117 districts classified as ‘aspirational’ show poor performance in fighting Covid


Express News Service

NEW DELHI:  With greater focus on health, nutrition and education among others, 117 districts labeled aspirational in 2018 were supposed to set the benchmark for other districts “by competing with and learning from others”.

Conventional wisdom dictated that these aspirational districts would have weathered the COVID-19 storm better than others, but a data analysis shows they have performed as poorly, if not worse, than any other in the country during the pandemic.

Take for instance Virudhunagar and Ramanathpuram in Tamil Nadu, ranked first and second by Niti Aayog, the institution that is driving the programme.

Virudhunagar accounted for 388 deaths whereas 18 other districts in the state saw fewer deaths. YSR Kadappa, with health rank seven, reported 542 deaths in Andhra Pradesh.

Nandurbar in Maharashtra was ranked 95 among the aspirational districts. It reported 818 Covid deaths. Osmanabad, also in Maharashtra, saw 1,320 deaths. The district is ranked 20th.

Their poor show is perhaps why on the seventh anniversary of the NDA at the Centre, two of the big slogans, aspirational districts and New India, are missing from the celebrations’ lexicon. Launched by Modi in January 2018, the drive was in line with the “New India vision by 2022.”

Health was listed as the first in a number of priority areas for the programme. “Health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion and skill development, and basic infrastructure are this programme’s core area of focus,” says NITI Aayog in its website.

Mandarins in the government and the think-tank had made such tall claims about these districts that there was a clamour among MPs for inclusion of their constituencies in the list.

The largest concentration of aspirational districts is in Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh as the Centre had included a number of “left wing extremism” affected districts to showcase developmental approach against the Maoist violence.

Gaya, an LWE-affected district in Bihar, reported 185 COVID deaths whereas there were 20 districts in the state with fewer casualties. Among the non-LWE aspirational district in Bihar, Begusarai reported 125 deaths due to pandemic.

The aspirational district tale is no different in UP, where Bahraich, Balrampur and Siddharnthnagar are reporting high deaths. In Jharkhand, with 19 aspirational districts, the programme made no difference in mitigating the hardships of the people as Ranchi and East Singhbhum are reporting huge COVID death figures.

Ironically, the Aayog gives 30 per cent weightage to health and nutrition while ranking the aspirational districts. It also lists big corporate names as partners for the programme.

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