‘We not only run these schools, we also engage with local communities. We ensure that parents are motivated to send their children, especially girls, to schools.’

Some of the programmes that are helping build the lives of thousands of underprivileged children across the country are being conceptualized in the plush corporate office of India’s largest telecom brand. In an hour-long chat with Vijay Chadda, chief executive officer of Bharti Foundation, CauseBecause tried to assess the strength of Bharti Group’s commitment to its corporate social responsibility.

Here are a few significant abstracts from the talk.

On operating model

CauseBecause (CB): Bharti Foundation runs some of the finest schools for the underprivileged in the hinterlands and has also collaborated with governments to upgrade the quality of state-run schools. Do tell us a bit about the operating model – the idea may be replicated by other organizations working in a similar area.

Vijay Chadda: Firstly, let me state that the model we work on is clearly conceptualized in order to achieve the objective, which is ‘quality education’. We are a ‘corporate’ non-government organization with a professional approach to the work we do.

Unlike the majority of foundations, we do not have partners or associates whom we fund to implement projects. We create and run our own schools. Right from the strategy to implementation to administration of the school, everything is done by us. All schools are managed, monitored and funded by Bharti Foundation.

Presently we are running 254 schools of our own and all our teachers and other workers at these schools are on our rolls. They all are Bharti Foundation employees. These people are engaged in providing free education to over 41,000 underprivileged children across six states in India. A majority of the schools run by us are primary schools (185); 5 are senior secondary schools and 64 are elementary schools.

The foundation not only runs these schools, it also engages with local communities to make them understand the significance of quality schooling and education. We ensure that parents are motivated to send their children, especially girls, to schools. About 49 per cent of our children are girls.

On commitment

CB: With primary schools in majority, are you being able to ensure ‘continuous’ education? Where do children go after passing out from Satya Bharti primary schools?

Chadda: This is precisely what the community also asks us. While we provide them free education until primary level, where will they go after that? In the interiors of states like Haryana and Punjab, people hesitate to send their girls to government schools that are not near their villages. To address this issue we have partnered with the government and upgraded the senior secondary schools run by them. These schools absorb children from our primary schools. Looking at the quality of these schools and the value they bring to their children’s lives and future prospects, parents do not mind investing in the necessary transport so their children can commute. Transport is anyway the only thing that a parent has to pay for since we provide everything else – from uniforms to books to stationeries and midday meals.

On funds and scope of work

CB: So, will it be right to say that Bharti Group companies are funding the education of about 40,000 children as part of their corporate social responsibility?

Chadda: Partially yes. There are other donors as well. While the Bharti family funded the foundation at the time of endowment, employees now contribute through an in-house philanthropy programme called Act. Then we have over a hundred corporate partners who either fund us financially or give us material donations. Interestingly, some of our Group’s business competitors are also the donors for our foundation.

So, there are some very large donors and then there are very small donors who could be giving just about Rs 1,000 in a year – the foundation runs from a large universe of contributors. However, yes, the majority of the fund that we have is the corporate social responsibility spends of Bharti Group companies.

That said, we certainly do not get the whole of the group’s CSR budget. Apart from funding the activities of Bharti Foundation, the companies also carry out their own CSR activities. All our companies have their own CSR policies, their own social agendas. The companies could be working with other organizations or through their employees on social issues.

CB: Although the foundation’s activities are well within the requirements of the rules under Section 135 of Companies Act mandating CSR, did you have to re-strategize or discontinue some activities after the enactment of the law?

Chadda: Well, the scope of work that you can do in CSR as per the new rules is vast. Education, especially education for the poor, is one of the main focus areas in the rules. We have been doing this long before the CSR talks began in the country and will continue to do that regardless of the government’s mandate. As per the law, our work is well within the ambit of the rules. Also, as far as the two per cent of net profits is concerned, I am sure we have been spending much more than that.

CB: There is this general perception that corporate NGOs or large foundations tend to spend a bit too much on administration, executive’s perks and brand building and public-relations exercises. What’s your opinion on this?

Chadda: Well, we can operate from this plush office whose rent we do not have to pay as it is owned by the Bharti Group. All consumption bills, etc., too are taken care of by the company. So we have no such administrative costs to bear. Our employees have no special frills or perks. Our public-relations agency is on-board with Airtel with the mandate of helping the foundation. So, practically nearly hundred per cent of our funds go in projects.

CB: Suppose there is a school in a not-so-good condition and needs funds or infrastructure support, and its administration approaches you for help. What is it that you would do for them?

Chadda: As I had said earlier, we are not a funding agency and do not partner with other organizations to implement projects. So, we will not fund the school or partner with them to upgrade it. However, we will certainly support them with our resources. We may allow their children to make use of facilities that they cannot afford to create; we may help them in making right curriculums or even in training their teachers. We are working for a cause and are open to extending help in the best possible way to everyone with the right intent.  

CB: Spearheading a social or a development organization is a great responsibility and also brings special gratification. Your opinion on this?

Chadda: At the end of the day, when you look back you realize that you have been doing some meaningful work. You are touching lives and creating a foundation for the future of the country… in some way. There cannot be such gratification in most work. I certainly love what I am doing.  

On the sidelines: Bharti Foundation has appointed Sulabh International for constructing 12,000 toilets in rural households across 900 villages in Ludhiana district of Punjab. The Foundation has committed Rs 100 crore investment under Satya Bharti Abhiyan over the next three years for constructing toilets in rural households lacking such facilities.