February 2017 | Nithin Rao

Linking the last mile

Tata Trusts' unique technology-backed data-driven governance programme tries to bridge the gap between government interventions and India's rural poor

Bhari in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district is barely 10km away from the state border with Telangana and among the most impoverished villages in the region. It suffers from perennial water shortage and has no motorable roads. What has made Bhari highly visible on the government radar is that it is the beneficiary of a unique data-collection initiative that helps bring alive ground realities through data visualisation tools.

Village youth volunteers in Bhari, India, use smart tools to collect data as part of Tata Trusts' data-driven governance programme

Bhari has been witness to a new approach to rural development thanks to Tata Trusts’ data-driven governance programme. Partnering with government bodies and decision makers at the local, state and central level, the programme aims to support policy-making and execution in India’s underserved rural communities by using technology and data for better information. In essence, it helps improve last-mile linkage of individuals to government schemes and policies, as a bridge between the needy and the state.

The Bhari project, for example, is aligned with the objectives of the Prime Minister’s Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY). SAGY is an initiative that calls for each member of parliament to adopt a village in his or her constituency for development.

In all respects, Bhari is fully deserving of all the developmental support it can get. Around 80 percent of the population in this mountainous block is tribal, living in dire poverty. Satish Kotnake, Bhari’s 37-year-old sarpanch, highlights water shortage as a significant issue in the area. “A majority of the people here are farmers, and the main crop is cotton,” he says.

Rain dependent
Lack of irrigation in Bhari’s hilly terrain means farmers have to depend on rainwater for this water-thirsty crop. With abundant rains this year, agricultural output has been high, but that’s not always the case. “This monsoon was good, but last year’s was a bad one,” explains Paresh Manohar, programme officer at Tata Trusts. “There is a drought here every alternate year. Moreover, farmers do not get proper rates for their produce.”

Subsistence is an uphill battle. Public transport services are skeletal with only one state transport bus that comes to the village every day. “The problem in this part of Chandrapur is that there are few motorable roads in the mountains,” says Dhananjay Lokhande, a villager. The lack of transport in the area means that the villagers have to pay extra money to hire vehicles to take their produce to distant towns. “Lack of sanitation and electricity are the other problems that our people face,” says Mr Lokhande.

Another major area of concern was the poor healthcare facilities, typical of India’s hinterland. Public health services are virtually non-existent in the region — there’s no ambulance available for medical emergencies; the local health centre has only one nurse stationed for deliveries of women; there are no doctors for patients with heart and other ailments.

Village women participate in a community mapping exercise for Tata Trusts' data-driven governance programme in Bhari, India

In fact, all of these problems faced by Bhari and its underprivileged community are now documented, thanks to the Tata Trusts’ data-driven governance programme. The programme was launched last year, after the Trusts approached and consulted with Sudhir Mungantiwar, Maharashtra’s minister for finance, planning and forest, and the guardian minister for Chandrapur. Under the SAGY umbrella, three talukas were selected — Mul, Pombhurna and Jiwati — and the data collection work began in October 2015.

The Trusts trained youth from neighbouring villages as volunteers for collecting data. NGOs working in the area were also roped in as local partners for this comprehensive data collection exercise. “Our volunteers covered 115 gram panchayats [village-level administrations] in the three talukas,” says Sandip Sukhadeve, master trainer at Sparsh (a centre for participatory learning in Chandrapur and an NGO that is associated with the project).

Multiple issues
The survey uncovered a host of issues relating to agriculture, education, roads and financial issues, and some more. “We found, for instance, that Aadhaar penetration in Bhari village was very low,” says Mr Manohar. This has implications for government-led interventions and benefits that need to be passed on to the villagers.

In all, around 900 volunteers farmed out to meet every household member in the three blocks, collecting relevant information on key aspects such as education, social development, livelihood, health, social security schemes and self-governance. Nearly 50,000 households and a population of 165,000 were covered in the first phase of the project that lasted nearly a year.

The team worked closely with designated government officials. “We had the support of the local administration,” says Mr Manohar. It helped that Mr Kotnake, who is also the government-appointed block development officer (BDO) at Bhari, got the support of gram panchayat members in executing the project.

Involving the villagers ensured that the exercise was more participatory and effective in its results. Amol Durge, a farmer at Bhari who volunteered for the project, discovered that many of the villagers were not aware of the variety of government schemes available to them.

Being located close to the Maharashtra-Telangana border, the residents of Bhari and neighbouring villages are familiar with three languages: Marathi and Telugu as well as the tribal language Gondi. “We taught our young volunteers how to interact with these villagers in their preferred language,” says P Narayan, who is studying for his BA and also currently volunteering with Tata Trusts.

Once the data collection was over, the Tata Trusts team came up with development planning reports based on the findings. “We have submitted these to the gram panchayats,” says Mr Manohar. These reports are available in the form of a dashboard — a data visualisation tool that displays the current status of metrics and key performance indicators on policy-level interventions and government development schemes in the area. In the next phase, as government agencies start addressing the issues that have been uncovered, Tata Trusts has stepped in with solutions of its own, such as providing safe drinking water to three villages under the Tata Water Mission. “The Tata Water Mission will ensure 20 litres of water to everyone for just Rs2,” says Mr Kotnake.

For the people living in the villages in Chandrapur’s three blocks — and in other villages in three more states — the Tata Trusts’ data-driven governance programme is poised to change the nature of developmental planning. In doing so, it is setting an example of a new model of data-driven governance for the rest of the country to emulate.

This article was first published in the January - March 2017 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here