How to spend data insights for MPs: Young professionals assist in 20 constituencies

Six hundred young professionals applied, including engineers, lawyers and humanities graduates. They selected 20 after a rigorous process, half of them from a technology/enginering background and therefore habituated to data crunching.

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai | Updated: October 17, 2017 5:33 am
research associates, government schemes, data analytics, LAMP fellowship, MPLAD, india news, indian express news Research assistants of some of the MPs get together in Delhi

A COMMON thread runs through a summit in Sikkim for sustainable mountaineering, a scheme to build pucca houses in Ladakh and a ghat beautification plan in West Bengal’s Barrackpore. All of these are supported by Lok Sabha MPs, but these are also among a bevy of projects that will rely on data analytics for outcome-based development.

One of these MPs, Kalikesh Singh Deo of Bolangir (Odisha), says it actually began in 2009 when, as a first-term MP, he was in group visiting then senator John Kerry in the US. “We had 45 minutes, and his interns ran the meeting for the first half hour. It struck me that it was a great way to have young people assist you, beyond regular party workers, both in Parliament and on the ground,” Deo says. It was also a way to get sceptical youngsters involved in politics.

What followed was the LAMP fellowship in 2010-11, where young research associates assist parliamentarians in research. But several MPs felt such a programme would also succeed in their constituencies, where development work is often run by political workers and the focus on results lost in the absence of data or expert guidance. By 2015, several young MPs were discussing how to make the most effective use of MPLAD funds and government schemes for their constituencies.

In April 2016, the Constitution Club of India, Tata Trusts and Swaniti Initiative, a non-profit that focuses on supporting MPs around development issues, launched SPARC, or Supporting Parliamentarians on Analysis and Research in the Constituency. SPARC currently covers 20 Lok Sabha MPs who were each assigned an associate paid a stipend by Tata Trusts. Each associate works to help his/her MP with surveys and data analysis on development issues, likely outcome of using MPLAD funds in specific initiatives, and to raise other funding including companies’ CSR funds, to buttress government schemes.

Prabhat Pani, head of Partnerships at Tata Trusts, says their experience has shown that to make a difference on a larger scale, one has to work with the government. “But we also have to work with elected representatives. And while the LAMP fellowship focuses on policy aspects, we wanted to see how to use professionals who look at data for decision making in planning development work at constituency level,” he says.

Six hundred young professionals applied, including engineers, lawyers and humanities graduates. They selected 20 after a rigorous process, half of them from a technology/enginering background and therefore habituated to data crunching. Six are women. The 20 MPs hail from 16 states. Projects their associates have taken up, too, are diverse.

“Bolangir is a rainfed area in western Odisha, where drought is common… Rivers here go dry every summer, so recharging groundwater is important,” says Sidhant Panda, 26, the SPARC associate to MP Deo. “The MP was very keen to work on water, and especially on how water impacts livelihoods.” Panda did a survey, and found that 2,000-3,000 people benefit from a single pond, through its impact on better groundwater levels for cultivation and its potential for fisheries development. He conducted meetings with block chairmen and found there were some groups of gram panchayats that had not received any funds under MPLAD yet, all in remote areas. Panda and Deo then raised Rs 5 crore for desilting 300 ponds in three years. Fourteen are now complete, and work will pick up post monsoon.

Panda, an MBA from Bhubaneswar, found after only a year with a corporate major in Mumbai that his heart was in the development sector. He’s also working with Deo on a project to install water ATMs in municipality areas around Bolangir, tapping into government schemes for fisheries projects, and a mobile medical van.

Kaliabor (Assam) MP Gaurav Gogoi and his associate Simran Rana took the idea of data-driven governance one step further, and organised a contest for colleges to pick issues and offer solutions, backed by data. “The best presentation was from a college in a rural area, who identified that local paddy farmers did not have access to high-quality seeds and training and were unaware of organic farming,” says Gogoi. The proposal adjudged winner is now being implemented with Rana supervising.

The team from Joya Gogoi College wanted to work with farmers and decrease the cost of paddy production through organic farming. Rana, a graduate in psychology from Sophia College, began a crowd-sourcing initiative and raised Rs 1 lakh, approached the Krishi Vikas Kendra for help, brought together farmers in a group to reduce costs including tractor rentals, and enlisted expert help to understand the application of bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides. Seven farmers on 2 hectares in Khumtai will reap their first all-organic paddy in January while Rana prepares for a scale-up. Gogoi says, “This also enabled local colleges to think beyond degrees, to look at studying local issues.”

Piyush Prakash, 26, who works with Hamirpur MP Anurag Thakur, has built a programme connecting Himachal-born professionals in fields ranging from filmmaking to aeronautical engineering to mentor students from classes IX through XII to help build soft skills, improve academic performance and plan careers. One hundred government school students are working with 25 mentors, to be scaled up to 1,000 students and 250 mentors. “We did a baseline survey to assess the students’ skills at the start, and will be able to use data to measure progress at the end of a year,” says Prakash, an electronics engineer from Uttarakhand.

Other initiatives that the SPARC associates are running include an online fundraiser in Kaliabor for flood victims, a flourosis awareness and medical relief programme in Ongole in Andhra Pradesh, a project to help farmers access technology in West Champaran in Bihar, and an artificial insemination programme for sustainable cattle breeding in Mahbubnagar in Telangana.

Swaniti founder and CEO Rwitwika Bhattacharya says MPs are actually an underutilised resource. “In the US, they don’t have an upper limit on how much to pay staffers. In India, MPs get Rs 20,000 a month to hire support staff,” she says, adding that this dearth of human capital directly impacts an MP’s capacity to objectively decide what to improve in his constituency.

“If MPs begin to see informed decision-making as critical, then we would have made an impact,” she says. Swaniti hopes to conduct the programme for three years, giving them one more year before elections so that the process may be institutionalised in the next term of the Lok Sbaha. “We hope to show enough value that the government begins to believe in this project and provide financial resources,” Bhattacharya says.

Gogoi concurs, adding that the previous Union government, through the PM Rural Development Fellowship Programme, sponsored young people to work in rural areas. “There is a need to learn from the previous experience and have a government fellowship programme for young professionals interested in an IAS career to come and work with an MP. Through Swaniti, only 20 MPs are getting this resource,” he says.

According to Pani, ten months in, their assessment shows the associates have tapped into 35 government schemes; support mobilised from 10 corporate firms and government funds in excess of Rs 200 crore leveraged.

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