THE WORST OF THE WORST OF THE WORST
By Ajit Chaudhuri
In this time of ‘India Shining’, it is possibly a politically incorrect time to draw attention to the absolutely worst parts of our country. However, many of us do spend time thinking about which these places are, and why, and what can be done about it. The Planning Commission brings out a ‘Worst 100 Districts’ listing (last in 1997) to remind policy makers of the existence of parts of the country. Some, but not many, aid agencies use the need of the area as a criteria for where they should target their resources – I remember, for example, the British charity Actionaid first undertaking such an exercise in the early 1990s, more than twenty years after they had begun working in India, to the deep distress of the NGOs they supported in the non-BIMAROU states.
An article entitled ‘India’s Worst’ by Shankar Aiyar in the India Today issue of 25th August 2003 touches upon this issue in some detail. It describes a report by two well-known economists, Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari, entitled ‘District-Level Deprivation in the New Millennium’ that lists out 69 of the worst districts in this country. A listing, for information, is appended.
The listing has a few, but not many, surprises. Most of the worst districts lie in, no prizes for guessing, Bihar (26 of the state’s 37 districts), Jharkhand (10 of 22) and Orissa (10 of 30). UP (13 of 70) and MP (6 of 45) are the other noteworthy contributors to the list, signifying a socio-economic fault line just east of Kanpur running south east across the country. There are two outliers, one district in the southern state of Karnataka (Gulbarga) and three in the northeastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh.
A word on the methodology! Debroy and Bhandari take the official statistics for six different indicators; percent population below the poverty line, percent of households going hungry, infant mortality rate, percent children getting complete immunization, literacy rate and gross enrolment ratio at the elementary level, and then rank all India’s districts for each indicator. They then address scale and scope issues for identifying the worst districts, for example, to what extent should it be among the worst in any indicator (bottom half, bottom quarter, bottom five percent?), and in how many indicators should it be among the worst. A listing of 437 districts were identified with the criteria defined as being in the bottom half of at least two indicators, and only 2 with the most stringent criteria of being in the bottom five percent in at least four indicators. Finally, the authors decided that a criteria of being in the bottom quarter in at least four indicators would lead to a sensible number of 69 districts, and they have thus selected this criteria. The attached table denotes the number of districts that each setting of criteria brings about.
Lowest __ percent of districts
Minimum number of heads under which district is deprived
2 3 4 5 6
The two obvious weaknesses in methodology are a) several of the indicators measure the same thing and b) government data collection, especially in the remote, backward districts, is open to question on the issue of rigour. This does not, however, take away from the most useful part of the work - the listing of the worst districts. The rest of the report, an analysis of why, comes across as academic and rather obvious.
For the developmentally inclined, some matters that come to mind from the report are –
Plotting the worst districts onto a map of India reveals that, in addition to the socio-economic fault line east of Kanpur, worst districts appear to come in clusters. Gaps in the clusters are usually districts that are bad but not in the worst 69. Poor governance, undeveloped institutions, poor economic resources, poor communications, and recurrent disasters such as floods (but not drought, except in some outlier districts) come across as major factors in the causes column. Political leadership is another matter, with many of these districts being VIP constituencies. MP’s CM Uma Bharati is from Tikamgarh, Laloo Prasad, who is from Gopalganj, traditionally slugs it out with Sharad Yadav in Madhepura, George Fernandes has made a habit out of winning from Muzaffarpur without visiting the district, etc, etc. Nonentities represent others. Common to the VIPs and the nonentities is their inability to address the very serious issues that cause backwardness and poverty in these regions. Whether they want to is a separate issue.
Much of MP’s Bundelkhand region comes into this listing (Tikamgarh, Chatarpur, Panna), while none of UP’s Bundelkhand districts are there. This was surprising considering the bad press Banda, Mauranipur, Chitrakoot, etc. receive, but was borne out by me during a visit to the region earlier this year, when a clear distinction between UP’s and MP’s Bundelkhand regions could be observed on the road from Jhansi to Panna that criss-crosses the two states – the UP Bundelkhand was a hub of activity while MP was a barren and remote landscape. People here agreed with the listing and said that the main reason could be the UP Bundelkhand’s participation in the national freedom struggle and the subsequent flourishing of civil society institutions in the region. MP’s Bundelkhand, they said, was under Indian rulers who did not let civil society prosper with immense consequences for the region – there are few institutions, people are largely unaware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and all the resources are appropriated by a very small minority entirely consisting of the ex-ruling class.
Many of the districts, especially those in Orissa and Jharkhand, face the additional problem of insurgency within. Whether this is a cause of their presence on the list or a consequence of it is debatable. Doing something about addressing the problems becomes a much more difficult task once insurgency spreads in a district, for the administration, for business, for NGOs.
Finally, the listing had me wondering how much of my work was being undertaken in India’s worst districts. The answer, apart from the developmentally sexy KBK belt in Orissa and the tribal districts in MP that adjoin Gujarat, is – not much. Getting there is annoying, staying there is unpleasant, and traveling within is difficult. What about you?
Aiyar, Shankar, “India’s Worst”, India Today issue of 25th August 2003
Debroy, Bibek and Bhandari, Laveesh, “District-Level Deprivation in the New Millennium” brought out by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies
The Worst 69
Jyotiba Phule Nagar
Sant Kabir Nagar
Acronyms, Jargon watch
BIMAROU Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Orissa and UP
CM Chief Minister
KBK Koraput, Bolangir, Kalahandi
MP Madhya Pradesh
NGO Non-Governmental Organisation
UP Uttar Pradesh