Tracking the 100 laggards

Gazetteers could help us understand why certain districts have remained backward for more than 50 years.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published:August 4, 2016 12:28 am

Since new districts are being created all the time, by dividing existing ones, the number of districts keeps changing. It stands at 686 now. It used to be 640 after the 2011 census and 593 after the 2001 census. Districts vary widely, in population as well as area. While Thane in Maharashtra has (in 2011) a population of 11.1 million, Dibang Valley, the largest district in Arunachal Pradesh in terms of area, has a population of 8,004. Kachchh in Gujarat is spread over 45,650 sq km while Mahe in Puducherry has an area of less than 9 sq km. I have always wondered why district gazetteers are not used much more in understanding the socio-cultural profile of districts. They are a treasure-trove of information. “In his speech to the Lok Sabha on April 28, 1965, the [then] prime minister of India [Lal Bahadur Shastri] quoted from different gazetteers to corroborate the fact that the Rann of Kutch was a part of India. Gazetteers — whether district gazetteers, state gazetteers or Indian gazetteers — are indeed a national asset,” notes the website of UP gazetteer. Documentation centres in some countries have spent a large sum of money on microfilming “old” and “new” gazetteers.

”Old” refers to gazetteers published during the colonial period, beginning in the 1870s — supplementary volumes were added till the 1930s. “New” refers to gazetteers of post-Independence times. Some states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu started publishing newer versions of gazetteers, after Independence. This was important enough to make the preparation of gazetteers a national project in 1957. Therefore, all states should have published gazetteers and should have gazetteer departments. All states have probably published gazetteers. But not all states have gazetteer departments, since there may be gazetteer units under other departments in some states.

All districts have websites. Anyone who has visited these websites knows the quality of information in them varies from district to district, even within the same state. Why don’t states prescribe a template, indicating the minimum information a district’s website must contain? These websites will not necessarily tell you whether that particular district has ever had a gazetteer. But when states have gazetteer departments with an online presence, you will get a complete list of gazetteers that have been published and in some cases, even the texts. After searching the internet, my list of states doing well on making gazetteers accessible includes Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and UP. Maharashtra, Karnataka and UP are the best organised among the five. Other states have, no doubt, published “new” gazetteers, but they are probably more concerned with selling the “old” and the “new” and not offering them free.

Article 243ZD of the Constitution mandates district planning. “There shall be constituted in every state at the district level a district planning committee to consolidate the plans prepared by the panchayats and the municipalities in the district and to prepare a draft development plan for the district as a whole,” it states. District gazetteers provide useful inputs about the base on which a district wishes to build and plan for the future. I am not suggesting that development is not a dynamic process. But district gazetteers give us some sense of the foundations of these processes. There is a lot of focus on states. But there are significant variations within a state, a fact well illustrated by state-level human development reports. So there should be even greater focus on districts, with emphasis not just on union-state fiscal devolution but also on intra-state fiscal devolution.

Whatever be the indicator, between 70 and 100 districts will be “backward”. That is where deprivation is centred and development marginalised and that list of 70-100 districts has remained more or less unchanged since 1947. They have, no doubt, advanced in absolute terms, but in relative terms they remain “backward”.

It could well be said, that if the criterion is relative, the statement that some districts will be “backward” is tautological. It isn’t as if this problem hasn’t been recognised. In 1960, the Committee on Dispersal of Industries identified 100 backward districts.Thirty-six years later, the E.A.S. Sarma committee also identified 100 backward districts. The reason the issue isn’t purely tautological is because there is almost perfect correspondence between the backward list of 1960 and the one of 1996. One would have understood had there been some churn in rankings. These districts are the ones in the Rashtriya Sam Vikas Yojana’s backward districts initiative: They are concentrated in (undivided) Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, UP, West Bengal and Assam. Track inadequate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, or identify problem districts from the perspective of Sustainable Development Goals. These districts will figure time and again. You will notice three things about these “backward” districts. First, they tend to be bypassed by national highways. Second, they tend to be bypassed by railway networks. Third, any inter-linking of rivers will benefit them considerably. Hence, my question about “old” gazetteers. Were these districts always “backward”, or did colonial transport (and land) policy accentuate backwardness? Transport connectivity is usually a prerequisite for development.

The writer is member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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