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Answer by Tirumalai Kamala:

I highlight three organizations, one still an infant, founded in 2009, and two elders, founded in 1972 and 1959, respectively.

The Young ‘Un, Transparent Chennai
Some attributes that often come to mind when we think of India? Chaotic urban development and corruption. How to hold politicians accountable?

With a population of almost 10 million, Chennai is India’s 5th largest city and 4th most populous metro. Founded in 2009 by a woman, Nithya V. Raman, and almost entirely woman-staffed, Transparent Chennai has adopted one of the most creative and technology-savvy approaches to support accurate and effective citizen scrutiny of Chennai’s government. Literally from the ground-up, using volunteers and shoe leather, this 18-person NGO (Non-Government Organization) has slowly but surely and steadily built an information-heavy online database that includes data-rich, geo-tagged multi-layer online maps of Chennai. Not garden-variety, rather data and maps intended to help Chennai citizens (Chennaites) hold their government accountable. Could maps really do that? How?

Based on the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act of 1919 (Page on chennaicorporation.gov.in), Chennai is governed by a Mayor-City Council model. Chennai municipality is currently divided into 200 wards, each ward represented by an elected councillor for a five-year term. Apart from unsurprising public resources such as transport-related (metro and bus routes, and flyovers), Transparent Chennai’s online maps highlight municipal infrastructure and services such as garbage collection sites, police stations, public toilets, census data, administrative boundaries, and community generated maps of two slums (in reality ancient coastal fisherman villages, Urur and Olcott Kuppams) currently threatened by forcible removal to make way for a coastline highway.

What does any of this data have to do with local governance? I think we would agree on two basic tenets of democracy. A functioning democracy needs to be responsive and accountable to its citizens. In turn, citizens need to be alert and engaged in the democratic process and hold their government accountable. If a government and its citizens are bricks, we could imagine information as the cement holding them together. Transparent Chennai generates this cement, public interest information for Chennaites to use to hold their government accountable. In fact, this is the revolutionary idea behind Transparent Chennai. Let’s use their maps to see how this could be done. On their web-site Transparent Chennai, let’s click on maps.

A drop-down menu of several choices opens. Let’s select Public Toilets and ask to Build Map.

As we move across the vast Chennai city, the tool builds a color-coded ward-by-ward layer identifying the number of Public Toilets available in each ward. Hover over a ward, and we get a text bubble of its number of Public Toilets.

If a councillor promised to double the number of Public Toilets in his ward during his/her election campaign, well, here’s a real-time, ground-up citizen-generated, freely available map for concerned citizens to use to demand accountability from their elected representatives if and when they fail to follow through on their electoral promises.

Why did I choose Public Toilets? If we didn’t already know, recent campaigns by the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have highlighted the woeful lack of Public Toilets in India. Lack of Public Toilets creates greater vulnerability for women in particular. Of course, the reality is that those Chennaites who most need access to Public Toilets, the poor and illiterate, probably don’t have access to the internet and hence to such maps but other concerned citizens in their wards do, and this information is the necessary first step to create a better informed citizenry, itself the necessary first step for a better functioning democracy.Transparent Chennai has by far created the most thoughtfully tech-savvy tools I’ve seen for empowering citizen governance.

As Transparent Chennai’s web-site says, ‘In order to improve governance processes in Chennai, Transparent Chennai collects data and creates maps and research on important civic issues in the city. Transparent Chennai has already placed information about the electoral boundaries of the parliamentary, assembly and corporation constituencies on its website. This can be combined with other features of the city, such as slums, roads, flyovers, garbage dumpsters and public toilets, to enable a user to make connections between elected representatives, constituencies, and infrastructure and services. This research area conducts research and analysis on the municipal laws, planning processes, institutional structure, and organisational arrangements for the provision of basic services in the city, with the aim to understand the formal and informal ways they are accessed and provided. This research area will also create a repository of official data organised ward and zone – wise to provide salient municipal information about infrastructure, demographics, and services. In parallel, we have also developed tools for citizens to easily evaluate and monitor service and infrastructure quality‘.

Through the research on elected representatives, Transparent Chennai’s ultimate goal is to use the innovative collection and dissemination of information to elevate political relationships from their current individualised and transactional form to focusing on local development within the constituency.This research area collects and disseminates the limited available information about the performance of elected representatives in office. This includes creating a database of information about elected representative performance including attendance at council and wards committee meetings, spending from their local area development fund, and participation in legislative proceedings for elected representatives at the city, state, and central levels within the city. We are also studying their de facto powers and limitations and the incentives they respond to trying to understand the environment in which councillors operate‘.

Nithya V. Raman (no, she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet but I bet she will in coming years) is the remarkable young woman who started Transparent Chennai. If the breathtaking ambition and scope of Transparent Chennai’s tech-savvy tools and its youthful, largely female, and obviously idealistic staff don’t strengthen one’s hope in India’s democracy, what else could? Using Transparent Chennai’s blueprint, here are online tools for local government accountability that I think could be readily replicated in every city in India. Why stop there? Every city in the world.

The Elders: SEWA and Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad

SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association of India), an NGO for informal sector women workers
Founded in 1972 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, by the formidable and phenomenal Ela Bhatt, SEWA (means service in Hindi) provides microfinance and Community-based Health Insurance (CHI) to thousands of previously marginalized Indian women, poor, illiterate, and lacking access to opportunities for self-empowerment. ‘It is an organization of poor, self-employed women workers. . .who earn a living through their own labor or small businesses. . . (and who) do not obtain regular salaried employment with welfare benefits like workers in the organized sector,By calendar year 2003, SEWA Insurance had over 110000 members — over 85000 adult women and almost 25000 adult men. Two-thirds of scheme members were in rural areas and one-third in urban areas (i.e., Ahmedabad City). The vast majority, 97% of members, were enrolled under the 1st and least expensive policy‘ (1).

Is there proof that SEWA’s CHI program works?
There is a sizable and growing database of peer-reviewed social science research suggesting that in the field of CHI, SEWA is not only a global pioneer but has also set an example worth emulating by ‘rather than adopting standardised “prepackaged” solutions, first identified barriers to access and then developed and tested interventions aimed at overcoming these specific barriers‘ (2). After studies in the 1990s and early 2000s highlighted several structural barriers that prevented effective implementation of its CHI schemes, SEWA has continuously tweaked its working CHI model to conform to unique local conditions wherever it operates rather than impose a rigid centralized approach.

From 3

While social science experts probably better understand the scope, shortcomings and inferences of these peer-reviewed studies (4, 5, 6, 7), for a layperson like me, the most important message is clear, that SEWA’s CHI data are freely available for public and expert scrutiny. Such transparency is itself the most important attribute necessary to earn credibility, and this growing body of multi-author, multi-institutional peer-reviewed research about its programs suggests SEWA has such credibility.

SEWA bibliography

  1. Sinha, Tara, et al. “Management initiatives in a community‐based health insurance scheme.” The International journal of health planning and management 22.4 (2007): 289-300.
  2. De Allegri, Manuela, and Rainer Sauerborn. “Community based health insurance in developing countries.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 334.7607 (2007): 1282. Page on nih.gov
  3. Michielsen, Joris, et al. “Can health insurance improve access to quality care for the Indian poor?.” International journal for quality in health care 23.4 (2011): 471-486. Page on oxfordjournals.org
  4. Sinha, Tara, et al. “Barriers to accessing benefits in a community-based insurance scheme: lessons learnt from SEWA Insurance, Gujarat.” Health Policy and Planning 21.2 (2006): 132-142. lessons learnt from SEWA Insurance, Gujarat
  5. Ranson, M. Kent, et al. “Helping members of a community-based health insurance scheme access quality inpatient care through development of a preferred provider system in rural Gujarat.” The National medical journal of India 19.5 (2006): 274. Helping members of a community-based health insurance scheme access quality inpatient care through development of a preferred provider system in rural Gujarat
  6. Sinha, Tara, Sapna Desai, and Ajay Mahal. “Hospitalized for fever? Understanding hospitalization for common illnesses among insured women in a low-income setting.” Health policy and planning (2013): czt032. Hospitalized for fever? Understanding hospitalization for common illnesses among insured women in a low-income setting
  7. Desai, Sapna, et al. “Understanding CBHI hospitalisation patterns: a comparison of insured and uninsured women in Gujarat, India.” BMC health services research 14.1 (2014): 320. Page on biomedcentral.com

Lijjat Papad Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad (SMGU; loosely translated as Women’s Home Enterprise Lijjat lentil wafer)

Like most Indians, I grew up eating papads, lentil-based, thin, fried or baked, crisp wafers. Indians eat papads as either snacks or as appetizers. Started in 1959 by seven illiterate, talented and indomitably determined Mumbai-based women cooks, today with more than 40,000 members, approx. 67 branches and approx. 35 divisions all over India, Lijjat Pappads is a phenomenal success story of a co-operative that leveraged the cooking talent of thousands of illiterate or semi-literate Indian women to help them build home-based careers and financial independence. In the process, these women have built Lijjat Papad into a multi-million dollar behemoth of a co-operative (as of 2013, a turnover of approx. $100 million; Empowering Women with a Wafer-Thin Idea).

Key unique attributes of and data on Lijjat Papad (Empowering Women with a Wafer-Thin Idea):

  1. Written constitution.
  2. Unerring and steadfast focus on product quality.
  3. A focus on logistics that respects the constraints of SMGU members. Centrally prepared dough distributed to members who take them home, prepare the papads, bring prepared products back to work the next day to be weighed, packaged and sold.
  4. Buses to ferry members to and from work.
  5. Organizational principles of professionalism and self-sufficiency based on the advice of local community leader, Chhanganlal Karamshi Parekh.
  6. Three core principles: ‘mutual affection and concern (employees all have an equal status); devotion (the workplace is treated not just as a place of employment but also one of reverence); and, sarvodaya or collective ownership (also called trusteeship, a central idea of the historical Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi)‘.
  7. each member at Lijjat – considered an equal and a co-owner of the cooperative whose opinions contribute to all business decisions (no regard is given to a member’s social status or religious persuasion) – is affectionately referred to within the organization as sister‘.
  8. Each sister (who receives 15 days of training when she joins Lijjat and has to be over 18 years old) works approximately six hours a day and receives an average monthly wage – called vanai – of between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 3,000 (approximately US$ 35 and US$ 53). Extra vanai is paid on the occasion of an Indian cultural festival‘.
  9. In addition, profits and losses of each branch are shared by its members (sisters).
  10. Products priced to be affordable to middle and low income customers.
  11. Having captured a big chunk of India’s papad market, Lijjat has now diversified into the spices and detergents sector. It exports 30 to 35% of of its papads all over Asia, Middle-east, EU and North America.
  12. a key element of the organization’s development was to ensure an all-woman membership. The only male workers at Lijjat are employed on a contractual basis for specialized roles‘.
  13. Diligent and meticulous attention to branding, commercialization, trademarks, and intellectual property. For example, ‘the organization registered a trademark for Symbol of Woman’s Strength Papad (2012) in the United States of America (USA) at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)‘.


From Empowering Women with a Wafer-Thin Idea

Lijjat’s distribution flow chart (from The incredible story of Lijjat Papad!)

Lijjat’s collection flow chart (from http://www.rediff.com/money/2005…)

Interviews with Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat, the sole surviving co-founder of Lijjat Pappads on the occasion of its 50th anniversary:
Indian meal starter lasts 50 years
Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat, Founder, Lijjat Papad- We Simply Believe In Honesty And Hard Work
Other resources:
Things you didn’t know about Lijjat papad!

Which organizations do the best work for improving the situation for women in India?