India’s Aspirational Districts Programme Focuses Governance Efforts On Development

December 7, 2020

By Amit Kapoor, Michael Green, Mark Esposito and Chirag Yadav

It is being increasingly recognised that economic metrics like the gross domestic product (GDP) do not provide an accurate picture of human development. As a result of its widespread usage, economic growth has become an end in itself rather than a means to better development outcomes. The Indian government has recently taken steps to shift its focus beyond the mere pursuit of economic outcomes to directly target the most deprived sections and regions of the country. It is doing so in the form of the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP), which has taken up the task of focusing governance efforts on facilitating development efforts as a priority.

The programme was launched in January 2018 with an aim to improve the socio-economic status of the least developed regions across India. It maps development outcomes across five areas, namely health and nutrition, education, financial inclusion and skill development, agriculture and water resources, and basic infrastructure. Since the programme provides data transparency on the progress of the 112 districts mapped, it encourages the local administrations to ensure that developmental gains are realised on the ground.

The programme ecosystem allows different central and state government departments to work in tandem with each other along with the local administration, which were otherwise working in silos. It infuses the spirit of competitive federalism among regions to drive efforts towards common goals, and driven by competitiveness, districts strive to outperform their peers but also learn from them. It also encourages engagement with private partners on various facets of the programme from service delivery to data validation.

Apart from improving governance mechanisms at the local level, the programme was introduced with the idea to reduce regional disparities across the country. In India, the per capita income in the five most affluent states was 145 percent higher than that of the five poorest states in 2000, but in 2018-19, the gap was 400 percent (CMIE, 2020). Disparity exists within states as well, and the gap between the most developed and the least developed regions is only widening with time. The ADP endeavours to reduce that gap by improving the governance mechanisms in the least developed regions.

Even though the broader macroeconomic implications like regional equality might take longer to evidence productivity, the programme is already presenting rapid improvements in various social outcomes. For instance, as per data reported by the districts covered in the programme, the transition rate of children from primary to upper-primary level has gone up from under 88 percent to almost 95 percent on average within a span of two years. Similarly, the percentage of schools with functioning toilets for girls has increased from 87.6 percent to almost 98 percent on an average across the districts (NITI Aayog, 2020).

A recent study undertaken to assess the programme tested whether the impact due to the programme was significantly different from the status quo using a z-test (Kapoor & Green, 2020). It revealed that five out of nine health and nutrition indicators and four out of five education indicators registered statistically higher improvements under the Aspirational Districts Programme when compared to the progress that the regions were making on the same indicators prior to the start of the programme. These results are shown in Figure 1 in more detail. The first column of green boxes indicates that there was a significant difference after the programme began on the corresponding indicator. In case there was a significant impact, the other two columns indicate whether the impact was higher after the programme was implemented or before.

Figure 1. Impact of the Aspirational Districts programme on key development parameters


Best Practices

The study also noted several best practices that might facilitate replicating similar interventions around the world. First, awareness played a key role in the success of government efforts across these districts. For instance, the Shravasti district of Uttar Pradesh increased its immunization coverage from 31% in April 2017 to 72% in December 2018 through awareness activities about its benefits (NITI Aayog, 2020).

Second, data collection on a real-time basis across the key parameters of intervention has been central to the success of the programme. A dynamic dashboard monitors the impact of the programme and locates the nodes of improvement, which helps in identifying policies and interventions that are needed to drive change across the districts. The use of the data at the district level has allowed state and central administrations to be more responsive to local needs and allowed for a shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

Finally, a primary driver of the success of the programme, especially in a country as large as India, has been that it incentivised collaboration between different departments and tiers of the government along with private and civil society sectors. As the programme leverages assets and networks in a collective effort, it enhances the outreach capacity of the district administration in integrating the population.

As noted by Professors Michael E. Porter (HBS) and Scott Stern (MIT) about the Aspirational Districts Programme, “A striking finding is the impact of governance. Relative to a conventional top-down approach, the ADP supports active collaborations among multiple levels of governance within each ADP district, and the use of public-private partnerships. This stakeholder-oriented approach is driven by a shared understanding among the partners, and the use of a common language of outcome-oriented metrics and data.” By choosing such a collaborative approach, the programme is achieving success because it empowers the actors involved, ensures greater transparency and communication, and a better understanding of how the programme is being implemented on the ground.


About the Authors:


Amit Kapoor, PhD, is Honorary Chairman at the Institute for Competitiveness India; Visiting Scholar at Stanford University; President of the India Council on Competitiveness and Editor-in-Chief of Thinkers. He is the chair for the Social Progress Imperative & Shared Value Initiative in India. Kapoor is an affiliate faculty for the Microeconomics of Competitiveness & Value Based Health Care Delivery courses at the Institute of Strategy and Competitiveness, Harvard Business School and an instructor with Harvard Business Publishing in the area of Strategy, Competitiveness and Business Models. He has been inducted into the Competitiveness Hall of Fame which is administered by the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School in addition to being the recipient of the Ruth Greene Memorial Award for writing the best case of the year, by North American Case Research Association (NACRA). Kapoor is the author of bestsellers Riding the Tiger, which he co-authored with Wilfried Aulber and The Age of Awakening: The Story of the Indian Economy Since Independence published by Penguin Random House.



Michael Green is part of the team that created the Social Progress Index, a standard used to rank societies based on how they meet the needs of their citizens. In his book Philanthrocapitalism (co-authored with Economist business editor Matthew Bishop), Green defined a new model for social change built on partnerships between wealthy businesses, governments and community organizations. Shortly thereafter, Bishop floated the idea of a "Social Competitiveness Index," the idea that one day countries would compete with one another to be the most socially advanced, in the same way as they now compete to be economic top dog. Green loved it and decided to turn it into reality. Teaming up with Avina's president Brizio Biondi-Morra, Sally Osberg of the Skoll Foundation and many other thought leaders from businesses and foundations, he began work on what would become the Social Progress Imperative (SPI), of which he is now CEO. Later they were joined by Harvard management guru Michael E. Porter, who became chairman of the SPI's advisory board. The first Social Progress Index was published in 2014.



Mark Esposito, Ph.D, is co-founder of Nexus FrontierTech, and has held appointments and fellowships at the Hult International Business School, Harvard University, University of Cambridge and Arizona State University, where he is part of the 4IR Research Center at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. He has served from 2013 to 2019 as Co-Leader of the Institutes Council for the Microeconomics of Competitiveness Program at Harvard Business School, under the leadership of Professor Michael E. Porter. Esposito sits on boards of competitiveness councils worldwide and he is the co-author of 2 bestselling books, among which his latest one is: The AI Republic: Building the Nexus Between Humans and Intelligent Automation.



Chirag Yadav is Research Manager at Institute for Competitiveness. His research interests lie in the field of urban economics, inequality, economic history, and economic development. Yadav has authored several reports and case studies for the institute on various issues of economic development across Indian states. He also regularly writes for various national dailies and has co-authored a book on Indian economic history, The Age of Awakening.



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