Backwardness is manifested in a variety of parameters (and the lack of them) like health and education, infrastructure and employment, incomes and poverty. NITI Aayog has helped draft the government the first ranked list of 115 backward districts in the country. The first of this two-part series focuses on the broad national look at backwardness and the methodology behind selecting 115 districts.
What do Khagaria in Bihar, Paschimi Singhbhum in Jharkhand, Mewat in Haryana and Shrawasti in Uttar Pradesh have in common? Nothing on the face of it, right?
Here it is: They are the top-ranked—worst-off—districts in India with respect to poverty, health, education and infrastructure, respectively, which are featured in the first ever ranked list of 115 backward districts in India.
The 115 districts from 28 states are not necessarily the ‘most backward’ in India. A balance between representation to backwardness from each state and the capacity of respective states to achieve realisable targets—keeping in mind the absolute level of backwardness—has been the principle employed by the NITI Aayog while formulating the list.
With the gap between rural-urban prosperity widening, human development index and various development studies consistently demonstrating stark regional disparities hidden inside the growth story, the government aims to model a scheme as a special thrust to uplift the laggards and balance intra-regional development.
A full scheme in the upcoming budget is in the pipeline, according to a senior government official. The official document puts this as a key initiative towards making of a ‘New India’ by 2022.
One senior central government officer has been named the prabhari (in-charge) of each district, who will be complemented by a senior officer from the state: who will together supervise the district collector/magistrate/commissioner to collect data on development parameters, understand backwardness quantitatively and qualitatively, and implement existing schemes in a (spatially and temporally) targeted manner and generate better data on indicators.
“It is the first time that experienced central government prabhari officers will converge their acumen with a state officer and district administrators to deliver a speedy outcome in the form of improved development indicators”, Rakesh Ranjan, deputy director general and senior consultant at NITI Aayog told Business Standard.
Though this is not the first time that India’s backward regions have been mapped, they have been ranked on the basis of an index formulated by quantifying the four parameters using district-level data for the first time.
Existing district-level data on the four parameters—poverty, health, education and infrastructure—have been used to create a district-wise dataset. Giving 25% to weight poverty, 30% weight to health, 15% to education and 30% to infrastructure, the NITI Aayog has formulated a weighted index for each parameter and selected 115 with the principle mentioned above (chart 1).
The infrastructure index has been calculated using four indicators: electricity, roads, toilets and potable water (chart 2).
An older scheme, Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF), which ran for a decade from 2007 till early 2017, consisted of 272 districts (up from 250 in the original 2007 list), almost 40% of all districts in India.
Having realized the enormity of the approach and improper utilization of monies by states—the ultimate implementers—the NITI Aayog government has decided to implement the scheme with a feasible target using a governance structure that would ensure better accountability for a longer term.
“The new scheme would not be a successor scheme to the BRGF, but a novel approach to set up ‘systems’ to tackle backwardness and bring it down sooner than ever”, Ranjan added.
The BRGF scheme did not succeed in its vision, various evaluation studies reveal. Only a third of the funds were utilized by states, one-tenth of sanctioned works did not see the sun, only two-thirds of the works were completed and only a third of surveyed districts received grants for capacity building.
Only 5% of the sanctioned amount of Rs 2,840 crore was actually utilized by states in the final year (2014-15) of its operation. Administrative and procedural delays, problems in land acquisition and absence of timely inspection froze the scheme, which was eventually delinked from central support in 2015-16.
Among the 115 districts, 35 are listed on account of being under the influence of left-wing extremism. The scheme intends to have a case by case approach on district development, but a uniformity in the governance process atop it.
The scheme intends to install a better mechanism to capture data on the development of a particular district and use that to fill in gaps in implementation.