This 32-year-old Kolkata-born woman could have chosen an easy life. A Master degree holder from Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Policy program, she quit her job at World Bank, took an onerous task to provide this country the change it needs today.
While India’s 2019 Lok Sabha election is in its last phase and the citizens are voting with fervor, in an exclusive conversation with Life Beyond Numbers, Rwitwika Bhattacharya shares why her initiative, Swaniti, is important because when data is not correct, every policy built around that data is bound to fall flat.
Swaniti is a non-partisan social enterprise, which works with policymakers and elected representatives to deliver development solutions across the country by providing end-to-end solutions, including knowledge support, on-ground implementation, and data tools, to both elected representatives and government administration in order to improve public service delivery.
While the idea of starting Swaniti was conceptualized in 2009, but it was only in 2012, she completely put her mind and soul into it. She says, “The idea was to provide a fellowship program, which is the flagship aspect of Swaniti initiative. We thought, why not include young people to work with parliamentarians for the constituency development.”
Solving India’s Data Problem
What Swaniti does? A non-profit organization that delivers development solutions on issues of public services. It provides ‘on-the-ground’ support to vulnerable communities by having talented professionals play a catalytic role in the delivery of public services. The initiative aims to find solutions to the most pressing issues across developing nations in South Asia, through on-ground interventions, in-depth research, and data analysis.
To make the initiative effective, Swaniti works on three areas– knowledge and research, on-ground engagements, data and technology.
Also, the organization has introduced Jaano India platform as it believes that information, and specifically, data is critical to the success of any democracy. A platform that analyses, visualizes and presents to the citizens- data points. From ‘how many hospitals are there across the country?’ to ‘which industries employ people across geographies’ to comparing the performance of MPs, this one is a comprehensive platform. “It was this year on Republic Day, Jaano India platform was launched. It uses intelligent tools to transform data into actionable decisions,” she says.
Apart from Ank Aha, which is a social enterprise that leverages data to improve decision-making, where the members work globally with policymakers, social entrepreneurs and development specialists to better deliver on public service programs. Swaniti has also developed an app on both Android and iOS called the UPaAI (Unified Planning and Analysis Interface), which translates to “solution” in Hindi, integrates data on infrastructure and other development markers for each constituency.
“An MP’s role is much more than making policies. It is also about catering to the needs of people and for that, they are allotted 5 crores, we intervene to make sure that it is put to good use,” she says.
While now the NGO has more than 100 members and it works pan India, but this was not Rwitwika’s first entrepreneurial experiment. While she was in college, Ritwika also started Dreams Come True, a high-school dropout prevention program to counter drop-out rates of students.
Making Political Complexity Easier for Us
In order to understand the effects of the government’s laws and policies, Swaniti decodes these documents to highlight their impact across states, sectors, and stakeholders.
“Through Swaniti, people can have access to information, both quantified and objective info on how the public services are being delivered,” mentions Rwitwika. “Also, under our knowledge and research section, we provide insight to people on how government schemes are designed. This includes working with members of parliament, district magistrates and state governments.”
To put it into perspective, Rwitwika says, let us take Direct Benefit Transfer or DBT which is an attempt to change the mechanism of transferring subsidies launched by Government of India on 1st January 2013. A program that aims to transfer subsidies directly to the people through their bank accounts. “If we are looking at how many people are eligible for the program or how many are benefitting from the scheme, we have to look at how the data was collected and how it was processed. If the data is wrong, the whole thing will fall flat. If one is enrolling them, we need to have a backend system to process. Someone who is capable of going to field, interacting with the beneficiaries, entering their name in the computer system and see that the data work is complete,” she says.
When we are working at a ground level where the infrastructure capacity is very limited there are certain issues where the government needs to intervene. “We need to build local capacity in districts, blocks, gram panchayats, villages so that we can extract quality information.”
In India, members of Parliament are not only responsible for policy making but they are also supposed to be the one responsible for the development of the people. “The problem is that our system, most of the times, fail to inform the citizens that they can have access to certain benefits. Everyone has the right to know whether the government has enrolled you in certain programs you are eligible for. Suppose, there are 20 programs that may provide you free life insurance and medical benefits, something which you are eligible for, most of the people are not informed about these schemes,” she adds.
Before Swaniti, Rwitwika has worked on issues of child marriages, maternal health as well.
She went an extra mile to ensure that India is in safe hands and since last 10 years, she has been working to improve the development indicators in certain constituencies through grass-root level intervention by local administration- an onerous task! But, ask her and she will tell you that the idea of working with public representatives attracted her even when she was a child. “Being with my father, talking to him and understanding what happens in India gave me the exposure in the area of public policy making,” she recalls with a smile.
On being asked about her personal life and how she balances work and family, she tells LBN, “My husband is in Houston, while I came back to Delhi 5-6 years back. We have a little bit of understanding and therefore we travel a lot to see each other. It is during the trips, I look forward to the best ideas that I can bring back to India.”