The Aspirational Districts programme has put some of India’s most underdeveloped districts on the front foot for progress, starting with the fight against Corona
By Amitabh Kant & Sarah Iype
The origins of a core guiding philosophy behind India’s development trajectory can be traced to a train-ride from over a century ago. For it was during this journey that Mahatma Gandhi faced his own tryst with destiny—his reading of John Ruskin’s book Unto the Last inspired the idea of sarvodaya (welfare for all) through antyodaya (uplifting of the weakest). Antyodaya serves as the backbone of the Aspirational Districts programme, currently at the forefront of India’s battle against Covid-19.
One hundred and twelve of the most backward districts, crippled by interlinked challenges of low socio-economic progress, were rechristened ‘Aspirational Districts’ in a unique initiative to unleash them from the shackles of underdevelopment, through an exclusive focus on social development in sectors like health and education rather than solely on traditional economic output indicators.
There was a time not too far ago, when these districts were epicentres of myriad epidemics, neglect, economic hardship and social distress. Yet, today, these districts remain isolated as far as the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned. While NITI Aayog has released rankings and conducted third-party surveys establishing progress across multiple dimensions, the coronavirus is like an external examiner—a non-discriminating test of social policy and administrative action. So far, it seems like these districts are passing the litmus test.
As on August 2, over six months since the first confirmed case in India, only 21% of the districts have reported more than 1,000 Covid-19 cases, and 62 districts (55%) have a case-count of under-500. In fact, Kiphire in Nagaland and West District in Sikkim have zero reported cases. Data analysis suggest that even in states reporting the highest number of cases in the country, it is not the Aspirational Districts that are a cause of concern.
What’s impressive is that these districts are home to about 18% of India’s population, larger than the sixth-most-populated country in the world, Brazil. However, with under one-lakh coronavirus cases, these districts account for less than 6% of India’s total cases and about 2.5% of the total fatalities. In comparison, Brazil has 28 times the number of cases.
Since its launch in 2018 and with the highest weightage on the health sector, the programme has resulted in terrific transformation and reengineering of public health systems across the country. For example, Bijapur in Chattisgarh had only one specialist, and about a dozen doctors and nurses. The district invested heavily in augmenting its health system— four primary health care centres were set up; the number of specialists increased 17-fold; the doctors doubled, and over 100 nurses were recruited. As a result, patients are now served 24*7; the average distance to access medical care has reduced by 30 kilometres; and the district has even recorded the highest incremental improvement in June 2020.
The Aspirational Districts are ripe with many such examples of improved access and enhanced quality, and it is efforts like these that have contributed significantly to stronger health care systems—a critical weapon in the ongoing battle against Covid-19. The weekly moving average of cases is lower in these districts vs the national average, and the existing health resources are sufficient to handle current caseloads.
Beyond a system’s capability to tackle a crisis, there must be strategic, targeted action. While antyodaya via the Aspirational Districts programme, has bolstered systems in the weakest sections of society, atmanirbharta (the principle of self-reliance) is steering collective action and cost-effective innovation at the grassroots. Every aspect of the crisis is being tackled with incredible ingenuity.
First, from prevention through radio-based awareness generation in Nuh, street art in Rajgarh and community counselling in Pakur, to the conversion of schools and gram panchayats as quarantine centres in Chitrakoot and Nabrangpur, the Aspirational Districts are an effective template for containment. In fact, campaigns like NITI Aayog’s Surakshit Dada-Dadi & Nana-Nani, are enabling greater protection and specialised care for over 13 million senior citizens.
Further, cost-effective innovation is driving efficient testing. West Singhbhum in Jharkhand created a phone-booth sample collection centre costing approximately Rs 15,000, and in Aurangabad, corona warrior vans, each under Rs 10,000, function as mobile testing labs.
Second, the districts are ensuring minimal disruptions in supply-chains through contactless, doorstep deliveries of rations. Anganwadi workers in Guna, are serving ready-to-eat meals. In addition, self-sufficiency is being assured through the production of essentials like masks, face covers and PPE. Proceeds from the sale of locally-produced sanitisers in Bokaro are even being deposited in the District Disaster Relief fund. Further, home learning programmes in Dahod, open-air community classes in Baramulla, and instruction through loudspeakers at religious sites or schools at Nuh are ensuring the continuation of education.
Third, livelihoods are being protected, and economic security is being guaranteed. Local produce in Hazaribagh is taken to nearby markets, providing timely income to farmers; Bank sakhis in Kanker are administering disbursements of MGNREGA payments, pensions, and financial transactions. In fact, as a model for “Vocal for Local”, Kanker has also launched a Bihan Gadhiya Bazaar—a store dedicated to products made by SHGs and managed by differently-abled women. The Grameen Dak Sevaks in Gaya have been engaged for door-to-door cash withdrawal services, and in Kondagaon, skill-based training is provided to the local community. Consequently, the engines of the local economy are being reignited.
Fourth, these districts in the hinterland, commonly referred to as ‘the soul of India’, are progressively leveraging technology in the war against the coronavirus. In fact, IEC in Osmanabad is helping containment; Khandwa is using CCTV surveillance, drone photos, smart sheets and route mapping of containment zones to prevent transmission; West Singhbum has automated robotic devices to deliver food, water and medicines to infected patients; Telemedicine centres are operational in Sheikhpura and Jaisalmer; Bokaro has launched SARAL (Safe Arrival and Accommodation of Labor)—a technology-based system to facilitate the re-entry of locals stuck in other parts of the country; and, dedicated helplines for mental health and domestic violence have been set up in Ranchi.
What is incredible is that these districts are leveraging opportunities even during adversities, reflecting their steadfast commitment to ensuring inclusive prosperity. Delta rankings between February and June 2020, show progress across dimensions with Ribhoi, Damoh, Sonbadra, Nawada and Khagaria recording the highest improvements in health and nutrition, education, financial inclusion and skill development, agriculture and water resources, and basic infrastructure, respectively.
Catalysing their development and augmenting evidence-based interventions, NITI Aayog recently-launched the Champions of Change 2.0 dashboard with cutting edge technology providing real-time data, quality analytics, technology interventions in health including artificial intelligence-machine learning solutions for breast-cancer screening, maps on alternate land-use planning and on soil and water conservation, citizen’s feedback, and a fully digitised system to track fund flow. In addition to being at the forefront of the Covid-19 battle, the Aspirational Districts are also at the vanguard of India’s digital revolution.
A few decades ago, these districts were beyond the margins of development. Today, the Aspirational Districts programme has put these sections of society back on the map of India. Furthering antyodaya, the districts reflect the vision for a New India; its people are essential to weave the fabric of India’s socio-economic development. And the narrative, as corroborated by their fight and resilience against the coronavirus, has been turned on its head.
Kant is CEO and Iype was Young Professional, NITI Aayog. Views are personal