A fresh scheme is likely to be released in the upcoming Budget
What do Khagaria in Bihar, Paschimi Singhbhum in Jharkhand, Mewat in Haryana, and Shrawasti in Uttar Pradesh have in common?
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 are not necessarily the “most backward”.
A balance between representation to backwardness in each state and the capacity of the 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.
Jharkhand has 19 districts on the list, the highest from any state, followed by Bihar, which has 13 (see map).
With the gap between rural-urban prosperity widening and the human development index and various development studies consistently demonstrating stark regional disparities hidden behind the growth story, the government is aiming to model a scheme as a special thrust to give an uplift to 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 a ‘New India’ by 2022.
A senior central government officer has been named prabhari (in charge) of each district.
She or he, along with a senior officer of the state concerned, will supervise the work of the district collector/magistrate/commissioner to collect data on the development parameters, understand backwardness quantitatively and qualitatively, implement schemes in a (spatially and temporally) targeted manner, and generate better data on indicators.
“This is the first time that experienced central government prabharis will converge their acumen with a state officer and district administrators to deliver speedy outcomes in the form of improved development indicators,” Rakesh Ranjan, deputy director general and senior consultant at the 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.
The existing district-level data on the four parameters have been used to create a district-wise dataset.
Giving 25 per cent weight to poverty, 30 per cent weight to health, 15 per cent to education, and 30 per cent to infrastructure, the NITI Aayog has formulated a weighted index for each parameter and selected the 115 districts on the basis of the principle mentioned above.
The infrastructure index has been calculated using four indicators: Electricity, roads, toilets, and potable water.
An older scheme, the Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF), which ran for a decade from 2007 till early 2017, encompassed 272 districts (up from 250 on the original 2007 list), almost 40 per cent of all districts in India.
Having realised the enormity of the approach and improper utilisation of funds by states - the ultimate implementers - the NITI Aayog 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 did not succeed in its vision, various evaluation studies reveal.
Only a third of the funds were utilised by states, one-tenth of the sanctioned works did not see the light of day, two-thirds of the works were completed, and a third of the surveyed districts received grants for capacity building.
Only 5 per cent of the sanctioned amount of Rs 2,840 crore was utilised by states in the final year (2014-15) of its operation.
Administrative and procedural delays, problems in land acquisition, and an absence of timely inspection froze the scheme, which was delinked from central support in 2015-16.
Among the 115 districts, 35 are listed on account of being hamstrung by left-wing extremism.
The scheme intends to have a case-by-case approach on district development, but uniformity in the governance process atop it.
The scheme intends to install a better mechanism to capture data on the development of districts, and use that to close gaps in implementation.
Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters