Nestled safely some 7000 feet above sea level in the Pindar valley, is the pristine village of Khati. One legend has it that the residents of Khati are the direct descendants of those who had sheltered the keepers of good governance in Mahabharat, the Pandavas, during their exile. The Pandavas might have reached Khati a long time ago, but ‘good governance’ was apparently yet to make its way.

The Internal Data and Analytics team at Swaniti was tasked with improving the governance structures in 8 Gram Panchayat Units in Bageshwar district of Uttarakhand – sparsely populated, surrounded by the jungles and spread across the Kumaon mountain ranges. One of these 8 Gram Panchayats was Khati – the farthest and most isolated of the lot. We were told that this was going to be an ‘uphill task’ – both literally and figuratively. And so we set out with our backpacks, mountain gears and expertise to take on the challenge.

When we first reached the 8 Gram Panchayats after multiple days of travel through uncarpeted roads and treks through mountain valleys, our goal was clear – we did not wish to be another organisation coming over with lofty promises and short lived development activities. We were here for the long haul, to collect empirical evidence for presenting it to the people’s representatives while building the capacity of the inhabitants in a manner that change was not just created but institutionalised.

During our first month there the Swaniti team focused on meeting all stakeholders (various government departments, NGOs in the region, Panchayats, Women’s groups, students, teachers, laborers, members of different castes – you name it!). What we discovered through our conversations was that the people in power enjoyed disproportionate sway over the proceedings. When we heard statements such as “People in the mountains do not need access to safe drinking water!” and “There are skin diseases that are being seen across generations.” separately, we had to know if it was a mere coincidence, a correlation or a causation. We needed hard irrefutable numbers to find out the truth and point out the things that were not being noticed.

Based on our detailed interactions with the local populace, we decided to design an innovative survey that asked essential questions that are often ignored by Census surveys and focus group discussions. Ranging from the minutest activities undertaken by the households to details about individual members, from the status of mid-day meals in schools and anganwadi centres to availability of injections in health facilities and local confidence in PRI institutions, our questionnaires tried to cover everything. To exhibit the importance of technology in delivering timely services through technological interventions we designed an Android application that could work without any internet access (extremely important in the mountains) and record information that couldn’t be collected manually. We clicked pictures of houses to record their condition and for a determination in the future for the necessity of better designs to help them withstand landslides. Besides we mapped geo-locations so that local government officials could spatially map the requirements of the region and design better road networks and the best part – without wasting any paper!

Yet designing the application was half the task. The most vital part of our goal was to train young people from the region, teach them how to collect data and manage the operations on the ground alongside the local residents. We conducted aptitude tests and interviews to select the brightest individuals in the region and trained them on various facets of the data collection process. While sharing the details of the 30+ hours training here on this blog would be tedious, we can at least tell you that after the end of the training the volunteers could easily identify more than 30 government schemes and the role that local governments could play in resolving key issues in the area. Those who were shy and could not talk openly on the first day, had by the end of the training decided to voluntarily take part in forming youth clubs that contributed to the Gram Sabhas. These clubs were charged with the task of collecting the information from the ground and upholding the banner of ‘spark the change’.

Today at the time of writing this blog, the data collection process on the ground is almost complete and the information collected has started providing us and the residents of the 8 GPUs, key insights for driving growth in the region. The youth, with support from local government authorities are hoping to use the information collected as a reference, with the aim of repeating and augmenting the process on their own in the years to come. Going forward, we will continue to update you on the insights derived and how we tackled key issues. Stay tuned for the next blog post.

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This blog has been authored by Ravish Bhatia, Associate in the Data team. For further questions please contact him at ravish.b[at]swaniti.in