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District development, data and diversity: Lessons and the way forward


By Dr Manorama Bakshi* and Dr Arjun Kumar**
The coronavirus pandemic has posed numerous challenges to the development of the districts, one of the most important administrative unit, in India. There has been a push towards development at the grassroots level, for instance, AtmaNirbhar Bharat, Vocal for Local, one district one product, National Infrastructure Pipeline, and so on. To measure the development and diversity of the country, it is important to focus on the statistical architecture of districts, and therefore, it is imperative to have a credible and more assessable dynamic data disaggregated at district level. The need for this has been raised at different levels including the policymakers. In light of this, a Special Lecture by Professor Abusaleh Shariff followed by Panel Discussion on District Development, Data and Diversity: Lessons and the Way Forward, was organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi on November 2, 2020.
Prof Shariff highlighted the massive improvement in the size and quality of development data in India. But, since India is a large country with a population of more than 1.3 billion, the data is accrued from multiple levels. Therefore, with multiple sources, multiple methods and interplay of multiple levels, there are huge complexities involved to create these authentic data. While the digitisation has helped to a huge extent, yet a proper evaluation of government data has not been made.
Prof Shariff pointed out, “The major issue is about data aggregation and data disaggregation. The major issue, also, is how to structure the data for a policy and how to structure the data for a larger audience, i.e., the citizens of India because we need to tell the truth through data as data use a definitive answer. Getting data at the district level is not easy in India, but we are still at it. The problem with India is it is not the intent, but it is the type of implementation and that is where we lack now in India.”
He highlighted that the gender and diversity issues and concept of demographic dividend are often ignored in data, and remained hopeful that these could be included in the data measurement. He said that it was very important to institutionalise independent data collection and data warehousing outside the government system. This is primarily because data is a public resource, and must be easily available to everybody who seeks to understand our society and our economy. He remarked that, “we have national-level statistics, international comparisons, state comparison, but most important is the data for the district and parliamentary constituency which we generally don’t think about because now a lot of funds are transferred through the parliamentary system, through the MPs and the MLAs. So we need to create data for those boundaries as well.”
India has different sources of data like the government sources, which itself has multiple sources. Then, we have private experts, data generators, NSS surveys, data through academic research and so on. But another kind of data is needed for the qualitative and quantitative nature, rapid rural appraisals. “we need to work on multiple strategies to understand the importance of creating data at the district level. We need to create these data at the district level by communities to ensure that there is both equity and equal opportunity in this country,” concluded Prof Shariff.
In the panel discussion, Ms Avani Kapur, Director, Accountability Initiatives, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi said that COVID-19 pandemic has casted a tremendous light on the diversity of India. “During the early 1960s, there was a report of the Committee on the dispersal of industries which had spoken about how there are certain districts in the country, which are affecting the overall performance of the country. Over a period of time, the idea of trying to identify these “weak or backward” districts have continued. So, most teams started to have inbuilt features of looking at specific state for specific districts, but did not receive the kind of success that we would have wanted as the poorest districts were still left behind.”
She expressed her concerns that, it is generally understood that for any successful policy intervention, especially in the social sector, there must be, require robust planning and coordination in the governance. But there is a lack of appreciation of the districts where most things converge. Often, it’s just that it’s an implementing arm and rarely has enough decision-making authority. But most importantly, often it doesn’t have its own resources as well.” This becomes a big problem when discussing inter-district variation.
The 2016 Economics Survey of India mapped the top six welfare programs: housing scheme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, midday meal scheme, the road scheme, MGNREGA, and Swachh Bharat Mission. The findings of it were that under no scheme the poorest districts received even 40% of the total resources. Hence, while in theory, we have this system of prioritisation at the district level, in reality it does not happen. As a result of that, the poorest are often at the receiving end, which then becomes a continuous vicious circle.
Ms Kapur further says that “even if we have a focus system, it won’t work because often budgeting and systems are centralised and hence have system-level changes, not something that a district itself can control. The question which we have yet to answer is about the role of the district as a development function in the welfare state like India? Despite having 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, we still haven’t placed enough emphasis on the capacity or role of the district as well as a district administration.
Although most schemes do not even tend to converge at a district level, but theoretically, should be converging at the household level, but by having these parallel structures and not mapping out who’s doing what, we never have a sense of what happens at the household level. And, by not having a public finance system or a budgeting system that is aligned with the idea of the district development and similarly, not thinking through administrative architecture as well, data in some ways is a consequence of both of these factors.
Ms Kapur concludes by saying that there are three things which she thinks immediately needs to be done if we are serious about getting the district diversity right. First, there should be a clarity on the role of the districts, and where do the local governments fit into this. Second, there is a need to fix our data systems but to do that, we must move away from the information islands that exist. And, finally, a time to make it political, in the sense that the shifts are interesting, because they are close enough to constituency boundaries, and there have been some attempts to do that. But that’s one way that we can move forward possibly, where we get more and more people invested in the district as a unit.
Dr Amit Kapoor, Chairman, Institute for Competitiveness, Gurugram said that when the aspirational district program was designed, it was designed for the most backward districts in the country, it was not something to do with attracting investments, but it was more as a focus or a program wherein the aim was to push development.
There is a huge vertical imbalance of development across India exists and because of this a program like aspirational district program becomes important, because at the levels of development, there are enormous disparities. Hence, we must create programs as a country wherein we can uplift various sets of districts that exist.
The discussion can always be whether AtmaNirbhar Bharat is about self-reliance, or is it about going back to the decade-old idea of self-sufficiency, or what it was said in the Nehruvian times? But predominantly it can be seen that we are going to see some huge changes in the way the globalized order is happening. And we might want to have much more resilient systems within the country.
Dr Kapoor further asserted the point, “there are two sets of objectives that any government has to fulfil – economic and social. But the main challenge that exists at all levels of geography is how do we bring social objectives and economic objectives together? The aspirational district program has been one of the most phenomenal programs that the government has run in the last few years. Of course, there has been a discussion about a vertical interaction and removing disparities from districts and bringing the development districts closer.
Speaking about the positive side, Dr Kapoor said that “there has been a whole huge movement that has happened in terms of development across districts, and within the aspirational district program as well. Hence, today, the challenge is going to move these aspirational districts program ahead of the non-aspirational districts which were far ahead. This is important if the objective is to make the bottom 10% or 20% of the districts out of the 700 to do well. The most significant change is that there is a larger convergence of scores or average scores of these districts, hence, the disparity between districts is reducing and as a consequence, some huge critical gaps are actually being filled.”
Dr Shreya Sinha, University of Cambridge, UK, said that one of the things that need to be factored in any kind of development planning is to understand the challenges of climate change and sustainability. “The fact that not all regions of the country have been agricultural developed in the same way and some disproportionately more than other regions of the country has caused structural constraints that need to be recognised and grappled with if we are to look at not only the development of districts on their own but also, development of districts adding up to a kind of higher-level development, nationally or state at the state level.”
On the question of uneven development, “There is a lot of conversation around the fact that we need district development to converge. So, this language of convergence and divergence is not typical to India at all, it has been the language of development and modernisation theory in the post-world war years, and they’ve been subject to a fair amount of critique.” According to her, divergence is sort of a kind of catch up discourse because it almost bifurcates the developed and the underdeveloped as if they are completely unrelated and the development of one is not dependent on the underdevelopment of the other. Moreover, that kind of unequal relation is completely missing in the analysis of district development or regional development.
Fascinated by the question of social identities she pointed out that “A district which is dominated by adivasis with production conditions is extremely different from an aspirational district in Punjab. They can’t be seen as the same thing even at the national level.” She also flagged the fact that the district must be made vehicles of development and development programs of interventions.”
“One may want to increase employment or encourage industry in different districts. But the question is how the district alone can help the economy which has basically for the past two decades been defined by something called jobless growth. This is a political question. Do we want to go back to planning in the form of Planning Commission even though there were drawbacks to planning? Is the current system adequate in addressing some of these challenges? There is the question of the federal structure, decentralization, and the question of resources. Hence, everything boils down to political will, whether it’s about data collection, or sharing devolution of power, said Dr Sinha in her concluding remarks.
Dr Jyotsna Jha, Director, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS), Bengaluru, said that it was not only about the size at the level of which we want the data, but also about an administrative unit – a unit with some amount of independence to act. “We have data, but they are completely highly uncoordinated data because we don’t want districts to become strong and independent. Hence, that’s where the question about the intent comes.” Even though we have governance structures, we do not have a matching system of data that would facilitate local decision making, and that’s why it suits upper levels, state governments and national governments because if district level and below district level governments remain weak, the upper-level governments will remain strong. And, hence the question of intent remains relevant.
Although the quality of the government data has perhaps improved as compared to 20 years ago, they have improved for their own schematic reporting but that does not mean that planning overall has improved, these are two different things. It is just for reporting and most of these data is not even available in the public domain. Even mandatory data is not available in public. The data system will improve when we have a culture of transparency and a commitment to accountability, said Dr Jha.
Dr Jha highlighted, “If one is structuring data for decision making, then one doesn’t analyse number of districts, one also has to look at how the others are feeding back and how two districts with similar indicators can have very different kinds of needs. So, unless one links it to decision-making, the data systems are not going to change and that is the problem that we are facing.”
The improved quality of data doesn’t mean the data speak with each other, these are all parallel good set of data visualisation which is merely a visual and does not lead to many things. Hence, unless data is linked with a purpose, and a kind of control over decision making weakens the system. Therefore, it requires a good conceptual base and technological skills, though the process and political stakes are as important, given there have been no action on numerous CAG, parliamentary and other committees reports flagging the implementation and other concerns.
In her concluding remarks, Dr Jha said that “we have far more sophisticated ways of depicting data, but we do not have and perhaps we have now gone reverse when it comes to linking data with decision making. It’s time to look at both data and diversity as political issues and not technology alone as a solution or as an enabler, but politics as the solution.”

*Senior Advisor, TATA Trusts and **Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi). To see more data related insights from IMPRI, visit Generation Alpha Data Centre South Asia, a cutting edge next-generation startup Data Centre at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

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