Aspirational District Programme – Achievements and Suggestions – Explained, Pointwise


The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) India has released a report titled ‘Aspirational Districts Programme: An Appraisal’. The report calls the program a global example of leveraging local structures of governance and bureaucracy. It applauds the multi-stakeholder partnership for ensuring localization of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

UNDP marks the Aspirational Districts Program as a model replicable program not just within India, but also on a global scale. However, it also calls for broadening its scope and laying greater emphasis on the qualitative aspect of the program. Hence, the government should take proactive steps for ensuring regionally balanced, inclusive, and sustainable growth.

About the Aspirational Districts Programme
  • It was launched in 2018 to improve the socio-economic status of 112 aspirational districts across 28 states. 
    • The selected districts were witnessing the least progress on certain development parameters, such as health and nutrition; education; agriculture, and water resources, etc.
    • These districts account for more than 20% of the country’s population and cover over 8,600 gram panchayats.
  • It is coordinated by Niti Aayog with support from Central Ministries and the State Governments. 
  • The three core principles of the programme are:
    • Convergence of Central & State Schemes, which brings together the horizontal and vertical tiers of the government.
    • Collaboration among citizens and functionaries of Central & State Governments, including district teams. This will enable impactful partnerships between government, market, and civil society.
    • Competition among districts driven by a spirit of the mass movement.
  • Each district is ranked based on 49 performance indicators identified across the 5 core themes. This includes 
    • Health & Nutrition (30% weightage)
    • Education (30% weightage)
    • Agriculture & Water Resources (20% weightage)
    • Financial Inclusion & Skill Development (10%)
    • Basic Infrastructure (10%)
  • The delta ranking of the Aspirational Districts combines the innovative use of data with pragmatic administration. 
    • The programme ranks districts based on the improvement achieved month-on-month through the Champions of Change dashboard (An online Dashboard).

The success of the program lies in its robust institutional framework and core strategy.

Institutional framework and core strategy
  • Framework:
    • NITI Aayog anchors the program at the central level while individual ministries have been responsible to drive progress in districts
    • States are the main drivers of the program
    • For each district, a central Prabhari officer has been nominated. He/she should possess the rank of joint secretary/additional secretary.
  • Core Strategy of the programme:
    • Work on the strength of each district.
    • Make development a mass movement in these districts.
    • Identify low-hanging fruits and the strength of each district which can act as a catalyst for development.
    • Measure progress and rank districts to spur a sense of competition.
    • Districts shall aspire from becoming State’s best to Nation’s best.
Why was it praised by the UNDP?
  1. First, the program can illuminate the path towards the attainment of sustainable development goals. It is a very successful model of local area development and aligned to the principle of “leave no one behind” – the vital core of the SDGs.
  2. Second, real-time monitoring on the ‘Champions of Change’ dashboard and a monthly ranking of the best-performing districts adds a competitive zeal to the programme. This motivates the districts to push themselves to outperform others.
  3. Third, some aspirational districts have performed better than non- aspirational districts in many domains. This shows its efficacy in ensuring balanced regional development.
  4. Fourth, the program received a high degree of political support as it was envisioned by the PM itself. This resulted in more growth and development in the aspirational districts over the last three years.
  5. Fifth, the program managed to deliver optimum results even in security-sensitive LWE (left-wing extremism) affected districts.
  6. Sixth, the program encourages collaboration and coordination among the government, civil society, and private sector. This led to the adoption of a multi-stakeholder approach in planning and implementing the projects, which delivered better results.
Achievements of Aspirational Districts Programme
  • Health and Nutrition: Model anganwadi centres have been set up across districts to benefit women and children. The number of institutional deliveries has increased, along with a dip registered in the rate of severe acute malnutrition in infants.
    • Poshan App has been developed for an aspirational district in Ranchi. It is a real-time data analytics digital platform. 
    • It monitors bed occupancy, child-growth charts, and the inventory of every malnourishment treatment center in the district
  • Education outcomes: Innovation and digitisation have been the cornerstone of transformation in the education sector. The ‘Hamara Vidhyalaya’ model adopted in Namsai, a remote district in Arunachal Pradesh, registered substantial improvement in learning outcomes and overall teaching practices.
    • Under this model, a school prabhari is appointed for each school in the district to ensure monitoring, assessment, and guidance. The model makes use of an online platform called ‘Yathasarvam’ for improving the outcomes.
  • Agriculture and water resources: District administrations have laid tremendous emphasis on improving irrigation facilities and yield, as well as farmer education. Several innovative paths have been adopted to create market linkages for products indigenous to the aspirational districts.
    • The farmers of Chandauli, U.P were encouraged to grow fertiliser-free organic black rice.
    • The experiment was remarkably successful, with Chandauli adding to the thriving global market of black rice and exporting to even countries like Australia and New Zealand. 
  • Basic Infrastructure: This pillar witnessed significant advancement, especially in LWE affected districts. This ensured better connectivity and seamless movement from rural to urban regions.
    • Bijapur in Chhattisgarh and Malkangiri in Odisha have greatly improved the network of roadways and ramped up the infrastructure projects in their jurisdiction. 
  • Financial inclusion and skill development: Micro-ATMs have been launched in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district to provide financial assistance to women self-help group members. They are provided with commission-based income on every transaction.
Issues associated with the Aspirational Districts Programme
  • Inadequate Coverage: Although the program is highly inclusive in nature, it fails to capture crucial variables like environment and gender.
  • Imbalance in implementation: Most districts channelized their efforts focused on health and nutrition, education, and agriculture, and water resources. They paid less emphasis on the sectors of Skill Development and Financial Inclusion.
  • Budgetary Constraints: ADP is affected by the issue pertaining to insufficient budgetary resources. This sustains the lack of human resources and the dearth of technical capacities at the district and block levels.
  • Coordination Issue: Niti Aayog plays a mentoring role in 27 districts in eight states. Twelve central government ministries have similarly adopted the remaining districts. Implementation involving multiple ministries leads to a lack of coordination.
  • Shortcomings of Delta Ranking: It is largely focused on assessing quantity (that is, coverage of access) rather than quality. For instance, timely delivery of textbooks in schools is part of the ranking index however very little weightage is given to the quality of education rendered in these districts.
Suggestions to improve the Aspirational Districts Programme
  • The first UNDP appraisal of the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) has recommended a realignment of sectors under the program. It calls for the addition of topics such as environment and gender.
  • The weightage of Skill Development and Financial Inclusion sectors must be enhanced so that states give greater focus over them.
  • The government must give greater funding to the districts, especially the LWE districts, which are plagued with the double burden of countering LWE activities and ensuring development.
  • The center and states must work in the spirit of cooperative and competitive federalism in order to improve the lives of the most vulnerable citizens. 
  • Further, the bottom-ranked districts should learn from the success model of the top-ranked districts.

The success of the Aspirational Districts Programme has been testified by national as well as international agencies. It is a flagship initiative for improving the lives of citizens residing in the most backward regions of the country. The need of the hour demands overcoming its challenges and realizing the vision of ‘SABKA SATH, SABKA VIKAS’ for ensuring inclusive development.

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