Meet the SHEROES - Rwitwika Bhattacharya
Rwitwika Bhattacharya is the founder of Swaniti. Her initiative aims at providing development solutions to elected officials across India. In simple terms, she works closely with MP’s, CM’s, MLA’s to help them in their development initiatives.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Kolkata but raised in Delhi. I was in Delhi till I was about 11/12 years. Then I moved to Florida and grew up with my uncle and aunt in Florida. I completed my schooling there (though I ended up spending about 4 months a year in India) and went off to Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
I completed my undergrad in Political Science and Economics. During my undergrad years I had my first taste in development: I taught Indian class dance tsunami orphanage in Southern India, taught vocational skills in a Burmese refugee camps in Delhi and taught spoken English at in a slum-school in. It used to be a new project every summer for me as I travelled across India. Post undergraduate I worked briefly at the UN. I then went to pursue my master's in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. After Harvard I worked at the World Bank for a few years. Finally I started Swaniti.
What does your venture Swaniti Initiative do?
Swaniti initiative delivers development solutions to elected officials. What that means is that we work with MPs, CMs and MLAs to provide them with either constituency level development support or with research support on pressing issues.
Our thinking is that MPs have the political will to bring development but need support to be able to execute on that will (an Indian MP gets an average of $3600/annually in comparison to a US Rep who gets $750,000 to get the resource support).
We subsequently developed three verticals of support network: Engagements, where we worked with MPs to work in their constituency on development issues, research where we provide all 'development related' information to MPs (like schemes, policy launches etc) and data analysis where we provide data based insight on development performance on various indicators.
How did the idea of Swaniti Initiative come about? How long has it been since you started off?
Back in 2009, when elections were taking place in India, my friends are I started thinking about the electoral process. During our conversation we realized that even though each one of us who had worked with elected officials realized that there was so much interest for support for them, there existed very few entities present to provide that needed support. We subsequently launched a pilot program with a party and a MP and it was evident that the demand with MPs was terrific (we based this assumption because we saw a tangible output when working with a MP). Subsequently Swaniti was started in 2009.
What major challenges did you face when setting up your venture as compared to the challenges you face today?
Establishing the concept was particularly hard. We were doing some very new and the whole thought of working with policy makers is already fairly decent and setting up a new venture in this space was particularly hard. We didn't have any past examples of people we could follow. So every time you would meet a person you would have to explain from the very basis why you think elected officials would have even an incentive to do anything. This was worsened when under UPAII one scam after another came out. Today I think, under the new administration, it is a much more accepted concept and people see the merit of working with the government.
What is a typical work-day like for you?
There is no typical work day. The host of stakeholders one meets and the range of issues I get to work on is challenging and yet one of the biggest driver. A day might mean a series of MP meeting, back to back meeting with partners, working with the team to put together content or even traveling across the country to understand a ground level issue. That also means I am learning endlessly.
What future plans do you have regards Swaniti Initiative?
The space of policy and governance is booming and in the past few years we have learned a lot and we hope to be able to share that learning effectively. Subsequently in the future our work is branching out to work with more state governments, increasing our work with MPs and creating more data backed knowledge content which the government and civil society can find of use.
What would you say a woman entrepreneur in India needs to get ahead?
I think a woman entrepreneur in India has basic struggles like social norms and expectations and the ability to juggle incredibly demanding work with enormous expectations of family/personal life. i have known women who have had to finish a work day at 9 pm and go home and cook and take care of the family. Demands on women in the family life is undeniably more so in our country's context. However for me, as a woman, my biggest strength has been my family and particularly my parents and husband. They have unquestionably supported me even when I have doubted myself. I can't count how many time I have looked to my husband and questioned if I can do this and every time he has said yes. In my experience my family has been the reason I have been able to pursue Swaniti.
A few words to leave our readers with?
A few days ago my mother and I were chatting about women's issues and our conversation reached a fascinating note: my grandmother was married when she was 14 and got to rarely leave the house. She worked mostly on domestic chores and helped raise 5 children. My mother was married at 19 and is a home maker. But she partakes in my father's work very actively and is not in any way limited to only working or focusing on the household. Most in our generation of women have much more freedom in when we want to get married and what we want to do. Each of our past generation of women has strived to make the lives of the next generation of women better. We must remember that we have the responsibility to do the same. To a stronger and fierce next generation of women.