In June this year, the district officials of Kondagaon district in the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh were flooded with congratulatory messages. Kondagaon had just topped the Aspirational Districts rankings issued by the Niti Aayog for the month of May. These monthly rankings were started in 2018 after identifying 115 districts across the country that were low on human development indices. The rankings measure the incremental progress across six developmental areas — health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion, skill development, and basic infrastructure. However, many of the messages were tinged with a sense of surprise. For outsiders, Kondagaon was a poor district, deeply affected by left-wing extremism, and cut off from the mainstream — hardly the profile one would associate with topping such parameters. Yet, for the district officials, it was a confirmation of the consistent improvements over time. Kondagaon had ranked high for the entire year, and in March, the district had come second.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Kondagaon’s District Collector, Neelkanth Tekam, explained what the administration did to spur improvements across different parameters. His top three priorities were health, agriculture and skill development. “These are the three sectors where we are doing very innovative work.”
How Kondagaon scripted change
Topping the Aspirational Districts ranking was not an overnight transformation. It has required sustained governance innovations across various development parameters to transform Kondagaon from a left-wing violence-affected district to a role model for the rest of the country. The administration focused on healthcare (introduced special care for sick newborns), agriculture (introduced Kisan Clubs to train farmers) and skill development (introduced workshops, especially for women) among other things.
In the field of healthcare, the inauguration of the Sick Newborn Care Unit (SNCU) has been the key change agent. “In tribal areas, nutrition has always been a problem, which then means the newborn babies are often weak or ill,” says one health official. The SNCU saves those lives. Additionally, 25 primary health centres have been transformed into Health and Wellness Centres under the Ayushman Bharat Yojana. Another step up has been the regular availability of health officials to every Gram Panchayat to map standards of health, education and nutrition.
For agriculture, the administration has started 550 Kisan Clubs which provide coaching on new techniques of farming. The focus has been to find solutions that are in line with local realities. For instance, almost 75 per cent of the 88,000 farmers in the district grow maize and now the foundation stone of a maize processing plant has been laid with the aim to make farmers self-reliant and prosperous.
For skill development, the administration is organising workshops, especially for women, that extend a wide array of skills ranging from creating glass bangles to assembling LED bulbs to producing local delicacies such as Mahua laddoos and Tamarind rotis.
Beyond these three key priorities, special attention has been paid to building and rebuilding roads and bridges, which are often enough either cut off by Maoists or simply lost to rains. This is essential for ensuring connectivity across the district. For improving educational outcomes, the administration has arranged special coaching classes for students. There’s even free training for students who want to appear in competitive examinations. Tekam says the administration’s approach has been “to include public participation in every sector… [across sectors] you will see a pattern”.
But, this progress in Kondagaon is not just a result of recent work, but a slow and gradual increase in government influence in a Maoist-hit district. “[The district] was once severely affected by left-wing violence. Today…the levels of both [Maoist] violence and influence have come down”. Earlier there were vast swathes where the government could not reach. That is not true anymore for Kondagaon even when neighbouring districts such as Sukma, Bijapur, and Narayanpur still face difficulty in government outreach. In stark contrast, barring some border areas, most of Kondagaon is now both reachable and manageable.