The Unending Saga Of ‘100 Worst Districts’, And The Discovery Of India

Araria, Simdega, Kanker, Mahoba, Sheopur, Malkangir… Chances are, these places, amongst a hundred like them, rarely figure on the itineraries of mandarins and ministers. They are on the list of India’s most backward districts. They are markers on the testimonial for perpetual policy failures, the dark web of India’s narrative on governance.

Every few years policy makers get a firm grasp of the obvious and discover, rather re-discover, the existence of dark zones across the country.

Predictably then, the backwardness of these 100 districts has made a comeback of sorts in the narrative of development at the Third Governing Council Meeting of the NITI Aayog in its 15-Year Vision Document which underlines the need to address this backwardness.

The unending saga of India’s most backward districts dates back to 1960, to the Report of the Committee on Dispersal of Industries. In 1960, Narendra Modi was ten years old and Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister. In 2017, Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister.

That, 56 years after the October 1960 report, the 100 worst districts is yet an issue is a testimony to the magnitude of systemic apathy.

The premise in 1960 was that these 100 districts were dragging down India’s overall performance. The promise was that if policy was crafted to address the issues of these 100 districts, it would lead to transformation. The premise in 2017 is the same. And so is the promise.

The criticality of district-level performance rests on the sum of pieces thesis. That is, if a sixth of India’s districts, which are under-performing in health, education and economic indicators, are lifted out of the rut transformation will follow. This will improve indices and outlook but more importantly, it will impact governance and flow of benefits to the people – law and order, health benefits, incomes and therefore a better quality of life.

The correlation is best illustrated by the location of the districts and consequence on regions.

  • The 1960 report used low per capita income, high density of population and lack of communication and identified 123 districts – 82 per cent of the districts were from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – perhaps the first inkling of Bimaru or sick states.
  • The 1996 EAS Sarma Committee report put together an elaborate methodology to identify poor performers – 38 were from undivided Bihar, 19 from undivided Madhya Pradesh, 17 from undivided Uttar Pradesh, 10 each from Odisha and Maharashtra.
  • In 2001 NJ Kurian analysed the National Population Commission data on districts and used performance to group the states. The backward group comprised of Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
  • My 2003 study on the saga of 100 worst districts (‘District Level Deprivation in the New Millennium’, edited by Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari) looked at recommendations of previous committees and policies that followed. After much was said and done, much was said and little had changed.

Connectivity Matters

There is no one reason to explain the phenomenon of poor performance. There is an intersectionality of historical, demographic, topographical and political causatives. The districts are located in the hinterland, suffer poor road and rail connectivity, the land is either perennially drought or flood hit, a high proportion of populace is from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and minorities. There is also the issue of culture and capacity – the unstated observation within government is that states in the south and the west adapt and adopt new ideas and programmes whereas states in the Hindi-belt struggle.

  • The issue of uneven development, rather, the backwardness of certain regions had occupied the attention of planners since the First Five Year Plan which flagged the necessity to take into account “the need and priorities of different regions”.
  • The Second Five Year Plan nudged this forward and articulated the issue of “less developed areas”.
  • The Third Plan underlined the point of enabling “less developed regions to come up to the level of the rest”.

Almost every Five Year Plan and every regime followed up on the premise and promise of 100 worst districts with committees. And there were many other smaller reports and pilot studies.

Cart Before The Horse

The reports highlighted the aspects of disparity and dysfunction. Every committee’s report resulted in the creation and adoption of new programmes - like the Employment Assurance Scheme, a 100-day employment scheme. Orissa crafted a Revised Long Term Action Plan for the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) districts. Decades later the Employment Assurance Scheme, which was the Employment Guarantee Scheme of Maharashtra, has become the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The abbreviation KBK continues to be an acronym symbolising deprivation.

The overarching focus was on industrialisation. Policy was crafted to make room for tax incentives, concessional loans, subsidies and creation of district industrial centres. The concept of the tiny sector was created via reservations for 76 items including powerloom, khadi, sericulture coir et al. The measures flopped in the absence of road and rail connectivity, reliable power, skilled manpower, access to banking, right down to availability of water.

The belief was if industry came, rest would follow. Turns out the cart, when placed before the horse, doesn’t move.
Villagers hold up their job cards with no entries for the rural jobs program, during a public hearing in the village of Lar Sauryana in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
Villagers hold up their job cards with no entries for the rural jobs program, during a public hearing in the village of Lar Sauryana in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Political Heft Didn’t Deliver

In stark contrast, the southern states, with backward districts -- say Cudappah in Andhra Pradesh, Aurangabad in Maharashtra or Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu – leveraged new schemes better than Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh or Dhenekal in Orissa or Purulia in West Bengal.

Kurian’s 2001 study showed that not a single district from Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh figured in the first or top 100 districts of India.

Between them the Hindi-belt states have more Members of Parliament than the southern states, but political heft didn’t quite help ramping up economic ballast. A majority of the top 100 and even 200 districts were from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

In 2004, the UPA government shifted focus on entitlements and income support and created the MGNREGS, a guarantee of 100 days employment. This was followed up with a new approach to stem the contagion and the government looked at regions, not just districts. In February 2007, the Manmohan Singh government launched the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF) for 250 districts in 27 states.

Good intentions do not always translate into good outcomes. A Planning Commission Study on BRGF for 2007-2011 revealed, “None of the states was able to get more than 80 per cent of the allocation released”.

Worse, only a third of the monies allocated was utilised – the poorest states being the worst in utilisation – and of the funds which reached the states, only a trickle reached the districts.

Last month, Prime Minister Modi, at a review meeting, asked ministers to focus on 100 districts that are worst performers in development programmes. There is no doubting the need. The question is how. What can the NITI Aayog suggest and what can the government at the Centre do to ensure that states will follow through to produce outcomes different from or more successful than the past?

For starters, there is no need for a new list. There are multiple lists out there with parameters ranging from financial inclusion to educationally backward. For a flavour, consider this: Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has 399 focus districts – 34 for out of school children, 36 for gender gap, 143 for retention at primary level, 61 for high SC population, 88 for high Muslim population, 82 affected by left wing extremism, 94 border area districts and 121 for the Prime Minister’s 15-point programme. Bibek Debroy is now at the NITI Aayog and should be able to update/adapt/adopt the 2003 study.

There is a need to review the approach to the issue of backwardness. Much of it stems from failed decentralisation despite amendments to the Constitution.
A woman cooks on a stove in the light provided by a kerosene lamp in her home at night in the village of Fateh Nagla, Uttar Pradesh, India, on January 14, 2017. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
A woman cooks on a stove in the light provided by a kerosene lamp in her home at night in the village of Fateh Nagla, Uttar Pradesh, India, on January 14, 2017. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Devolve Power, Decentralise Decision

Himachal Pradesh is the exception – landlocked, hilly terrain, inadequate connectivity, yet among the top performers across human development and inclusion indicators. Himachal Pradesh was enabled by decentralisation and the opportunity for public participation in policy and implementation. Its success calls for political introspection by other states. Himachal Pradesh is also a template to study for implementation.

Change also requires a redesign in the structural construct, to factor the promise of technology - Aadhaar enabled services, direct transfer of subsidies, mobile banking, Jan Dhan Yojana, stand-alone power grids for villages, the Ujjwala Yojana, and other non-conventional ideas. Mission Antyodaya is an apt tagline and some ideas which have been around and were mentioned in Budget 2017 can be expanded upon and implemented.

The populace is largely agrarian and a model contract farming law would help leverage agriculture productivity to deliver incomes. There is scope for micro, mini and small enterprises and a mint-fresh labour law could make investment in new enterprises attractive. The districts badly need capacity for governance at the local level – and this would be a good time to kick-start a cadre for panchayats and municipalities.

Industrialisation may enable incomes, but government must enable human development.

This calls for operational focus. Ramping up outcomes in education and health is critical and could be possible with new public-private partnerships. How about prioritising electrification of the 100 worst districts, pushing Ujwala into every home? Why not leverage the Start-Up Fund and MUDRA to enable entrepreneurial spirits? It is no secret where the bulk of constituency funds go. What if half or more of MP/MLA funds are marked for specific purposes – say 25 percent for primary health centres and 25 per cent for schools. Suppose the 100 districts get priority on corporate social responsibility funds of PSUs.

How about crafting a model for an Empowered Economic Zones and placing the 100 districts in it. Think about the demonstration effect.

Shankkar Aiyar, political-economy analyst, is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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