health, nutrition and literacy indicators, not in terms of, for instance, women’s access to productive resources or participation in the workforce. 

Similarly, the programme envisages “development’ in these districts as taking place in isolation from wider development. For instance, under skill development, the programme seeks to encourage industry-relevant training and apprenticeship of youth. However, in an environment of jobless growth (Raveendran and Kannan 2009; Abraham 2017), it is not difficult to see how, without a more macro-level effort towards job creation (for example, investment in job-creating industries, supporting medium and small manufacturing enterprises and even making agriculture viable), this will merely be lip service. The aim of improving price realisation by farmers through ensuring the implementation of minimum support prices and linking through new market initiatives like the e-NAM wilfully ignores the problems with the procurement process, presence of exploitative traders and moneylenders, and problems even with digitisation processes. 

Addressing some of these issues effectively requires political will and state capacity in equal measure. That the ADP conveniently sidesteps these issues is symptomatic of what has become of the development project in neo-liberal India and makes one nearly nostalgic about the otherwise problematic five-year plans. The working of the Planning Commission was neither fully democratic nor particularly meaningful in the years leading up to its dissolution (Athreya 2016; Patnaik 2015). Yet, it represented, at least in principle, the understanding that addressing socio-economic problems requires mobilising resources at various levels of the government. It remains to be seen how district and block level administrative officers play catch-up in a situation of such structural and fiscal constraints. 

The NITI Aayog justifies the overall approach as capitalising on “low-hanging fruit.” Sure, in a macro-environment where state policy is fixated on fiscal discipline, this seems like an attractive option. But how often in the history of the development project have such strategies yielded long-term and sustainable results? Just think of the debates around the Green Revolution’s technological package (Kumar 2016) or the more recent cash transfers (EPW 2011). In fact, not only do these “aspirational districts” have to catch up with the best in the state and the country, but they must also compete with each other. In an extreme manifestation of neo-liberal governmentality, the state is supposed to merely facilitate and watch as these districts battle each other out. Within this logic, the backward district will be responsible for its backwardness, this being akin to blaming the poor for their poverty. 

Between Discourse and Practice

There is another issue of concern with the programme, namely, its discourse. Reading the programme documents (NITI Aayog 2018a; NITI Aayog 2018b), one realises that the ghost of “modernisation theory” (Rostow 1960) is still with us in the 21st century. Much like Rostow on the industrialised societies, the ADP has decided that the districts with the best indicators of health, nutrition and basic infrastructure are the “frontier.” The lower ranked districts now have to catch up with these districts, and they will be reminded of this through a constant calculation of “distance to frontier.” 

Not only this, the NITI Aayog extols the virtue of naming and shaming as a way of getting these districts to improve. This is quite problematic. While on the one hand, the state is not making any new or focused public investment (except for a possible use of flexi-funds) into these districts, on the other hand it is moralising about their inability to improve. 

In fact, there is a real irony in how the programme is named and framed. The name “aspirational districts” is supposed to signal the demand from below of people for development. However, the programme’s managerial focus and scheme-driven nature appears to make little allowance for the actual developmental aspirations of the people on the ground. In the same vein, Aiyar (2018) has argued that it would be misplaced to expect such a district-level programme to deliver without strengthening decentralisation of resources and decision-making powers. Despite its focus on “competitive federalism,” the programme remains quite top-down. 

The challenge of improving the country’s human development is real and pressing, as is the need to refocus on the most marginalised districts. There are, however, some fundamental problems with the manner in which the ADP is framed. The programme is carrying the burden of proving the government’s “developmental” work without addressing any of the fundamental issues around achieving equitable development. The discourse adopted by the programme also reflects the neo-liberalisation of the Indian state’s development project. Whatever the ills of India’s age of planning, a series of programmes that are unattached to any larger national or regional strategies of addressing the socio-economic and political challenges that confront us is hardly an ideal alternative. While it is not unproblematic to seek salvation in civil society organisations either, one only hopes that the people of these districts, with the aid of such organisations, will be able to channel the programme as an opportunity to meet their own aspirations. In the process, they might create a more potent “mass movement for development” than the programme seems to allow for. 

 

The work on this article is supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund as part of the TIGR2ESS Programme (BB/P027970/1)

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