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Amitabh Kant: ‘There is transformation on the ground’

Amitabh Kant: ‘It is about governance based on data’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Apr. 29, 2022
Updated: May. 27, 2022

VISIBLE improvements in government services are being reported from 112 backward districts in India under a special initiative involving the Centre, state governments and local administrations.

Called the Aspirational Districts Programme, the initiative seeks to develop some of the worst-off parts of the country. It promotes data-based governance by assessing the performance of a district on a month-to-month basis, giving district officials feedback and helping them meet their challenges.

The programme looks at 49 indicators across health, nutrition, school education, agriculture, water, financial inclusion, skill-building and basic infrastructure.

District administrations are encouraged to improve on their own scores, thereby recognizing that they have unique problems. But a spirit of competition is also engendered through a dashboard of scores that shows who stands where.

To find out more, Civil Society spoke to Amitabh Kant, Chief Executive Officer of NITI Aayog, who leads the programme at the national level.

Eloquent and energetic, Kant took us through various aspects of the programme at the renovated offices of the NITI Aayog in New Delhi which are well-lit, upbeat and process-driven. Below are edited excerpts: 

Q: The Aspirational Districts Programme has three overarching goals of Convergence, Collaboration and Competition. In broad strokes, could you tell us how successful you have been in achieving these? What are the mechanisms that you feel you have gainfully employed? 

These are 112 of the most underdeveloped districts in India. We don’t call them backward. We call them aspirational. They are geographically far-flung and very difficult to access  and so on. Historically these districts have not done well. Not from a lack of resources, but because of lack of adequate staff, lack of morale and basically lack of governance.

Since Indian states are very large, state-level competition hides intrastate variations. That’s why we looked at the district. It was the Prime Minister’s idea to pick up the most poor districts and improve governance there.

We launched the programme in January 2018 and the Prime Minister personally told district collectors to take it as a challenge, a rare opportunity, to transform these districts.

So our objective was to ensure that there is better governance. And how do you improve governance. When I was a collector in Kerala in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I did not know whether my district was going up or coming down because data used to come in five to six years later. But today it is possible to get data on a real- time basis, analyze that data and put out rankings of  performance.

(For these 112 districts) we have 49 indicators across health, nutrition, school education, agriculture, water, financial inclusion, skill-building and the creation  of basic infrastructure. 
After  getting data right from the grassroots, we monitor it, analyze it and put out the rankings of the districts on a monthly basis so that everybody knows how they are performing. 
It is not a historical ranking, but how they have performed during the course of the month on each one of these indicators. The 112 districts compete with each other. And every month we have been announcing a winner.

The best performing district gets an award of `10 crore and the second, `5 crore. And on each one of these indicators, we give `5 crore to the best performing district. The collector can do anything good for his district with that money.

So, the objective is it should be based on data. It should be put out in the public domain. It should actually lead to transformation on the ground.

This competition has led to transformation of these districts. Two different studies have been undertaken, one by UNDP and another by Michael Porter of Harvard. Both these studies have highlighted how transformation has taken place in these districts.

We’ve been requesting the state governments to ensure that young collectors are posted to these districts. We have asked that they remain there for a long time and not be transferred regularly.

Our objective is to be focussed on development around 49 indicators, real-time monitoring, sharing of best practices and the creation of effective teams for transformation at the district level.

And lastly, we want to make all this development which we have done into a very big mass movement, a jan andolan, at the grassroots level. At the field level.

The Champions of Change platform (on which the scores of each district go up) is a great tool for the districts to pay special attention  to some of the critical indicators. It brings to light issues as to why movement isn’t happening in indicators, or, if it is slow, what are the potential reasons  behind it. This process by itself is complex and differs from district to district. 

Q: So a mass movement looking at certain development solutions....

Every district has done something unique, something different. And all these best practices are documented today. The best practices of one district have been replicated in others. 


Q: How have you managed to make the collaboration part work?

Collaboration is based on several factors. One is the team of officers there. We have said keep the team of the district medical officer, district education officer and collector intact.

Two, state governments were asked to have a prabhari officer so that any assistance required by the district should be made available there.

The central government also added a prabhari officer for these aspirational districts and therefore we assisted them from the Centre in all this. We try to work in regular partnership with the districts and the state governments.

We have been able to push state governments into allocating the necessary teachers and doctors so that the district would go up. And because these are aspirational districts, we have been constantly monitoring performance.

It is data-based governance. Government never works on data. Government never works in real time. It never works in competition. Government never works on naming and shaming. Government never puts data in the public domain. All these have become the hallmarks of good governance under this programme.

Q: The states, how did they respond? What are the problems with funding?

See, this programme is not about funding. It is very important to understand this. It is not that these districts do not get funds. They get the same amount of funds as any other district. But the utilisation of funds is very poor. Outcomes are not there. There is lack of morale, lack of teachers, lack of doctors.

So the challenge is not of funds. It is a challenge of good governance. How do you bring in good governance was the challenge. How do you say that this district has performed badly, when the district didn’t even know that it was performing badly. Our job was to see that in four years’ time it is able to come up to the average of the best performing district in the state and in seven years’ time become the best performing district in the country.

So, the majority of these aspirational districts have become better performing. They have become better performing than the best performing districts of the state. They have jumped up substantially. If they become better performing than the best district of the state, that means they’re going up. There are various examples. And now our job is to ensure that these districts actually become the best performing districts in the country.

Q: Is there inertia at the state level? Has this been an issue?

No. Since data is being put out, in everybody’s face, if you’re a non-performer, the state chief minister would come to know about it.  If a district is performing well, the chief minister would also come to know about it. This is data-based governance with all the data put in the public domain whether the state likes it or not. A state has no other option but to show that its district is able to compete with others and ensure that it does better than the others.

Q: So states are not left with much option here?

I wouldn’t say that. I would say that we regularly met the chief secretary and we sent the performance of these districts to the chief secretary. We regularly made presentations to the chief secretary in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, so that they could come to know how their districts were doing, how they were performing. Whether they’re going up or down. So we kept the chief secretary fully informed.

Q: But the states must have required some handholding on things like health?

All the central ministries have their own action plan for implementation in these aspirational districts. All of them utilize their own resources for transforming these aspirational districts. It is a programme that was launched by the Prime Minister.

The central government quite often gets very far removed from the grassroots. The intention also was  that the government should understand the challenges of the anganwadi, understand the challenges of school education, understand the challenges of health. In addition to that our own officers have been regularly visiting the districts. 

Q: So you feel this programme has in four years made a big impact?  

Yes, it has had a tremendous impact.

Q: It is visible to you?

Yes, it is visible and it is a transformation.

Q: You must have used the private sector.

We have used civil society organizations.

Q: Mainly NGOs? 

We’ve used a whole lot of NGOs. We are strong believers that it’s not possible for government to transform everything. It’s not possible without working in partnership with civil society organizations. So we have the Piramal Foundation, Tata Trusts and  a number of foundations working with us for doing this transformational work. We are strong believers that civil society organizations at the cutting edge play a very critical role and do a lot of development.

Q: Since we’re on this topic, a lot of civil society organizations tend to think that they’re getting left out.

We’ve tried to include as many civil society organizations as possible. We have allowed everybody to do this partnership.

Q: The Piramal Foundation or the Tata Trusts  have a certain presence. We see them and we see the others as well. There are a lot of others.

We welcome anyone who wants to work in the Aspirational Districts Programme. Many organizations have associated with this programme as development partners to share their resources in terms of  technical expertise and human resources.

The Piramal Foundation has positioned a team of three to four fellows in each aspirational district and they are working closely with the administration in education and health.

Similarly, ITC is working in the agriculture sector. The Bachpan Bachao Andolan and Save the Children are involved in child health and education. TRIFED is working for tribal development. CSBC for  behavioural change. And there are many more.

Q: What about states like UP, Bihar...? 

We have districts from all over. The selection of the 112 districts was very transparent and based on indicators.

Q: Do you think this will have an impact on, you know, the overall indicators in UP and Bihar, for instance?

It has had an impact. If the worst-performing districts rise up, the overall performance of the state improves.

Q: So in four years itself, you could see this change?

Yes. We got third-party analysis done.

Q: What are the interesting districts that catch your eye? 

There are a lot of interesting stories. For example, Lohardaga district in Jharkhand, an LWE (Left-Wing Extremism)-affected  area, has raised registration of pregnant women within the first trimester from just four percent in  2018 to 95 percent in 2022.

Districts such as Karauli in Rajasthan, Namsai in Arunachal  Pradesh, Dhalai in Tripura have increased the percentage of institutional deliveries from an average of around 40 percent to more than 90 percent. Many districts like Sukma, where less  than 50 percent of children were immunized until 2018, the immunization rate has now gone above 90 percent. Almost each of the 112 districts has shown extraordinary achievement in at least one of the themes of the programme in the past four years. 

Q: What does your programme ignite at the district level?

Passion and commitment for change based on good governance. The focus is just good governance, nothing else. And data-based and outcome-based. Which is never there in government. That kind of data monitoring, that kind of outcome-based monitoring is never done.

In the past four years we have seen some innovative projects funded through  the competition amount won by the districts. For instance, Project MITTI  or Multilateral Initiative for Technical Transformation of Rural Institutions was proposed by district Simdega in Jharkhand. MITTI  focuses on strengthening self-governance at the village level by introducing the Chabutra, Haat and Pustakalaya. The Chabutras were used in the villages  to conduct mohalla classes and improve the spread of awareness about vaccination. The Chabutra and Haat are the real setting for bringing any behavioural change in society.

Q: What about people’s participation? Gram sabhas and so on? 

In all districts, we have set a jan andolan as  our objective. Everybody should participate. This transformation cannot take place without participation. That’s why we have the involvement of civil society organizations. Normally,  government machinery is not geared to do all this, which is why this participation has been very, very important.

Q: The districts you have chosen are the most backward. We realize change  doesn’t come overnight. There has also been a pandemic for the past two years. But going just by the numbers you have on your dashboard, what is the transformation you can envision? Especially in education and health which carry the most weightage. 

Since the inception of the programme, significant improvement in health, nutrition and education has been noted, along with a positive social and economic impact. According to  Round 5 of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), in critical care areas — such as antenatal  care, institutional deliveries, child immunization, use of family planning methods — the  aspirational districts have shown relatively faster improvement. 

Aspirational districts have also shown significant improvement in the latest NFHS-5  survey results when compared to NFHS-4, especially in indicators that are also tracked in  the programme.

The districts showed significant improvement in indicators related to the health of pregnant women, such as ANC registrations of pregnant women in the first trimester and institutional deliveries. In ANC registration, districts from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have improved from 36 percent to 56 percent, and districts from Madhya Pradesh from 47 percent to 71 percent. 
Antenatal care is important in the lifecycle of women’s care that ensures maintenance of health of the mother during pregnancy. ANC check-ups help  in identification of high-risk cases and prevent development of complications.

In institutional deliveries as well, districts from Uttar Pradesh have improved from  53 percent to 79 percent, and districts from Bihar from 62 percent to 74 percent. ADP focuses on various  indicators pertaining to women’s health which are central in improving national  indicators.

Q: You have critics of this programme who question the numbers and say there is inadequate third-party verification. Would you say there could be some merit in this criticism or is it completely over the top? 

Please ask the critics to write to me directly. I will be happy to engage them in fixing the data pipeline for the government. 

See, since the beginning of the programme there have been quarterly, granular, and household sample based third-party surveys to validate as well as collect critical data.

Up until the beginning of the pandemic, we had already done three rounds of  sample surveys which gave district-level estimates. Using Small Area Estimation for select indicators, we have also been able to look at block-level estimates in some cases.  These survey estimates have been shared with the districts, as well as the states for necessary action at their end.

Additionally, data on skill development as well as financial inclusion comes from the respective transactional systems and the districts have no role in entering the data. Similarly, for other themes, we keep track of various  alternative sources of data. For example, for the health sector, my team routinely checks in with the MoHFW on the data that is being reported to them. Such triangulation methods do help keep the margin of variation in check.

For the past two years, we have developed an anomaly detection system that runs through the submitted data from the districts and raises data quality flags straight to the district collectors or magistrates before our systems take up the submitted data for ranking  purposes. The district administrations are expected to justify uneven increase/decrease in data before it is accepted. For example, if there is a sudden rise in immunization rates, my  team is able to flag if the data might be a reflection of seasonal variation in pregnancies and deliveries, or whether it was a result of estimation at the level of the ministry of  health.

Please note that we work with a lot of data where the universe is very challenging to know, even in the more connected urban centres, let alone the aspirational districts.

The back-and-forth feedback approach is informed by the concepts of behavioural  economics. Through nudging the system to think critically of data, we are generating various discussions on data at different levels of public administration so as to improve the understanding of data as well as the links between data and service delivery.

At the end of every rank release cycle, consolidated performance reports are shared with the district administrations as well as the chief secretaries of the concerned states/UTs so as to aid them in conducting reviews at their level.

The real issue is not whether we need less or more third-party assessments, but how to develop robust systems of monitoring and review which ultimately help us in improving last-mile service delivery and assisting district administrations in having systems for reporting data that reflects the progress made on the ground.

We  prioritized core indicators because these core indicators affect a larger  number of other indicators. Instead of tracking everything and overwhelming the system with reporting, we are trying to keep the monitoring framework efficient enough  to drive improvements in service delivery.

The systems of data verification we deploy also need to account for extant staff availability and capacity and we believe that we are  appropriately balancing the various constraints to the best extent possible.

If any one of our critics has better ideas, they are most welcome to write to us. In fact, I am very happy to organize a hackathon or a workshop or something. But when these solutions come to me for review, I will expect that the critics have thought through the full lifecycle of service delivery provision in the context of the 112 aspirational districts.



    PUJA DAVE - May 12, 2022, 10:58 a.m.

    TEAM, The article has been a very interesting read. I could connect to every word written as achievement in the ADP. We at JM Financial Foundation have been working for last five years in Jamui district in Bihar and the only measure that works are data, systemic change and complimenting district efforts. Long way to go but data driven measures will expedite the transformation.