Bakshi, Sanchita (2017). 'Investigating Paradoxes of Development Polarisation in India: Why does the Rising Tide not Lift all Boats?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


 With the fading away of the “activist regional policy” of the early decades of Indian planning in the post-liberalisation era, States began to compete with each other to attract foreign and domestic capital, a process termed “provincial Darwinism” (Jenkins 1999). This shift in global policy towards decentralisation and devolution ‘reflects a subtle, but profound, renunciation of the traditional equalisation role of national government, in favour of conditions fostering economic and public competition, and leading to greater development of initially rich and powerful regions to the detriment of poorer areas.’ (Pose 2014). Part of the policy response In India was to give “special status” to certain States and also initiate programs focused on both decentralisation and "backward regions", such as the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF)[1].

My recent research as part of the attempt by India’s Planning Commission to restructure the BRGF program (Bakshi, et al, 2015), sharply demonstrates that if we truly want to target regional "backwardness", it may no longer be enough to focus on States or districts. Without drilling down much deeper to the dynamics at work at the sub-district or block, we would be unable to effectively target “backwardness” where it really exists.

In a first ever study of its kind, we devise a multi-dimensional index[2] to rank all 640 districts and 5,955 sub-districts of India in order of “backwardness”. And we find that a linear ranking of regions of backwardness in India is impossible at the district level. For there are as many as 27 districts, which have sub-districts that are both in the top 10% and bottom 10% in the list of sub-districts. Furthermore, 92 districts include sub-districts from both the top 20% and bottom 20% sub-districts. And finally, when we look at the top 30% and bottom 30% of the sub-districts in the country, they coexist in as many as 166 districts of India.

What these findings enabled was the revelation of hitherto unknown patterns of intra-district disparity, which placed a serious question mark over characterising a district (let alone a region or State) as a whole as developed or backward. When we ranked all of India’s 640 districts, we found, in line with expectations based on received wisdom that the highly industrialised Thane, Gwalior, Visakhapatnam, Vadodara, and Ranchi[3], were among the top developed districts of India. However, when we extended the ranking to India’s 5955 sub-districts, we were stunned to discover that within these very same developed districts were also to be found some of India’s most bottom-ranked sub-districts, pockets where there was a high concentration of tribal population. At the other end of the spectrum, “backward” districts in Odisha like Koraput, Kandhamal and Mayurbhanj were found to include some of the most developed sub-districts of India.

The present proposal seeks to explore at much greater depth what could be the underlying dynamics at work, which could adequately explain these kinds of paradoxes.


The most important research concern for us is to find an explanation for these apparent paradoxes. Mainstream development economics literature revolves around the “growth pole strategy” designed with the expectation of favourable spin-off impacts for the larger region. New Economic Geography literature similarly argues that there are powerful forces of agglomeration which lead to concentration of economic activity.

My research raises significant questions regarding this sanguine view of development economics literature. I find that in a large number of districts of India where a growth pole strategy has been adopted, benefits of this development, contrary to expectations, have not spread to the larger adjacent region, not even to the neighbouring sub-districts within the growth pole district. Remarkably, in many instances the most underdeveloped sub-district of the country are flanked by the most advanced sub-district of India.

 In such a context, several research questions and hypotheses can be posed:

  1. Are development and underdevelopment of sub-regions within the same region, two sides of the same coin, where development of one part actually leads to the underdevelopment of the other?

  2. Or is it that there is something in the specific characteristics of the backward sub-regions that do not allow them to benefit from the growth pole?

  3. Or is it that we need to adopt a completely different paradigm to ensure development of these persistently backward sub-regions?

  4. One hypothesis from our on-going research is that considerations of sustainability, social infrastructure and governance reform need to be central to the development model we adopt for these socially and ecologically fragile tribal dominated regions, characterised by very weak institutional capacities.

Perhaps some boats require specific kinds of tides to lift them.

[1] BRGF was a national programme launched by Government of India in 2007 with the objectives of removing barriers to growth and improving the quality of life of people in the 250 selected “backward” districts. 

 [2] The index seeks to capture the multi-dimensional nature of backwardness and includes the following five variables on which high quality comparable data is available:

  1. Agriculture workers as a proportion of total workers

  2. Female literacy rate

  3. Households without access to electricity

  4. Households without drinking water and safe sanitation

  5. Households without access to banking facility

 Proportion of workers who derive their livelihood from the agriculture sector is an indicator of the absence of economic diversification, hence included as proxy for economic backwardness; Female Literacy Rate (for age 7 plus years) is a proxy for the level of human development and services like electricity, banking, drinking water and sanitation are reflective of the quality of infrastructure.

[3] Parts of Thane district of Maharashtra include the highly industrialised townships of Navi Mumbai, Thane, Bhiwandi, Vasai-Virar, together forming larger Mumbai Metropolitical Region (MMR), its tribal dominated sub-districts of Palghar, Dahanu, Talasari, are some of the poorest in the country. Similarly, the Vishakapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh, which has some of the most backward parts of India in the tribal sub-districts of Peda Bayalu, Chintapalle, adjoining the tribal dominated KBK region of Odisha, also includes the coastal sub-districts of Gajuwaka, Vishakapatnam, Paravada, which are some of the most developed in the country. 

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