It happens often. We talk, tell ideas, tinker with thoughts, meet people and pursue some, believing that we can make some difference together. And then we move on. We move on into the routine, the regular work–home life, the to-do-list life, consuming, observing, doing and thinking the regular stuff. It is not that we forget what we planned, discussed, meant and intended, nor it is that we do not know the way forward. Just that, something, maybe the sense of being alone or less in numbers, or maybe the sense of not being on the top of the decision-making hierarchy, holds us back a little.
However, when we are together as an entity – an assemblage where people have similar, if not the same, thoughts and hopes – the hope seems achievable, some tasks sound doable, and some solutions look practical. We all in the sustainability, responsibility and development domain totally understand the significance of this hope—perhaps more than most others because we live by this hope.
So we meet again. There are informal introductions, conversations over almost everything, and good old repartees, with in-between tea and lunch breaks to discuss what we all do and what we can and may do, together as well as in our individual capacities.
Yes, there are subjects of discussion across the table too. The first round of discussion revolves around a) environment, which is a common agenda and needs commitment beyond compliance, followed by b) a back and forth on challenges faced by leaders at corporate groups and non-profit organisations with regard to new regulations, project implementation and more, as well as c) a few recommendations and suggestions that Team CauseBecause may take forward to the ministry of corporate affairs with regard to the much-talked-about Section 135 of Companies Act 2013 that mandates a section of businesses to invest in corporate social responsibility (CSR).
A promising opening
Crux: Such meetings are needed, a circle of decision makers in this domain is necessary, and they may play a larger role in strategising the future course of action including policymaking.
Rishi Pathania, head CSR, UPL Limited, formally opens the Meet, welcomes the industry and NGO leaders, and underlines why it has become crucial for all of them to ‘think’ together and find solutions to the issues that they must address as part of their corporate social responsibility. ‘Since we are all working in the same domain and have a common purpose, which is development and sustainability, it makes sense for us to meet, share ideas and learnings from the programmes we have worked on, and gain from our experiences and knowledge, and also maybe collaborate at some level.
‘CauseBecause has cleared the first obstacle for us by facilitating these essential meetings and shouldering the responsibility of taking forward the learnings from this room to all relevant stakeholders… This is a beginning and this little movement will go further in establishing some benchmarks for the domain we all operate in.’
Ranjan Rayna, chief strategist at CauseBecause, affirms Pathania’s thought: ‘Looking at the concept of corporate social responsibility, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves how far we have come in such a short time. CSR leaders from companies who may be competitors in their respective businesses are sharing their strategies on social investments with each other. In the last few years, Team CauseBecause has had opportunities to interact with CSR decision makers at several large corporate groups and it’s interesting that many of them are open to sharing their experiences with one another. Some even intend to partner with other companies to make a larger impact at the grassroots.
‘Hence, CauseBecause has taken a first step towards giving some shape to this positive thought. This first step is to sit and dine together, befriend each other, understand what we all do and plan to do, and see if there’s synergy in our work.’
Highlights from discussions
The first round of discussion begins after formal introductions of participants and updates on developments since Silver Circle Meet Delhi.
Moderating the first discussion session, The Environment is a Common Agenda – Needs Commitment beyond Compliance, Brigadier Rajiv Williams, head CSR, Jindal Stainless, talks about the macro picture and underlines three priority areas: a) water conservation and management, b) optimum utilisation of solar energy, and c) planned and systematic approach towards handling waste. The Circle, in an open discussion, shares ideas, opportunities, scope and challenges on all three points.
Williams initiates the discussion on water by emphasising that the industry needs advanced and sector-focused technologies that can be replicated among companies working in the same sector. Investments have to be made to find solutions on multiple fronts, starting from cleaning up of water bodies around us, checking groundwater depletion, and creating new ‘natural’ water bodies. He urges participants to share their thoughts on what they believe can help in conservation of natural resources and come up with project ideas for areas where the government is not doing much work.
Thought One: Pathania informs that many multinational companies have formed various alliances to jointly address issues related to environment conservation, with water being one of the major subjects. Considering that most Indian companies are going global, they must become a part of such alliances and try to gain from the existing repertory of knowledge and experiences. ‘From my interactions with sustainability leaders at public sector undertakings who are already a part of global initiatives focused at sustainable business practices, I have learnt that most companies in India are yet to fully understand the negative impacts of their business activities. And those who do know of those impacts unfortunately do not know the solutions.’
Thought Two: Anurag Bhatnagar from Sakaal Foundation is of the opinion that successful solutions to such issues cannot be implemented by corporate groups or NGOs alone, and that other stakeholders including the central and state governments, their respective departments as well as science and technology experts have to come together, reach a common resolution, and jointly implement the focused programmes.
Bhatnagar tells the gathering about a platform wherein about 60 organisations including the Maharashtra government, World Bank, water management experts, corporate entities and non-profits came together and discussed solutions to address water scarcity in Maharashtra. He narrates: ‘Spending nearly 60,000 man-hours jointly, the group chalked out a plan and set out to implement it in a phased manner…. the plan focused on better irrigation, improving sanitation, better sewage treatment, drinking-water facilities, check dams, equal distribution of water… as a result of this initiative, more than 400 villages in Maharashtra that were once facing water scarcity now had water in abundance.’ Called ‘Water for All’, the project is scaling up steadily and expects to reach over 60,000 villages in the near future. The point, as Bhatnagar emphasises, is that each initiative by all stakeholders with a common objective should be in sync and complement each other’s efforts.
Thought Three: Avijit Chaudhary, representing Pradan, has an interesting point to make. He says, ‘While we are discussing water scarcity and conservation of water, I believe this is not the real challenge. The actual challenge is the overall environmental degradation of which water is one of the casualties.’ He discusses the work of Pradan with communities at the grassroots and explains how environment conservation is embedded in their programmes. ‘The idea is to make communities conscious and help them realise how conservation activities can also help them earn their livelihoods. Pradan has been able to get government support to engage tribals in such conservation efforts. They are not just engaged in planting of saplings, etc., but also actively participate in creation and management of water sheds and many such activities.’
Thought Four: Praveen Aggarwal, COO, Swades Foundation, states that one of the major challenges before development professionals – in corporate houses as well as NGOs – is the identification of areas in which intervention is needed. For instance, while the maximum utilisation of water is for agriculture, there is hardly any focus on bringing efficiency in the water usage. Similarly, while industries are being asked to keep a check on their water consumption, there is not much focus on state-owned power-generation plants that are the biggest water guzzlers. ‘…I have been part of many conventions, forums and programmes that focus on conservation, and so far I have not seen any representation from these industries at such symposiums.’ Another challenge that Aggarwal, wiser from his exhaustive experience in large corporate houses and non-profit organisations, puts forth is the lack of turnkey solution providers who can promise results with specific timelines. ‘For example, if I have to invest in a community-focused conservation model for agriculture, I will have to invest a major sum and hope for an impact to happen in another five to six years, that too without concrete measurable parameters,’ he elaborates.
A third aspect that Aggarwal underlines is rainwater harvesting in urban development projects: ‘Rainwater harvesting is one of the most-talked-about things and is also one of the cheapest ways to conserve water and increase groundwater levels. Yet, despite this being the norm for large buildings, it is not being implemented in the way it should, and can, be implemented.’
Thought Five: Deepak Arora, CEO, Essar Foundation, has a concrete point: ‘In the many discussions that I have been a part of, I have noted that we end up focusing on elementary-level discussions on water conservation. Although we touch upon every aspect, share experiences and cases, we are not able to reach a conclusive resolution. To conserve water, I believe we have to first focus on the conservation of the ‘sources’ from which we obtain water, be it rivers, check dams, canals, or ponds. Considering that every region of this country has a different terrain, we first need to understand the region and then find best possible interventions – building a pond in a hilly region or finding a groundwater source in a dessert is a difficult task. There could be better alternatives for any given region and source creation or conservation intervention in that region has to be formulated accordingly.
‘A second aspect that we all need to understand is that technology adopted and appreciated by a few entities may not be the best technology or give best results everywhere. For instance, RO water purifiers are being promoted as the best drinking-water solutions. The fact, though, is RO wastes nearly 80 per cent of the water and purifies on the rest for drinking. Yet, it is being implemented in areas with scarcity of water, which certainly does not make much sense.
‘The point I am trying to make is that one homogenous solution to the crucial issues of water is not possible. It has to be region-specific, industry-specific, sector-specific and, of course, community-specific. Unfortunately, as has been already pointed out in this discussion, there are no focused organisations that provide turnkey solutions on the basis of specific needs. We do have a long way to go in finding sustainable and impactful solutions.’
Williams: The world is talking about harnessing the great eco-friendly energy available to us. Some states have already initiated large projects and have been successful in making much use of this energy. Yet, right now this is just a beginning; there are as many challenges as opportunities.
Thought One: ‘Solar is another industry where there are hardly any large-scale turnkey solution providers. The only solution available—so far as I know—are the solar-powered lanterns. These can provide only basic light enough for one household and are certainly not a long-term sustainable solution. These lanterns cannot electrify a whole village… communities cannot grow with dim lights. A few organisations are experimenting with solutions that will serve a whole village through large solar grids, but the high cost factor – primarily because of the limited lifecycle of the entire power-generation equipment –do not make them a sustainable alternative,’ says Aggarwal of Swades Foundation. He also shares his personal experience of struggling to find a solar vendor who could install a solar water geyser at his residence.
Agreeing with Aggarwal’s point on the costs of solar plants, Pathania points out that the solar cell is one of the most expensive elements and if that can be eliminated through some technology innovation, it will make solar viable.
Thought Two: Karina Monteiro, representing Crisil Foundation, talks about her experience on a solar project that is at incubation stage. ‘The idea is to electrify villages through solar panels and provide “light” to households. We will provide the apparatus to the community and guide them on its usability so that they can sustain it themselves.’
Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is a sustainability challenge with such programmes and the Circle members deliberate upon this. Williams points out that village communities cannot really afford the maintenance of a solar apparatus, which becomes redundant if damaged or if it needs cell or panel replacements. Critical support system to fix glitches and maintain the solar apparatus is not available in the regions where it is needed the most. Hence, if a system collapses in some remote village, the cost of repairing the same – travel costs of engineers, transportation of equipment which is not easily available – makes it quite an exorbitant affair, putting it beyond the reach of communities in villages.
Thought Three: a) Aggarwal concludes the long conversation around harnessing solar power thus: ‘We need large players who can provide turnkey solutions starting from implementation of the solar apparatus to consistently maintaining the same, and also with the capacity to scale up the projects gradually. As of now there are no such players, and therefore most experiments in the remote areas are failing.’ b) Arora adds that there is a need of experts in the domain to strengthen the solar industry. At this point the industry is dominated by traders and opportunistic businessmen, with only a handful of knowledgeable experts scattered in-between. Moreover, the solutions for rural and urban have to be completely different.
The third subject that Williams urges the Circle to share their thoughts on is the management of waste. The quick ideas that flow from the Circle seem more focused and practical from the CSR perspective. Here’s a crux of the discussion.
Idea One: Bio fertilisers. For instance, UPL is collecting municipal waste from Ahmedabad and is making a bio fertiliser called Ahmedabad Compost. It is an example of a profitable business model formed out of managing a city’s waste. The technology used in the process is easily accessible and affordable. So, on the one hand, waste is procured from the city’s corporations that anyway struggle to segregate and dispose of the same. On the other hand, with increasing demand for organic produce, the demand for organic fertilisers is increasing as well. Overall, converting a city’s waste into bio fertilisers seems to be a meaningful and sustainable initiative.
Idea Two: Bio fuel. It is being produced in villages by using farm waste or green waste (which is generally burnt and causes major pollution) to first form bio mass. This mass replaces the firewood and coal in traditional chullahs (clay stoves) and is said to be as efficient as liquefied gas.
Husk power projects, too, are becoming more efficient and there is a need to invest in such technologies at the grassroots. CSR interventions can be made in areas where waste is in abundance and is being disposed of in conventional ways.
Conclusive thoughts: Waste can become a powerful source of energy. However, there are many challenges that are holding us back from tapping into its power. The biggest challenge begins from the source, which is not the municipal dump but the bin in each household – how many households actually segregate the wet and the dry waste or degradable or non-degradable waste? Moreover, the ones who do, they have no option but to hand it over to the same garbage picker who dumps both together in the same cart he uses to ferry the waste to the main dump. A second challenge is investment in technology that can squeeze energy out of the waste. The capital needed is not as high as thermal power plants for that matter, but the viability or the energy output from the waste plants cannot be that high. Hence, the waste remains wasted, moves to landfills, or ends up in the seas…
One challenge that you want to learn about from your peers
Companies and non-profit organisations have been individually pursuing policymakers to get clarity on several aspects of the CSR law and have also been sharing suggestions in order to make the new ruling more effective, practical, impactful, and sustainable. However, if these efforts are made jointly, and if the challenges and resolutions are jotted down in a single file and taken to relevant policymakers by a neutral party – the industry’s medium, it may make a little more sense.
The objective of this discussion is to hear out the representatives of various organisations that are part of Silver Circle on the one challenge that they face. Moderating the session, Deepak Arora and Praveen Aggarwal engage the Circle members in a light-hearted, free-flowing discussion that hits the nail on the head as participants start sharing their experiences and thoughts on challenges.
- Political and administrative interventions
While the law clearly states that companies may choose their programmes and invest independently, there are subtle calls by political leaders urging companies to channelize their funds to so-and-so programmes run by the government. Similarly, in several states deputy commissioners are forming their own district-level CSR committees or district-level or block-level CSR kitties for which they are expecting companies to pool in their CSR funds. Such practices by government officials may kill the real objective of the CSR law – which is to allow companies to use their expertise in making a social impact – and make it seem like another local-level tax.
Leaders from the corporate groups present in the Circle Meet talk about their experiences in this regard. All of them have at some or the other point been asked by some government department to invest their CSR funds in some random project that may or may not be a part of the company’s CSR policy or may not even come within the area of their operation. Apparently, in some cases the project does not start at all and the collected investments are channelised into some other ‘important’ project.
- The CSR reporting structure
The overriding thought is that the reporting structure outlined by the policymakers is more a formality as it only asks you to report how much you have spent and where. It does not really ask you to report on the ‘quality’ aspect of projects, nor does it mandate you to report on the impact of projects.
With the government not having any impact-measurement mechanism in place, it seems to be more a case of reporting for the sake of reporting and at the same time it gives some leeway to companies that do not really have any intent to make social investments.
- Business and human rights not in Schedule VII
With the increased role of corporate groups, nationally and internationally, the issue of business’ impact on human rights need to be on the agenda of every company. However, support and investments toward development of human rights standards as well costs toward the implementation of human rights initiatives are not included in the corporate social responsibility law, which is a major miss.
- Companies’ need versus NGOs’ programmes
While corporates lament that NGOs mostly come up with similar, me-too kind of programmes and expect corporate funding to implement and scale them up, corporate groups also have their own agendas and want programmes to be especially customised. Some non-profits say that it is becoming more like a vendor–customer relationship wherein they are directed to implement a project much like a service provider would.
- Boardroom hopes versus ground realities
In several companies, the CSR head is like a conduit between the top management and the implementation partners, and only s/he understands the realities at the grassroots. However, generally the company’s board expects outcomes and results on a fixed-time basis. Thus, X village should become literate in Y years, which is more of a business approach that does not work in realty.
- Scaling-up issues
Firstly, not many non-profit organisations can qualify to partner for large CSR projects. Secondly, most of the organisations who partner with companies are limited to specific geographies and do not have the ability to replicate their model in other areas. Hence, scaling up a project and taking it to another location beyond a state, and in some cases even beyond a district, becomes a challenge. So it is that several promising programmes remain contained within regions.
- Concrete database of credible implementation partners
Despite efforts by the government as well as independent organisations, there is no reliable resource centre or database from where a corporate can fish an implementation partner. Interestingly, the portal that was started by the defunct Planning Commission of India has the names of NGOs blacklisted by state governments.
- Missing platforms for credible NGOs to showcase work
They do not have to – nor can they afford to – buy exhibition space at Rs 25,000 a day. They do not need listing in directories at Rs 5,000 a column, and surely they do not need to pay Rs 12,000 to a government-supported body to say ‘we are certified’ to be a CSR partner. All that they need is a simple platform to speak, to present their work, and to showcase the impact that they have made.
- Where are the benchmarks?
We have the law, we have the programmes, and now we have some 460 reports to show. However, who did the good work and how has that been measured? What are the parameters to define that so-and-so work is ‘good’? If a smaller company just beginning to invest in CSR has to plan a project, who should they go to ask for, say, 10 best case studies?
- Hundreds of non-profits, similar programmes and same beneficiaries?
When thousands of non-profits claim that they are reaching out to millions of communities across India, one can be certain enough that some of them are not telling the truth—either that or probably most of them have common beneficiaries. The question that arises here is: is there a mechanism to compare the management information system (MIS) of one NGO with that of another? Is there a law, a body, or a rule that can keep a tab on the actual beneficiaries and the claims of NGOs?
Talking of Joining Hands and Minds
The state of Kalinganagar – CauseBecause may call for a meet there
‘When you walk outside in the evenings, the feeling is unmistakable. There are tell-tale signs of pollution all over this huge area. But that is to be expected, isn’t it? When 13 companies are mining in the same geographical area, one can imagine the repercussions. So, are there any solutions? Can the effects be mitigated? To an extent, yes. My company is doing its bit, and so are the other companies. However, to make the overall impact larger, the efforts need to be complementary,’ Williams says while insisting that companies need to come together to address issues that affect not just their businesses but also the communities that they operate within as well as the larger environment that they all share.
Team CauseBecause is chalking out plans to organise a meet of sustainability/CSR leaders from all companies in the region along with the local non-profits as well as government officials to discuss the issues that are being addressed or not addressed and explore opportunities of collaborative efforts among all stakeholders.
While companies in the region have tried the same in the past and surely have the intent to join hands, some fiddly issues – one of them being trusting a competitor – have held them back. Hence, CauseBecause as a neutral and unbiased medium will try to facilitate the meet and probably initiate a few programmes in the near future.
CB’s quick research on Kalinganagar, Jajpur district, in Odisha
The pollution levels in the region are rising due to the continuous discharge of industrial waste from various plants. Locals allege that the plants of large companies regularly discharge tonnes of waste that is highly toxic in nature. The discharged industrial waste that have accumulated over the years poses serious health hazards to the residents by getting mixed with the soil, atmosphere, rivers and groundwater.
The likely sufferers are the residents in Manpur, Sarangpur, Kudumisahi and Tata Colony in Kalinganagar as well as in adjoining Sukinda and Vyasanagar. The situation has arisen as industrial units, for a long time, did not have a proper waste management mechanism nor did the policymakers have an alternative or a solution. There have also been instances when plants have ignored the guidelines of the state and central pollution control boards.
As per a recent news report in a national daily, Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) collected water samples of the Brahmani and Kharasrota rivers and conducted a test at its central laboratory in January 2016. The tests pointed to the presence of eight to 10 times more phenolic and cyanide compound in the water, making it highly dangerous. Besides, lead and mercury, which are extremely dangerous for human and animal health, were also found in the rivers and the groundwater.
As for the air pollution, the Air Quality Index of the region is online for anybody to see. Suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) are the major air pollutants, while gaseous pollutants (SO2 and NOx) also hover above permissible limits once in a while.