Aspirational Districts Programme, a successful model of local development, says UNDP report

UNDP India released an appraisal report on transformation of 112 most backward districts recently (Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
UNDP India released an appraisal report on transformation of 112 most backward districts recently (Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India released an independent appraisal report on the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) recently. The report captures the progress of the flagship initiative and recommendations for further improvements.

The ADP was launched in 2018, with the objective of expediting the transformation of 112 most backward districts across 28 states through convergence across government departments. Keeping in mind, the need to accelerate progress in these backward districts, NITI Aayog has been convening regular monitoring to encourage District Collectors to prioritize and deliver their best on the ground.

The report, which includes a comparison of Aspirational Districts (ADs) with non-aspirational districts, indicates that ADs have outperformed non-ADs by substantial margins, given the increased focus through monitoring real-time data, convergence across government programmes and schemes, and receiving the benefits of the Aspirational Districts Programme.

Faster development in the ADs was all the more creditable given the fact that to start with, most of them were difficult and remotely located backward districts. The report states that the ADP is a “very successful model of local area development” that should “serve as a best practice for several other countries where regional disparities in development status persist for many reasons”. “Notwithstanding some speedbumps in its journey, the APD has been immensely successful in propelling development among the backward districts,” it says.

For developing this report, the UNDP Team interviewed various stakeholders including District Magistrates, Central Prabhari Officers, District Fellows and other Development Partners.

Sectoral analysis

UNDP’s analysis across the 5 key sectors of the ADP—health and nutrition; education; agriculture and water resources; basic infrastructure; and skill development and financial inclusion—found that the programme has acted as a catalyst for expediting development in these districts.

According to the report, while health and nutrition, education, and to a certain extent, agriculture and water resources, have registered massive improvements, the other indicators despite making significant strides offer scope for further strengthening.

Across the sectors of health and nutrition and financial inclusion, the report found that 9.6% more home deliveries are attended by a skilled birth attendant; 5.8% more pregnant women with severe anaemia are treated; 4.8% more children diagnosed with diarrhoea are treated; 4.5% more pregnant women register for antenatal care within their first trimester; 406 and 847 more enrolments, and 1580 more accounts opened per 1 lakh population under the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana, Pradhan Mantra Suraksha Bima Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, respectively.

UNDP also recommends the ‘Malaria Mukt Bastar Abhiyaan’ in Bijapur and Dantewada, which has reduced malaria incidences in these districts by 71% and 54%, respectively, as one of the ‘best practices’ found in Aspirational Districts.

According to the report, the districts have also admitted that the continued focus of the programme on health and nutrition has helped them in tackling the COVID-19 crisis with greater resilience. For instance, ‘Malkangiri district in Odisha, which is located in close proximity to both neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, became an entry point for several migrant workers returning back to the state during the initial phase of lockdown. The district officials claimed to have used their new infrastructure to serve as institutional quarantine centres for migrants.’

In the domain of agriculture and water resources, the report notes that “districts like Washim have collaborated with private organisations to develop cost-effective methods of better irrigation and water resources such as recharge pits. Others like Chanduali (Uttar Pradesh), Simdega (Jharkhand) and Godda (Jharkhand) have used their unique topographic features to harvest crops best suited for their regions. Many of these are high-value crops that can be exported or used in different industries, such as the production of lemongrass in Godda.

This report also underlines the strengths of state and local governments to bring all partners and stakeholders to collaborate to achieve the goals and targets. It clearly shows evidence of how localizing the global SDGs and monitoring them closely have helped the local governments to improve people’s lives.

NITI Aayog has termed this report very useful as it clearly shows that the template of Aspirational Districts Programme, which has the innovative features of careful selection of performance indicators, monitoring the progress on a dashboard and healthy competition among districts, can be used for accelerating development in backward regions in India and in other parts of the world. 

The report also recognizes the unique collaborative nature of the programme to bring all stakeholders, including state and local governments, development partners, and citizens, together to achieve goals and targets. It is this key pillar that enabled district commissioners ‘to build a strong COVID-19 response and cope with the challenges of the pandemic by working in close coordination’ with the panchayats, faith and community leaders and development partners in their respective districts.

While exploring the 3Cs, ‘Convergence, Competition and Collaboration’, approach of the ADP, the report said most interviewees ‘emphasized the importance of convergence that fostered moving away from working in silos towards synchronised planning and governance to achieve the targets of the programme’. Similarly, the ‘competition’ aspect too was found ‘to be helpful in promoting better monitoring and creating healthy competition to achieve targets of the programme. This also served as a motivating factor for districts to increase their efforts and track progress’.

The programme has strengthened the technical and administrative capacities of the districts, however, the report said there was a need to focus more on capacity building, ‘including the appointment of dedicated personnel such as Aspirational District Fellows or Technical Support Units across all the districts or to collaborate with development partners for providing technical expertise, skills training, etc’.

The report also appreciated the delta rankings provided on the programme’s Champions of Change dashboard. The competitive and dynamic culture fostered by it has successfully pushed several low performing districts (as per baseline rankings) to improve their standing in the past three years. Simdega (Jharkhand), Chandauli (Uttar Pradesh), Sonbhadra (Uttar Pradesh) and Rajgarh (Madhya Pradesh) were found to have progressed the most since the beginning of the programme.

The report recommends several initiatives undertaken under the programme as best practices. Noteworthy among them is GoalMart, an e-commerce portal launched by Assam’s Goalpara district administration ‘to promote rural, ethnic and agrarian products of the district in the national and global markets’. The initiative has been particularly helpful during the COVID-19 lockdown as it released farmers and retailers from the clutches of brick-and-mortar shops.

Goalpara’s black rice is a favourite on this portal—and it has also proven to be highly profitable to the farmers. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh’s Chandauli district decided to experiment with the cultivation of black rice, due to its high demand in global markets and good profit margins. The project was a success and high-quality black rice is now being exported to Australia and New Zealand.

“The ADP can have the biggest impact by localizing the global goals, translating and delivering them as integrated programmes and services that work to improve people’s lives, particularly for those at risk of falling behind,” shared Ms. Shoko Noda, Resident Representative, UNDP India.

As regards challenges and suggestions, the report said some stakeholders highlighted the need to revise a few indicators that are close to being saturated or met by most districts, such as ‘electrification of households’ as an indicator of basic infrastructure. It was also found that while on average, the districts have seen an increase in resilience and decrease in vulnerabilities, the least-improved districts have witnessed an increase in vulnerabilities, which requires a special focus on the sectors in which these districts have underperformed.

The report stressed the need to ensure “the focus on development is encouraged further, and momentum gained so far in expediting growth is maintained. Based on the findings of the evaluation, it is recommended that the success of the programme be scaled up and replicated for other sectors and districts.”

The complete report can be accessed here