* Learnings from ‘Aspirational District Programme’ in Darrang
The Transformation of Aspirational Districts Programme (TADP) launched in early 2018, represents a new model of governance for data driven and outcome oriented policy making in India. This flagship initiative of NITI Aayog’s to improve collaboration, competition and convergence among district administrations, is operating in 112 socio-economically challenged districts across the nation including Assam. A recent review of this initiative in Assam is showing some interesting observations.
The TADP creates the right kind of incentives at the district, state and central level to allow for the creation of clear and realistic roadmaps for development in the sectors like Health, Education, Agriculture, Water Resources, Financial Inclusion, Skill Development and Basic Infrastructure. It therefore sets the stage for sustainable and replicable innovations which can serve as enablers of last mile delivery in challenging terrains.
In the spirit of competitive federalism, the districts compete across 49 key performance indicators to improve the status quo of development and last mile delivery at the grassroots. With knowledge partnerships between government, philanthropy and civil society, the programme has seen several success stories which my serve as examples for replication. The case of Darrang in Assam represents one such fine example.
Nestled in a narrow strip of fertile plains between the mighty Bramhaputra and the unforgiving Himalayas , the bustling district of Darrang is one of seven districts in Assam participating in the TADP. A mere hour and a half away by road from the Guwahati Airport, the town, distinct with its bustling workforce and recently paved roads, represents the aspirations of a growing population of nine lakh people. Spanning 1585 square kilometres and 561 villages, Darrang is interspersed with rural settlements, three small towns, people friendly tempos, and vast stretches of paddy fields.
The aspirational district of Darrang is one such example of bottom up community participation for quality education to students in need. The administration, in partnership with Piramal Foundation, has kick-started several innovations to improve low learning levels in schools across the district. Learning from their school adoption initiatives by college teachers, grade level competency based remedial learning, and Volunteer based ‘Jan Andolans’ for teaching; we can scale up success stories as well-oiled compliments to the machinery of existing schemes to improve the quality of school learning, and empower school management committees in the long run, within the envisioned ideals of the Right to Education Act of 2009
Included in the programme for its performance on a range of indicators for human development, Darrang faces the significant challenge of delivering the promise of development to people where 30% of landless households derive a major portion of their income from manual casual labour (SECC 2011), 4.9% of households are covered by any health scheme or insurance (NFHS-4),only 32.2% of children in grades 3-5 can read a standard two level text (ASER 2018) and only 54% of elementary schools across the district have three WASH facilities (Toilet, Drinking Water and Handwashing facilities) (UDISE 2016-17)
In addition to existing lags in capacity, the district has upwards of one lakh elementary schools operating with single teachers, and the number of secondary schools in the district is a fifth of the number of elementary schools implying that the transition from primary to higher levels of education could be a big challenge (U-DISE, 2016-17).
With 31.5% of the population in 2015 below the age of 15 years, Darrang also faces the urgent requirement of setting a base for quality education to a population soon to be of working age. And later provide opportune market linkages to foster prosperity and choice for this aspiring demographic dividend.
Identifying the breadth of the challenge , the district administration has drawn out a district transformation map across sectors, significant parts of which are their innovations to improve learning outcomes, and to track improvements at the school level within the larger umbrella of the ‘Gunotsav’ Campaign for quality education initiated by the Government of Assam in 2017.Since the advent of the aspirational districts programme, Darrang has made significant progress to ensure functional girls’ toilets and drinking water facilities in schools.
Documenting Innovations: What could work?
During my visit to the district as part of NITI Aayog’s endeavour to understand grassroots challenges in Aspirational Districts, I witnessed some of these innovations in real-time,
‘School Adoption Initiative’ - The adoption of Schools by Teachers from 100 District Colleges is one such initiative. These teachers, designated as ‘mentors’ have adopted 100 schools (up to class 8) to support teaching learning practices, especially for Mathematics and Science to address the needs of about six thousand students. They support the school in improving the learning outcomes through co-created academic activities specifically in class 8 for Language and Mathematics. After routine visits and monitoring, College Teachers prepare a Support Plan for the adopted school , which the education department helps implement.
‘Learning as per Need’ – In line with recommendations stemming from latest research by Karthik Muralidharan, which asks schools to match instructions to the learning level of students, the district is identifying children according to grade level competencies, and promoting regular remedial classes for them in 1157 elementary schools to close the gap between what a student knows and what she’s expected to know. The students graded poorly in the learning assessment conducted under the state wide ‘Gunotsav’ campaign for quality education, are identified with a view to improve their learning levels. The existing school teachers facilitate the classes after normal instructional hours, or during lunch hour, based on the learning needs of the students, and take part in spot continuous evaluations by the district administration. The aim of the programme is to provide learning support to pupils who lag far behind their counterparts in school performance.
‘Jan Andolan for Education’ - In addition to the above, the district has partnered with Piramal Foundation to create a ‘jan andolan’ for volunteers from within the district (345 so far) to conduct remedial classes for students of grades two to five in learning centres, targeting the needs of students who lag behind their counterparts in grade level competencies, coupled with baseline and endline assessments to measure progress. The community has also been mobilised to participate in the creation and upkeep of ‘Building as Learning Aid’ Classrooms (BALA), to make teaching an interactive and visually stimulating activity. Fostering such community participation can serve to increase the bargaining power of School Management Committees in the long run.
Darrang displays a high potential for delivering an education of quality to its residents, and is taking keen steps to address this organic need. If it sustainably replicates its innovations to saturate the entire district, especially in ‘Char’ areas that currently remain inaccessible due to the Bramhaputra and its tributaries, then it may serve as a model of last mile delivery for replication in the rest of the Assam, and in similar contexts across the country.
Anmol Narain is a social scientist cum researcher working as Young Professional (YP) in the Aspirational Districts Programme at NITI Aayog. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org