Women’s History Roundtable September 2019: “12 Years and Counting: The Prajnya Story” by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan

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Swarna Rajagopalan is the founder and Managing Trustee of Prajnya. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She has published books, peer-reviewed papers and media articles on a wide range of topics related to peace, security and gender equality. She has also taught at a number of universities in India and abroad. Besides Prajnya, she also runs Chaitanya, a consultancy specialising in research and academic programming on political and policy issues.

On 9 September 2019, Prajnya celebrated its 12thbirthday. To mark the occasion, Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan traced the organisation’s journey at a special edition of the Women’s History Roundtable Series. Dr. Rajagopalan remarked that her talk would be a very personal account, given that she has the most continuous memory of Prajnya. She added that to not remember was simply not an option, particularly because Prajnya itself is a small and personal type of organisation.

Dr. Rajagopalan said that Prajnya was first conceptualised in February 2003, in her home office in Urbana, Illinois. While she dreamt about creating it, she was simultaneously beginning to seriously consider returning to India. She tried to imagine what the organisation would be, and what specifically she wanted to create. The three years between 2003 and 2006 constituted the planning phase, as these details were fleshed out. She drew up her first documents outlining her plans, which she titled ‘Theme for a Dream’. In August 2003, Dr. Rajagopalan moved to Chennai. She spent a year making contacts, noting that founding an NGO requires various kinds of capital, including inclusion in local networks. Despite her initial struggles, she decided in 2005 to go ahead with her project. She called in the first Trustees, and began the elaborate process of officially setting up the organisation. The deed, for example, took several months to draft, which she did with the help of a lawyer. Sorting out these details, such as legal compliance and income tax, took another year.

In September 2007, Dr. Rajagopalan received a notification that Prajnya’s income tax registration had been sorted out. She then had to address the final paperwork and procedural details, such as creating a bank account and letterhead. She decided to set it up as a trust in order to protect the founding vision, so that however it grew and changed over the years, it remained tethered to those original principles. She reflected on the journey of the logo as a symbol of Prajnya’s growth, adding that its identity was anchored in these symbols, especially in its early days. On 8 March 2008, the Prajnya banner was raised at an event for the first time. The tangibility of this act, along with the arrival of the first batch of volunteers, made the organisation feel more ‘real’.

Dr. Rajagopalan then provided some operational information about Prjanya. She noted that while she had dreamed big initially in terms of budgets, Prajnya has become a volunteer-led organisation. Much of Prajnya’s work involves information and communication, which is a core skill of many of the organisation’s volunteers. Prajnya is also known for working with other organisations, which she noted might become more difficult as the climate increasingly pits organisations against each other. In addition, Prajnya is hyper-local, but has nevertheless forged a number of connections outside Chennai. Prajnya is also largely community-funded, with no government or FCRA funds. She added that this meant that whenever individual donors contribute, they are also given some amount of ownership. She also mentioned the challenges that Prajnya has faced, including the persistent threat of closure, trying to keep energy and morale up, raising funds and getting people to attend events. Yet, she emphasised that over 12 years, the organisation’s reach had grown immensely, with Prajnya being seen as a ‘go-to’ for various issues.

Dr. Rajagopalan’s talk provided clarity on what creating a non-profit in India entails, in the context of her own positionality. It also highlighted how interwoven her personal and professional journey was with the evolution of Prajnya.

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Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

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