In a generation of politically agnostic youth, we are seeing a resurgence of youth who are willing to drop their cushy high-paying jobs for a more active and meaningful role in government administration and politics. Heralding this trend is Swaniti Initiative, a US-based nonprofit that gives students and youth under 35 the opportunity to work on live projects in the public administration sector. This summer, six corporate honchos traded their suits and ties for Nehru caps and come August Swaniti will recruit more Fellows. Swaniti was conceived in 2009 by three Harvard University Kennedy School of Government students who were concerned about the increasing nepotism in politics. “We were looking at various channels of entry to politics and found that most often it is those with political connections within or outside the family who have an easy way in,” shares Rwitwika Bhattacharya, founder, Swaniti Initiative.
The Swaniti story
Back in 2009, Bhattacharya and her friends offered fellowships to students of Harvard University Kennedy School of Government to work with politicians in India. “The response was overwhelming, and we wondered what the potential of an initiative like this could be in India. That was when Swaniti took its present shape,” shares the 26-year-old. At the end of the course, her classmates chose the corporate ladder while Bhattacharya took up employment at the Work Bank as an associate in the growth and competitiveness area but continued to pursue her pet-project. “In 2012 we decided to firm up our structure, researched the various issues where MPs and MLAs would like help from young leaders and drew up a list of advisors and mentors/clients,” shares Bhattacharya.
Swaniti now boasts of a superlative panel of advisors, which includes personalities such as Najma Heptulla, Sam Pitroda, Manish Tewari, Vivek Sharma-CEO Piramal Critical Care based in Boston, USA, Ravi Dhariwal- CEO, The Times of India and Jayant Sinha Omidyar Network-MD India Advisors. The current clients who are benefiting from inputs from the fellows are Yashwant Sinha, senior BJP leader in Jharkhand, Sultan Ahmad- MP from West Bengal and Anurag Thakur-MP from Himachal Pradesh.
Having been educated in the West for the most part, we wonder what drives Bhattacharya’s political passions in India. “My father is in fact a politician,” she coyly confesses. “My visits to India during vacations were always peppered with trips to his constituency and meeting other politicians. I slowly became comfortable being around politicians and saw the dichotomy between how the media portrays politicians and what they actually are. I realised that not all of them are as bad,” she explains. Having spent 12 years away from home, Bhattacharya is now in the process of packing her bags to return to India and consummate her political aspirations.
Varun Santhosh, the engagement lead at Swaniti, heard about Bhattacharya’s initiative and joined the Team in March this year. “So far, the two of us have not even met,” smiles Santhosh. He quit his corporate job at HSBC in 2010 and joined the nonprofit sector soon after. Now the 25-year-old works at the Chief Minister’s Office, Sikkim as a Project Manager to bring out the second State Human Development Report. “I am keen on playing an active role in the public policy sphere and that is why I joined Swaniti. I am still in an exploratory stage and am constantly learning from the fellows at Swaniti,” he shares. Though Santhosh mentors the fellows, he gains just as much or more though his association with the various engagements.
Swaniti’s first batch of Fellows is out in the field now where they are working on various real-time problems in their respective constituencies. “We offered three fellowships this summer; one is Enabling effective school-to-work transition for women in West Bengal, Structuring Fund Allocation in Jharkhand and Fostering Job Creation in Himachal Pradesh,” shares Bhattacharya. Swaniti describes the problem areas in the sector and the client’s situation to help give direction to the fellows. “For example, Uluberia, in Howrah district, is primarily an agricultural constituency with low human development indicators. As one of the methods to improve development outcomes, Sultan Ahmad, Minister of State for Tourism, has invested significantly in educating girls. But the investment has not translated into jobs for women. So now he is looking for ways for women to enable an effective school-to-work transition,” she explains.
Anshuman Didwania and Nitin Sahoo are working with Ahmad on this problem and are guiding him towards a viable solution. “I have earlier worked in a corporate setup and jumped at the opportunity when I heard of the Swaniti Fellowships. I have been keen on working in the policy and polity sphere of work, but it was not until I became a Fellow that I realised the ground reality. We interact with various stakeholders like local government, local leadership, self-help groups etc. And it a quite a task to bring everyone on the same page to work together,” says 23-year-old Didwania. The duo of Sahoo and Didwania are in the last leg of their fellowship but are going to stick around to see their suggestions get implemented. “Having been a victim of bureaucracy during a stint with an NGO in Karnataka, I am now more interested in seeing the final outcome of the work we have done,” says Sahoo, a 2008 IIT-B graduate who had earlier worked with analytics service provider Mu Sigma. Both believe that when more youth like them take up these Fellowships in even more diverse areas we can hope for the seed of change to be sown. Sahoo confesses that work can get a little frustrating though as these problems are more complex than any you will face in a glass cubicle.
Chetan Kanoongo is another young professional who took the road less taken and joined Teach for India (TFI) last year. One year on, he is one of three Fellows who have been assigned to the Himachal Pradesh engagement. “The problem statement is what got me interested. I am already in the education sector and with TFI I was impacting a very small community. But as a Swaniti Fellow I am able to work on a macro level project. The mismatch between education and industry requirement is one major problem that India is grappling with. And through our initiatives we hope to make a sustainable impact,” he says. Kanoongo with two other Fellows, Vaibhav Lodha and Geeta Ramakrishnan, has been surveying government and private schools in Anurag Thakur’s constituency, Harimpur. In addition to that he visited about 20 industries around the constituency to understand what exactly the requirements are. “We also met with the vocational institutes to try and bridge the gap. While there is good access to students and a decent retention rate, the problem we found lies in the quality of education,” reckons Kanoongo.
The founders and Fellows in unison say that what is needed is more such youngsters joining the Swaniti bandwagon. “With the next set of Fellowships starting in September we are looking to diversify the Fellows. It will be nice to have sociologists, lawyers, journalists, designers, etc, working on various angles of the problem,” says Santosh. What Swaniti is looking for in its fellows are an interest and intent to do something. The most important skills you need to be a fellow are — awareness of the issue, fresh ideas, logical and analytical skills which they will use to solve the problem at hand.
Once you fill in the exhaustive application form, the shortlisted applicants are invited for an interview. Says Bhattcharya, “When we invited applications for the first cohort, we had a huge number of applicants from IIT-Kanpur. We still do not know how or why. But we were unable to choose any of them as they were ill-prepared despite having the passion.” It is important to do your research on the engagement you wish to work on. “The team and the mentors will guide and brainstorm with the Fellows on the various aspects of the problem. All we look for in the candidate is a past that will illustrate their passion for the engagement and what they plan to do in future,” she further explains. Fellows are given a minimal monetary compensation to cover housing and living expenses.
At the end of the fellowship, the team says that they don’t hope for an overnight change. “Through the engagement that they work for, the Fellows get a taste of the real problem. One hopes that they are motivated to contribute to the sector at some point if not immediately,” says Santhosh. The Fall Fellowships include illustrious clients like Member of Legislative Assembly, Sushmita Dev, Assam Congress, Member of Parliament, Dinesh Trivedi, Trinamool Congress, West Bengal and Member of Legislative Assembly, Hibi Eden, Kerala Congress. Last date to apply is July 30. Visit: www.swaniti.in ■
Corrigendum: Last week NIFT was expanded as National Institute of Fashion and Design instead of National Institute of Fashion Technology in the cover story, A first-hand experience. The error is regretted