India’s economy is growing fast, but its poorest areas lag behind. Here’s why this could be about to change

The Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, parked at a railway station in Jalore, India

India has launched a new programme to transform its 115 poorest districts. Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Urvashi Prasad
Public Policy Specialist, NITI Aayog, Government of India
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Although India is one of the world's fastest-growing large economies, it ranks 131 out of 188 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. While several parts of the country have made tremendous progress on socio-economic indicators, other regions are lagging behind.

Significant disparities exist in the achievement of outcomes between and within states. For instance, while the percentage of women giving birth in institutional settings (as opposed to at home) increased from 38.7% in 2005-06 to 78.9% in 2015-16 at the national level, it varied between states, from 99.9% in Puducherry to 32.8% in Nagaland. Similar differences exist between districts (administrative divisions of states) in the country. In the state of Jharkhand, for example, the district Sahebganj has 48% institutional deliveries, compared to 82% in the district Purbi Singbhum.

Recognising that sustained growth is not possible without a concomitant transformation in human development indicators in every part of the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) in January 2018. The programme is aligned with his philosophy of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ (with everyone, everyone’s development), meaning that no Indian should be left behind.

Anchored in the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), a government think tank, the ADP focuses on transforming 115 districts across 28 states that have lagged behind the rest of the country in key health and education indicators, as well as in basic infrastructure. Various factors have contributed to their slow overall development, including weak governance, a relatively poorer endowment of physical resources and the demotivation of inhabitants due to years of poverty and deprivation. More than 250 million people call these areas home. Thirty-five of the identified districts are affected by the threat of left-wing extremism.

It is the first time that a programme of this scale and scope has been launched by the government. It seeks to improve socio-economic outcomes by reimagining governance, deepening relations with the central state, vesting greater ownership and accountability in the district administration, ensuring availability of data on an ongoing basis and engaging citizens to contribute to the development process.

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Making the development process a mass movement

Historically, parts of the country that are lagging behind on development indicators have been referred to as 'backward'. However, under this programme, the identified districts are termed as 'aspirational'. This change in nomenclature is important, because it positions these regions as islands of hope, instead of areas of despair. It also inspires citizens to participate actively in the process of transforming their districts.

Aligned with a broad framework developed by NITI Aayog, government officials are formulating a vision and action plan for each of the 115 districts for the period 2018-19 to 2022-23. These plans are based on a thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of every district, in collaboration with local communities. This is crucial, because people are not mere recipients of public services. They are important partners and multipliers of development activities. There is an emphasis on engaging people from various walks of life who have been successful in effecting change in their districts, in the face of persistent challenges.

Democratizing development data and spurring competition among districts

NITI Aayog has identified key performance indicators, following detailed consultations with relevant government ministries and knowledge partners. These are primarily socio-economic outcomes in health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion, skills development and basic infrastructure.

Using these indicators, a composite index has been created for ranking the districts. Indicators in health, nutrition and education have been assigned a higher weighting in the index to reflect India’s development priorities. A baseline ranking of 115 districts was released by NITI Aayog in April 2018. The data will be updated on a regular basis, and improvements made by districts will be reflected in a monitoring dashboard.

Each district will be ranked on the basis of the progress they make in all focus areas, compared to the baseline. This will help to ensure that the rankings are not biased on historical accomplishments, or lack thereof.

Image: NITI Aayog

This data will be put out in the public domain to ensure transparency and accountability in governance and decision-making. It is perhaps the first time that democratisation of development data is being undertaken at such a large scale in a developing country, making it accessible for all stakeholders. Furthermore, real-time monitoring will facilitate the identification of policy interventions that are producing the desired improvement in development indicators, and allow course corrections to be made in a timely manner.

Landing page of the real-time monitoring dashboard for the Aspirational Districts Programme Image: NITI Aayog
Institutional mechanisms for teamwork among all levels of government

Given India’s size and diversity, it is crucial that states and districts have a greater say in their own development. Moreover, local challenges differ significantly across the country. State and local governments are therefore best positioned to recognise their development challenges, and design customised policy interventions. This move is grounded in evidence which shows that devolution of resources and responsibilities to lower levels of government can lead to better governance of facilities in the public sector, higher use of public services and greater achievement of desired socio-economic outcomes.

To empower government officials who are closest to the ground to take decisions without having to wait for authorities at higher levels, district collectors (those in charge of administering districts) have been designated as the focal points of this programme. They will play a critical role in implementing and monitoring initiatives, based on the continuously evolving reality of their districts as captured in the monitoring dashboard. Senior officials from central government have been appointed to act as a bridge between the central and state governments. A committee including the administrative heads of key central government ministries and departments has also been created, to refine existing programmes and resolve any issues flagged by the districts.

Collaboration between all levels of government will allow existing schemes to be channeled more effectively towards this programme. In fact, instead of making a dedicated financial allocation for the ADP, the government intends to use existing resources more smartly, achieving better outcomes for the same amount of money. Additionally, working collaboratively will enable innovative service delivery approaches - currently limited to one or a few districts in the country - to be replicated in other areas.

Going beyond government action

By opening its door to the private sector, philanthropic institutions and technical partners, the ADP is attempting to change the deeply entrenched popular perception that development is, to a large extent, the prerogative of government alone. These partnerships will help to infuse the programme with new ideas, and could act as a force multiplier on outcomes. Several partnerships have already been established to complement the government’s efforts in transforming these districts, including with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Tata Trusts and the Piramal Foundation.

The launch of the ADP signals a significant reimagination of government and governance in India. By learning from the failures of the past, it seeks to put in place mechanisms to ensure that every district keeps pace with the country’s overall growth and development. By ensuring that no Indian is left behind, this initiative can improve India’s position in the Human Development Index, as well as provide greater momentum for meeting the country’s commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals.

Disclaimer: views expressed are personal.

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