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Harvard grad uses data for grassroots governance

A Harvard postgraduate has launched a social enterprise, on a data-driven approach, to strengthen governance in rural areas by involving policymakers and elected representatives.

Swaniti Initiative, has designed a fellowship program, Supporting Parliamentarians on Analysis and Research in the Constituency (SPARC), to deliver development solutions across the country.

The fellows in the program work closely with the MPs across sectors such as agriculture, education, livelihood, renewable energy, social welfare, water, health and nutrition.

The organization has identified hundreds of government programmes which are difficult to map on progress, as the data involved isn’t streamlined, and as a consequence, funds allocated for the schemes remain underutilized, and eventually, are returned to the state exchequer.

“At the very core of what Swaniti Initiative does is working with governance systems to improve public services,” Rwitwika Bhattacharya, CEO, Swaniti Initiative, told development stories’ online website, The Better India.

Rwitwika cited Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, and the BOCW Welfare Cess Act, 1996, promises access to social benefits such as life insurance, health insurance and basic housing, to workers engaged in the construction industry.

“However, according to the Labour Ministry, in the 22 years since this law was passed, governments have managed to spend only 35% of the corpus, resulting in nearly Rs 28,000 crore lying unused. How do we go ahead and make sure that a scheme is available to construction workers?” said Rwitwika.

The organization has identified the root of corruption in India – weak and scattered systems of governance. The system is incapable of tracking utilization of money for various public schemes at the district and panchayat level.

Citing the success of its model, Rwitwika mentioed about the strategic response, her organization developed, on the issue of unemployment in Pindar Valley, Uttrakhand, where nearly 700 people involved in building a network of community parks with a budget of Rs 70 lakh.

Leveraging data, another Swaniti initiative in Khati village, Uttarakhand, enabled a Block Development Officer to map the requirements of a school, 7000 ft above sea level, directly on his phone without having to visit it physically. The organization’s associates help the district administration to plug gaps in their data collection process.

The organization has recently launched a digital platform, Jaano India, one-stop shop for finding all data related to a district constituency and its member of parliaments.

Over 850-plus data points are drawn and collated from various sources, including the Election Commission, Livestock Census, the RBI, Lok Sabha, Swachh Bharat Mission, MGNREGA and NSSO, among others, to gauge important developmental markers from literacy to housing and infrastructure.

In India, qualitative use of data by government is at a preliminary stage unlike other countries in the West.

“But the good thing is that we are at the point of change and are now trying to figure out ways to incorporate it. However, data alone doesn’t work. It has to be complemented with action and having people who are going to push that information and shake people out of their inertia,”, Rwitwika told the website during the conversation.

This provides MPs with district-wise information on his/her constituency, helping them make better decisions on how to utilise MPLAD funds and better coordinate better with state and district authorities on various welfare programmes.

The platform also helps common people to learn about their respective districts.