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‘Tender’ing Transparency

Swamy

Swamy Deva, Director & CEO of SSaeros Enterprises Pvt. Ltd

Thousands of schoolchildren from impoverished communities in Telangana now have access to a clean, hygienic stay in free residential schools, thanks to one company’s tireless efforts to modernise tools, alter procurement and introduce transparency into housekeeping. However, some lacunae still remain in the tendering process. Swamy Deva, Director & CEO of SSaeros Enterprises Pvt. Ltd showed me how he did it:

The government of Telangana runs over 700 residential schools and colleges for children from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, minority and backward communities. From fifth standard to graduation, their education, boarding and lodging is taken care of entirely by the state government, elevating them out of generations of poverty and giving them a fair chance at prosperity. Some of these children have gone on to create history; Malavath Poorna – on whose feat a film was made — scaled Mount Everest at the age of 13, becoming the youngest girl ever to do so.

Chance played a role in Deva’s journey; while scrolling through social media, he came upon the Clean India Show. He made his way to Mumbai and attended the expo, where he interacted directly with manufacturers of mops, brooms and chemicals, who were willing to negotiate down to prices he had not encountered before.

Until then, Telangana schools were cleaned in a slipshod manner using old-fashioned brooms. Water supply in taps was inconsistent, toilet hygiene unheard of. At the show, Deva discovered that the price of mops was almost 40% lesser than those available locally in Hyderabad. “The brooms being used then would need to be replaced every month or so,” says Deva. “We found better-quality brooms, which — if used properly — can last for up to twelve months.” He calculated the cost of advanced cleaning tools required for a school for a whole year, compared it to what the government was already spending on brooms, and found them to be almost equal. If expenses could remain unchanged, why should underprivileged children who spend years of their lives in a school campus not have access to a clean and hygienic environment?

He went to the state government and proposed that in their existing budget, his company would provide better services using better tools. A pilot project was approved for three months in two schools, and Deva set out to prove his model.

Each school had an area of approximately one lakh square feet, including 14 classrooms, 40 dormitories, a huge dining hall and kitchen, 80-100 bathrooms and a similar number of toilets for over 600 students and 50 staff members. A government SOP for cleaning – unchanged for decades — already existed. Deva’s team made slight modifications — such as instructing staff to wash their hands before and after cleaning toilets — leading to tangible results. Earlier, cleaning would begin at 6am, and finish by around 2.30pm. With better tools, cleaning was completed hours earlier, by 10.30-11am, which made school principals very happy. Most students came from impoverished backgrounds, where running water and a safe toilet were unheard of; consequently, handwashing was not a habit. “We insisted on installing handwashing stations with running water in every toilet, and a hand washing liquid with a good fragrance”, says Deva. “We calculated that each student would need to wash his or her hands around six times a day – thrice after using the toilet and thrice before meals – and each press would dispense a certain amount of liquid. We figured out how much would be needed for a month for the whole school. The government instructed schools to use their savings to procure this, and made it available.”

The team didn’t stop here. Every morning, Deva’s team would show up at the student assembly and employ interactive means to demonstrate steps of toilet hygiene and other cleanliness tips. Every three months, the water storage tanks were thoroughly cleaned with bleach. The amount of trash collected everyday was measured, and the requisite number of dustbins installed across campus. The results were unquestionable throwing of wrappers around the campus reduced drastically, as did the incidence of waterborne diseases among students. Replacing phenyl and acid – that reduce the lifespans of toilets – with MSDS-certified liquid further improved the sanitation situation. The model was a success.

But who certified it as one? Since the procurement process was different from earlier, a committee consisting of a government officer of joint/deputy secretary rank, finance officer, regional and district coordinators, and school principals oversaw the pilot, looking for loopholes. “After all,” says Deva, “government money was being spent, and it had to be ensured that it was for the welfare of the schools”. From the beginning, Deva’s team would take the principal’s signature at the end of the day’s work, along with pictures of the cleaned campus, and share it with the committee, every single day. This transparency convinced them, and their positive report was forwarded to the concerned secretary, who wrote a letter of recommendation on Deva’s behalf, advising officers in every district to choose Deva’s team for school cleaning, whenever they were approached. At the same time, word of the new model spread, and school principals in other districts started writing to their District Purchase Committees – headed by the District Collector – asking to avail of the team’s services. From two schools, SSaeros Enterprises is now responsible for housekeeping in 120 residential schools across Telangana.

While Swamy’s team brought in many operational changes, the fundamental change was in procurement. After having seen that better equipment could be purchased at a reasonable price, the government issued tenders according to the team’s specifications – the length of the mop, the material of the wiping cloths, and more. The model Deva propagated became the specification. Most other companies – who were only ready to bid for the older model – didn’t want to risk losses and hence didn’t bid at all.

For some reason, the procurement process in Telangana is three-fold. Tools and cleaning chemicals for all the schools across the state are procured by a single, central tender. But while the caretaker of the school – who is ultimately responsible for cleaning – is a government employee, the manpower who does the actual cleaning is supplied by a company chosen by a decentralised, district-level process. And handwash liquid for students is still purchased by using an individual school’s savings fund.

Let’s examine the quarterly process for tools and chemicals; a tender with a price band is issued, with an upper and lower limit. Firms bidding below the lower limit are automatically rejected. However, there is an issue with the upper limit too; the present range may not permit the best, highestquality brands with the longest lasting products – many designed abroad by global experts – to bid at all. While price is the bottom line of any bid, quality should be the bottom line of any tender.

The delay in payments by the government – which may run even into months – discourages foreign brands looking to make inroads into the public sector market from even thinking about bidding. The manpower tender can – and very often is – misused. Sometimes, even when another company wins the bid, the workers and the situation on the ground remain the same, because only the name of the assigned company changes; everything else is as substandard as it was before. Certain schools of excellence can afford to dip into their pockets to buy hand wash liquid, but this is not affordable for every school. Many schools still have to rely on bars of soap and water in bathrooms for students to wash their hands after using the toilet. Why should one set of students have lesser access to hygiene than their peers?

Remember ‘Swaero’, Deva’s last name? The first two letters stand for ‘social welfare’, and ‘aeros’ means ‘air’ in Greek, suggesting that the sky’s the limit for such an individual. Swaeros come from underprivileged communities, who — after making it big — help young children overcome their circumstances and become Swaeros themselves. Deva’s efforts are helping hundreds of young Indians earn an education in a safe, clean environment; almost 150 students from these government residential schools are now studying to be doctors, and fifty of them have made it to Delhi University, the alma mater of many Cabinet Ministers. “Secretaries and commissioners from the government of India have come and stayed in our institutions for two-three days to understand our model”, says Swamy. If this isn’t a sign of success, what is?

 

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