It was incredible,” says Rwitwika Bhattacharya, “Seventeen phone calls from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MPs’ offices on one day.” Bhattacharya is the 28-year-old founder and chief executive officer of Swaniti, a non-partisan, non-profit organisation that pitches pilot projects to MPs for their constituencies, using a consulting approach. The calls, which came in late August last year, were a windfall for a fledgling organisation that was eager to scale up, and had been spreading the word about itself.
The MPs, among them several first-timers, wanted to generate quick ideas for their constituencies and the villages they planned to adopt under the newly announced Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojna. It seemed, says Bhattacharya, that two things were happening. One, pressure from above, in the form of exhortations from the prime minister to focus on their constituencies, pressure that continues, she hears from MPs, through the monitoring by the Prime Minister’s Office, periodic calls for updates on their constituency work, and advice to return to their constituencies as soon as Parliament is over. The second trend, argues Bhattacharya, is that the 2014 election, with its focus on governance and accountability, “seems to have brought in a culture that development is something you have to do”.
Whether this is true or not, what is certainly true is that Swaniti has grown. The organisation began in 2009 in an experimental way and by the end of the l5th Lok Sabha was advising 30 MPs. Now, a year into the new government, it is working with 95 — 63 from the BJP, 17 from the Congress, and the rest from regional parties. Most are from the Lok Sabha. For MPs, the service is free, though they are expected to host the consultants in their constituencies. Swaniti, with an annual Budget of Rs 2.5 crore, is funded through annual grants or one-time donations by Rohini Nilekani, the Forbes Marshall Foundation and the Avantha Foundation in Pune, LetzDream Foundation, Gurgaon, and the International Growth Centre, based in the London School of Economics.
This is essentially an attractive interface between young professionals in their 20s, largely from engineering, management and consultancy backgrounds, and a diverse bunch of MPs, from ministers to young novices, grassroot politicians to former professionals. Swaniti’s team, which works out of a basement office in a south Delhi neighbourhood, seems eager to engage with the political class for relatively modest pay, ranging from Rs 40,000 to 60,000 per month. Apoorv Tiwari, an IIT Kharagpur graduate, who has worked with The Boston Consulting Group, says, “I’ve always been interested in policy and governance; I wanted exposure to MPs. You do get to work on government projects at consultancies, but you don’t get the freedom that we have here.” Dinesh Chand, an MBA from XLRI, Jamshedpur, who previously worked for EY, says: “I like the fact that we’re not trying to do something radically different, but to make the existing system work better and faster.”
What Swaniti does with MPs has three parts. “We begin by asking the MP about the vision for the constituency. We have no development agenda, as such. Our only goal is to support elected officials and work with the system to improve development outcomes,” stresses Bhattacharya. Swaniti then visits the constituency to identify a pilot, one the MP can potentially scale up after Swaniti has bowed out. The third part is the most complex: Finding resources and getting various actors to work in concert to get the pilot off the ground.
This consultant-MP engagement has spawned a wide range of projects, among these an after-school programme in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, with BJP MP Anurag Thakur to improve the capacity of young people to get private sector jobs; a “ponds for livelihood” project in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, with former MP Ajay Kumar from the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik), which involved revitalising defunct ponds from the Indira Gandhi era and using these for fish farming and irrigation; bringing in ambulances into Kendrapara, Odisha, with BJD MP Jay Panda; starting an apiary industry in Bolangir, with MP Kalikesh Singh Deo of the same party; devising an open data policy for Sikkim with Sikkim Democratic Front MP Prem Das Rai. Lately, Swaniti has been helping Trinamool Congress MP Sugata Bose come up with a plan to create cold storage facilities in Jadhavpur, West Bengal, for small producers of fruit and vegetables. It is investigating contaminated drinking water sources in Narsapur, Andhra Pradesh, for BJP MP Gokaraju Ganga Raju, and widely prevalent fluorosis in Ongole, also in AP, for Y V Subba Reddy of the YSR Congress.
Sugata Bose, the Jadavpur MP, said, in an emailed comment, the Swaniti team had been of “great help in identifying the most urgent needs of the more disadvantaged people in his constituency”. It does help to cross check and consult with a non-political NGO in order to determine priorities, since the developmental needs are many.” Ganga Raju said with so many new schemes to explain to constituents in one year of the new government, he and his staff were run off their feet. He also felt a trained consultant, spending only a week in his constituency, was able to take a fresh look at a seemingly intractable problem. “We knew about the problem, we didn’t have a clear sense of why it was persisting. They provided answers.”
Tellingly, Swaniti’s consultants have found the fastest way to kick off a pilot is to help the MP raise corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds, at least initially. They usually do not eye MPLADs funds, which are hotly competed for at the local level, coveted by state governments and beleaguered by bottlenecks, and find the process of extracting money from central government schemes is as daunting as ever. Thus, “ponds for livelihood” was kicked off with the help of the Tatas, and while the Jadavpur project was a ripe case for approaching the little known National Horticulture Mission, the process of extracting funds from it was so tortuous that Swaniti suggested tapping private funding to set up three mini cold storage units quickly.
Interestingly, Swaniti, which has approached some 250-odd MPs in its quest for work, started out by cherry-picking the doctors, the PhDs and the master’s degree holders, imagining that they were the perfect fit. While they have had good experiences with some highly-educated MPs, they have realised there is no correlation between the education levels of MPs and interest in their programme, or for that matter effectiveness on the ground. They have also come to find two kinds of MPs most effective in garnering resources for their constituencies, whether from central schemes or CSR, on account of deep knowledge of how government works: former civil servants, and those who had risen from the panchayat level. “If there were search criteria for identifying MPs who have come up from the panchayat level,” says Bhattacharya, “we would be using that a lot.”