Reliance Industries requires no introduction. But what many Indians may not be familiar with is Reliance Foundation (RF), one of the country’s largest private foundations and the CSR-implementing arm of the company. This umbrella organisation for Reliance’s social development initiatives is led by Nita Ambani and comprises of a professional team of 395 experts. It was founded in 2010 and is the top CSR spender since the CSR Act came into effect.

Its stated objective is ‘to create and support meaningful activities through innovative institutions to address some of India’s most pressing developmental challenges.’ While the delivery model is direct engagement with communities, it also partners with organisations on specific programmes and uses technology to provide solutions. The Foundation claims to have impacted 20 million people in more than 13,500 villages and 100 urban locations.

CSR programmes

RF’s programmes are said to be guided by the three core principles of scale, impact and sustainability (SIS). Here we take a closer look at its areas of work.

Rural transformation: The two main objectives here are enhancing livelihood opportunities and providing relevant information to rural communities. The flagship programme, Bharat-India-Jodo (RF BIJ), works with small and marginal farmers. Food security involves promoting sustainable crop-management practices to enhance productivity and adoption of organic fertilisers and biopesticides to improve incomes. To date, more than 56,000 hectares of land have been brought under sustainable agriculture, helping more than 20,000 rural households. Related to this is nutrition security, where water-efficient Reliance Nutrition Gardens (RNGs), usually set up by rural women, are producing diverse varieties of fresh organic vegetables. The Maharashtra government has even adopted the RNG model in eight districts, with 3,035 nutrition gardens established.

Water security includes conserving rainwater in all of RF’s programme villages through technology such as new or renovated earthen dams, masonry/concrete check dams, farm ponds and open wells. In 2016–17, rainwater-harvesting capacity exceeded 3.2 billion litres. The initiative has secured drinking water for 131 villages and helped 51 villages attain complete water security. Also, over 2,900 hectares of land have been brought under irrigation. RF also promotes community-owned and community-managed producer institutions. Until 2018, 17 producer companies had been established, benefitting over 20,000 families. RF’s role here is not clear though.

The other major programme is Reliance Foundation Information Services (RF IS), which provide validated information services using ICT mediums such as audio and dial-out conferences, local cable TV, print media, voice and text SMS, Jio Chat, and WhatsApp. The primary goal is to help farmers get the right information at the right time and make better decisions through a set project methodology. Through collaborations with 619 information providers and 284 grassroots organisations, more than 2.8 million people have been covered.

Institution building is another key part of the rural-transformation project. RF helps poor and marginalised farmers form people’s collectives known as village associations (VAs) and women’s thrift groups (WTGs). Other programmes taken up are biodiversity initiatives and assisting livestock owners. To date, RF claims to have enhanced the livelihoods of more than three million farmers, fisherfolk, and livestock owners.

Health: RF’s objective is to improve access to quality and affordable healthcare. One of the main health initiatives is the health-outreach programme that provides primary healthcare services and health education through mobile medical units (MMUs) and static medical units (SMUs) in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. It runs 13 medical units with a total of over 430,000 health consultations performed till 2017. RF’s free or subsidised medical care has reached out to 450,000 people.

The maternal and child health programme has a community engagement model wherein volunteers, called swasth sanginis, are trained to provide basic healthcare and diagnostic services to women during prenatal and postnatal period as well as screen children for malnutrition. Regular health screenings and awareness campaigns are organised as well. The Drishti programme supports visually impaired people from underprivileged backgrounds through corneal-transplant surgeries, awareness, and vision-care camps. In 2016–17, RF partnered with National Association for the Blind, Arvind Eye Hospital, and LV Prasad Eye Institute on 1,096 corneal transplants. In total, more than 15,500 transplants have been performed.

The Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital at Lodhivali is an 82-bed state-of-the-art hospital for the industrial and rural population in Raigad district of Maharashtra. It provides free outpatient consultation and subsidised inpatient treatment. The Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital provided medical benefits to around 180 underprivileged patients in 2016–17. There is no information if there are such provisions in other Reliance hospitals.

RF provides technical support to healthcare institutes and public health facilities in Warangal, Telangana. Several HIV-care services are provided through specialised hospitals and interventions such as the Reliance HIV & TB Control Centre at Mora village, Surat.

Education: In over two decades, the Dhirubhai Ambani Scholarship programme has helped more than 11,000 students. Girls accounted for 50 per cent of the total and disabled students 20 per cent. This scholarship is awarded to a few meritorious students who meet the selection criteria of RF based on the merit list provided by the state/CBSE Board. The scholarship has enabled students to pursue higher studies in engineering, medicine, law, science, business management, and other social sciences.

The ‘Education for All’ initiative, launched in 2010, works with organisations on various education projects such as promoting girl-child education. In 2017, the programme supported 12 partner NGOs including Aarambh, Akanksha, Deepalya, and Slum Soccer.

The Digital Classrooms initiative aims to improve the teaching and learning process through world-class infrastructure. This has been implemented in 100 schools across Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. In 2016–17, a digital-learning van was launched to provide access to digital learning to underprivileged children in Mumbai. RF also runs and manages the elite Reliance Foundation Schools and the Dhirubhai Ambani International School.

Sports: The Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) programme is a grassroots initiative, launched in 2016, that organises multiple sporting competitions for school and college students across cities. RFYS’s football tournaments have seen participation from 20,000 students from 4,000 educational institutions, reaching out to 2 million children. The RF Jr NBA programme reached out to an additional 600,000 students in 2016–17. It is not clear what ‘reaching out’ means here.

Physical education (PE) teachers are given exposure and training to help train students. The overarching goal is to promote sports in more than 50 cities by 2020. The Reliance Foundation Young Champs programme is a scholarship-based, full-time residential football and educational programme in Navi Mumbai. It has helped 41 youngsters, cumulatively reaching out to about 6 million youngsters.

Disaster response: RF regularly works to help those affected by disasters – for example, during the Uttarakhand floods in 2013, the Assam floods in 2017, and the Gujarat floods in 2017. It has supplied over 60 million litres of drinking water to over 200,000 people in 100 drought-affected villages in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, apart from constructing structures to conserve and harvest water. RF uses technology to disseminate information – for example, in the aftermath of the 2016 Madhya Pradesh floods, it addressed issues related to compensation packages and crop-disease management through 5,500 helpline calls and 21 multi-location audio and video conferences.

Apart from the above, RF has a few projects under ‘arts, culture and heritage’. It organises art exhibitions, lends support to musical concerts, and sponsors festivals. In urban renewal, it has developed Goda Park in Nashik and supported the municipal corporation in beautification of two lakes in Thane district – Upvan and Masunda. Through Swachh Bharat campaigns in 500 villages, RF has spread awareness on cleanliness and hygiene. It has constructed 15,000-plus toilets in 263 villages.

In FY 2017, the Foundation spent 77.7 per cent of its CSR funds on projects related to education, sanitation, and skill development; Rs 26.8 crore was directed to sports, presumably due to Nita Ambani’s membership of the International Olympic Committee. In total, Rs 674 crore was spent on CSR, this being 2.13 per cent of RIL’s profit after tax. Health, education and rural transformation accounted for the bulk of the spend, in that order. Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre and Reliance University received the highest amount of CSR funds for that FY.

CB view

As expected from anything ‘Reliance’ and ‘Foundation’, the breadth of RF’s work is truly breathtaking. Possibly it has the bandwidth and ability to do this, unlike most corporates who would be sensible to focus on a few projects. Even then, programmes like the information services (RFIS) seem well-intentioned but haphazardly implemented since there’s not much data on its actual impact or how the targeted beneficiaries use these services. Then the addition of Reliance Foundation schools as part of its do-good work is probably a bit of a stretch since these are some of the most sought-after and expensive schools in the country. Rural transformation has so many moving parts and one hopes that the Foundation has dedicated teams and clear vision and goals to each of them. Else, it may turn out to be a case of much ado about everything.

That said, credit must go where it’s due and the fact that RF has consistently been the top spender on CSR is laudable (even though Reliance Industries is one of the biggest companies in the world and has the funds to invest). But money doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term, sustainable impact and this is what RF should focus on by having clear targets, well-defined metrics, conducting regular assessments, finding gaps, and making necessary adjustments or even doing a complete overhaul of its programmes. Full disclosure on these assessment reports would also help in improving the efficacy of its programmes and enhancing the credibility of its work.

Unfortunately, the Foundation failed to respond to CB’s questions which was disappointing and makes one wonder if its many projects are actually working as they should. While money does talk, in CSR, quality, humility and intentions are what ultimately matters. On Reliance Foundation, the jury is still out on all three parameters.