CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF CSR IN INDIA
- IN CONVERSATION WITH MS. ITIKA FROM TATA REALTY AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Ms. Itika is the Deputy Manager- CSR at Tata Realty and Infrastructure Ltd. She has worked with Tata Trust for over 3 years in the development sector and has been working devotedly in the CSR sector since then. Having deep-rooted relations with social entrepreneurship, she has curated and implemented various social programmes for Tata Water Mission.
She can be reached at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/itika-403291103/
Corporate Social Responsibility is a technical jargon, used often in the world of commerce and industry. It refers to the practices undertaken by corporations with an intention to create a positive social impact in the community. This broad concept can take various forms and just like the tip of an iceberg, it is only known by its definition in society. What lies beneath is its complex and intricate dimensions.
180 Degrees Consulting, SGGSCC in conversation with Ms. Itika, Deputy Manager CSR at Tata Realty and Infrastructure Ltd, seeks to dive into the labyrinth of CSR and understand its true essence.
Q: Corporate Social Responsibility is of utmost importance in the global scenario. It does not just help the company gain a reputation of being a responsible company but also helps in the development of society, thus, having a two-fold motive. How was your organization inspired to delve into the arena of corporate social responsibility?
“Corporate social responsibility has never been a mandate for us. A lot of people in our country are unaware that Tata Trusts does not come under the umbrella of CSR but is an organisation that functions from the wealth of the Tata Family.”
Corporate social responsibility has never been a mandate for us. The law came in 2013, but our company has been doing philanthropic development work way before that. We had an ‘Entrepreneurship Development programme’, which was for the SC/ST community in Maharashtra, to teach them how to establish their own start-up and eventually, provide them with the requisite capital. In our company, the motivation comes from being a part of a larger ecosystem of sister companies, wherein philanthropy is considered a social responsibility. Every year, the board decides to allocate a significant amount towards CSR work. We call it CSR voluntary because we are not mandated by law.
Q: Can you describe a typical day in the life of a CSR manager?
“Most of the time goes into planning and monitoring the programmes since you aren’t really on the ground implementing the programme. Being a manager for CSR, you are responsible for addressing the grievances that are coming your way because it is your duty to give primary information to your company, interact with them, and convince them about the changes that are required on the field.”
I was initially working under Tata Water Mission, wherein I was handling water sanitation and menstrual hygiene. I was only responsible for a particular programme, but when you talk about CSR, as a whole, it is so much more than that. Most of the time goes into planning and monitoring the programmes, since you aren’t really working on on-ground implementation. Being a manager for CSR, you are responsible for addressing the grievances that are coming your way because it is your duty to give primary information to your company, interact with them, and convince them about the changes that are required on the field. What a programme looks like on paper and how it is implemented on ground are two very different things. It is never the same, even in two different villages, it can vary. The responsibility is not just for quantitative but also qualitative measures for each of the programmes. CSR is also about creating the brand image for the company which has to be kept in mind. Therefore, the job of a CSR manager is not a 9 to 5 job where at 5 you can just shut your laptop and go home. The team can call you at 9 pm with an issue and you have to address it.
Q: Companies that fail to fulfill CSR and adopt unethical practices in dealing with customers, vendors, and other stakeholders are labeled as irresponsible companies. Do you believe that this development pressurizes the corporate world to prioritize CSR more and raises its position on the corporate pedestal?
“They want to go one step forward, create that impact for the people, and tell them that what they are doing is not just business, but responsible business. And I think that makes a huge difference for the brand overall.”
Companies have definitely started taking CSR seriously and that is majorly because of consumer awareness. If you buy a product, you just don’t want to buy it and use it; you want to know where the ingredients are coming from and whether the company is sourcing them responsibly. Purchasing products from a responsible company makes consumers feel good about themselves because they know that their morals are not being compromised. If you are a market leader and you are socially responsible, then it is likely your peers will simply just follow you because you are leading by ethical footsteps. For example, Lego is trying to shift to 100% sustainably sourced sugarcane-made products. Would the customer not buy their product if they do not shift? No. But they want to go one step forward, create that impact for people, tell them that what they are doing is not just business, but responsible business. And I think that makes a huge difference for the brand overall.
Q: CSR has fundamentally changed after it was made mandatory by the Companies Act 2013. What are your thoughts on CSR laws in India?
“Initially, Schedule 7 used to be very small, and companies used to struggle for more detailed explanations. There was a lot of ambiguity and we were looking forward to the government defining it further. It is undeniable that we have come a long way since then.”
In 2013, India was the first country to legally mandate CSR. CSR is important because it brings in a very significant investment in the development space. For NGOs, it is a major source of funding, and lately, it has helped mobilize funds towards COVID relief in the country. And it's not just disaster relief, the government has also started focussing increasingly on bringing more money towards technological innovations. Initially, Schedule 7 used to be very small and companies used to struggle for more detailed explanations. There was a lot of ambiguity and we were looking forward to the government defining it further, and it is undeniable that we have come a long way.
Q: What changes can be brought about in the current CSR law/provisions that will help corporates be more productive and effective in the implementation of their CSR activities?
“If CSR laws can be defined in alignment with the SDG, then that would substantially reduce our efforts. Also, in the process of amending CSR laws, corporations should be consulted .”
CSR money is like free money because the corporations can use it as they want. Every amendment that is coming in, is really increasing the transparency of where the fund is going and how it is being utilized. There are, of course, further amendments that need to be brought about. Along with aligning our CSR work with the definition under the Companies Act 2013, the SDGs have to be considered. If CSR laws can be defined in alignment with SDGs, then that would substantially reduce our efforts, since before implementing a programme, its alignment with the CSR laws as well as SDGs will have to be checked. Also, in the process of amending CSR laws corporations should be consulted. Corporates have so many insights about what are the challenges of implementing a CSR programme, therefore, their suggestions would add a lot of value. Lastly, in my experience, corporates don’t really have the expertise to do ground relief work, so there should be some kind of guidance for the corporates on how to create a more positive impact out of every penny spent.
Q: In what ways can India take inspiration from the Western standards of CSR?
“One major thing that we can learn from the west is how to connect our CSR initiatives to the core competencies of our business, and bring in more professionalism.”
Firstly, I think there is so much to be learned from India because we have some really special social work programmes going on ground. But if we talk about what can be learned from the Western world, then the answer would be more professionalism and more depth in the programmes that we do. BMW, for example, is teaching kids about road safety so even though it is CSR, it is also connected to their core business. Additionally, professionalism is clearly reflected in the way philanthropic organizations describe their job description in the west as compared to India. The west can also definitely teach us about ways of measuring the impact of our programmes on ground more efficiently.
Q: What do you think are some of the major problems with CSR delivery in India?
“It is very easy to manipulate results and misuse the data. That is one major challenge that corporations face while implementing a programme. Apart from that, many corporate programmes are implemented without any forward or backward linkage.”
A lot of times civil society organizations try to manipulate the impact that is being created. As a business, I can do the cost-benefit analysis of the investment, but doing that same for a social programme becomes challenging because It is very easy to manipulate results and misuse the data. Apart from that, many corporate programmes are implemented without any forward or backward linkage. Forward linkage is implementing a programme that is creating an impact. Backward linkage is the link between the impact I am creating and my core business. For example, if I am a construction company and my CSR programmes focus on biodiversity conservation, it has nothing to do with the resources that I am taking from society. It is not replenishing the resources it is taking. So, it requires looking at the harms that a corporation is creating and addressing them, whilst maintaining backward linkage.
Q: Does CSR work as a PR tool for the companies and divert the businesses from the real issues at hand?
“There is no harm in PR because if a company is doing good work, it should tell people about it. That will not just create a good image for the company, but also inspire its peers to do similar work. However, when it only becomes a tool for PR, then that's definitely a challenge.”
A lot of companies do use CSR activities as a PR tool. But I feel there is no harm in doing that because if a company is doing good work, it should tell people about it. It will not just create a good image for the company, but also inspire its peers to do similar work. However, when it only becomes a tool for PR then that's definitely a challenge. I will give you an example of a company I was working in. It was a sugar manufacturing company, and they had a mill right in the middle of a village. They had a really good image with the community in and around their sugar mills. One day, there was a tractor coming and it met with an accident. The locals were badly hurt and there were widespread protests against the mill. The villagers started claiming that they won’t sell their sugarcane to them. That would have been a loss for both the parties. What could have been a long-drawn intense protest, lasted only 3 days because the CSR team was eventually able to reach the community and explain to them the consequences. That is how CSR can really benefit the business and the community. You have to balance it out. You cannot just keep doing something for the sake of doing it and expect that it will reap results for you.
Q: Can you give us an overview of Tata Realty and Infrastructure's CSR efforts and the impact it has witnessed so far?
“We decided that we were going to focus on four major areas: livelihood & skill enhancement; health; environment and disaster relief.”
Initially, we were working in various diverse portfolios. For example, the idea behind our scholarship programme was that as a construction company, the sex ratio is skewed. So how could we promote women in the civil engineering, architecture, and designing space? The intention was to give scholarships to meritorious girls and then eventually have them participate more in this sector. We also hired a few students from our scholarship program but eventually, we had to make some significant changes in our practice because 43% of our fund was going towards skill development while only 8% beneficiaries were coming from there. On the contrary, we were spending 28% on rural upliftment, and it constituted 56% of our beneficiaries. If we talk about the impact between 2017 and 2020, we had approximately 36,000 beneficiaries each, which is significant. But then there were a lot of inefficiencies also, so we looked at the strategy and how we can create a narrative around what we were doing and what we want to create in the long run. We decided that we will focus on four major areas:
1. Livelihood and skill enhancement, is our first major area, considering that we really work very closely with the migrant workers, and they are actually the most vulnerable. The idea was not just to provide aid for migrant workers working at a construction site, but also to help them to go back to the villages where they come from, and work with their families.
2. Looking at the COVID scenario, we decided that health will be our second focus area. When we talk about health, COVID is not the only concern but overall hygiene as well.
3.Our third focus area was the environment because being a construction company, we use a lot of natural resources and therefore, we wanted to do our bit in their replenishment.
4.Our fourth focus area was disaster relief. Every year disasters wreck the country and that is when corporations need to come forward. Keeping some money allocated towards disaster relief or any emergency fund is the idea.
Q: All the CSR initiatives taken by Tata Realty and Infrastructure are widespread in distinctive domains. How do you measure the impact of each initiative with such discrete indicators?
“At the beginning of every programme, there is a logical framework that is defined, which segregates the entire programme into activity, output, outcome, and impact indicators. So, the impact is the change you want to see, and activity is what you have to do to reach the impact.”
If we talk about monitoring impact, both qualitative and quantitative impact needs to be measured. At the beginning of every programme, there is a logical framework that is defined which segregates the entire programme into activity,output, outcome, and impact. So, the impact is the change you want to see and activity is what you have to do to reach the impact. If I say that I'm going to work on menstrual health, the impact that I want to create is better health for women in the community where I'm working and the activity would be holding
awareness sessions. The output would be the number of women trained. Defining that entire logical framework is very important for almost all the programmes, since, targets are defined, based on this. How much of the activity is required and what outcome do you need to see in terms of percentages? These are all very complicated things and you have to work with the village level staff and the block level staff, who don’t understand all this. So, we sit with them and define annual work plans. Annual work plans quantify the activity, making it easier for the final person who is actually going to interact with the community. When you monitor programmes, you learn that there is a significant difference in the results of different regions. The results I used to get from Rajasthan were very different from the ones in Uttarakhand or from Karnataka. Even within Rajasthan, there were different practices that were happening across different programmes. So whatever results come from monitoring, implementing, and evaluating the programme, all of it results in better execution.
Q: Tata Affirmative Action is one of Tata Group's flagship programmes, wherein all Tata Group companies work in a united way. How is the work and impact of such an en masse initiative implemented and gauged?
“When you engage in business with people from these communities, you are supporting an entire community. So, you are not just giving them the fish but you are teaching them how to get one."
TAAP (Tata Affirmative Action Programme) is a flagship programme undertaken by the TATA group. The idea of the programme is to give priority to the most vulnerable. As a business, we come across so many vulnerable communities, and therefore, through TAAP, we aim to improve their lives, not just by doing social work or charity, but also by engaging with them in meaningful business activities. For every programme, the entire value chain is analyzed to see how many SC/ST vendors have registered. I will not talk about numbers because they are all over the internet. But what we need to understand is the larger impact that this programme is creating. The book, Affirmative Action in India by Ashwani Deshpande, talks about why affirmative action came in India. The idea behind that was when you give that push to the most vulnerable, they grow and help others to come out of that vicious cycle of poverty and struggle. And that is exactly what TAAP as a programme is trying to create here because when you engage in business with people from these communities, you are supporting an entire community. So, you are not just giving them the fish but you are teaching them how to get one.
Q: With Synergizers, Tata Realty provided a platform to their employees to volunteer for a cause of their choice. Being a huge success with the highest per capita volunteering hours towards social causes, how was employee engagement in this programme induced?
“One is the ‘Tata volunteering Week’ which is undertaken twice a year. Second is pro-engage, which is a long-term commitment.”
TATA Realty has actually been at the forefront of undertaking volunteering activities. Tata Sustainability Group implements the volunteering programmes. One is the ‘Tata volunteering Week’ which is undertaken twice a year. Second is ‘pro-engage’, which is a long-term commitment. In TATA volunteering week, all group companies take a pledge to engage in volunteering activities throughout the week. We give participation opportunities to employees, and they engage actively. We used to do so many in-person activities wherein we would travel to some remote parts of Maharashtra to spend a day with students, teach them some skills or paint a school or clean a beach. We conduct multiple activities where employees and their families participate. As a company, we identify the interest of our employees and curate activities based on that. Because of COVID, last year in September, our entire Tata volunteering week happened online. Having identified running as a common interest, we implemented a digital marathon where for every five kilometers that an employee would cover, we donated a PPE kit. And, we had 170 participants. People would go on their terrace and run to contribute their bit.
Q: TRIL's CSR policy states that it shall implement the CSR activities either directly on its own or by contributing in the form of a donation to a registered trust/society. In what proportion are the funds allocated for CSR distributed between these two avenues and how does a corporate go about deciding which
NGOs/NPOs to collaborate with?
“The only time when we actually implement the programme on ground is when there is construction involved since that's our expertise. But otherwise for most of the welfare programmes, we try to engage with an NGO.”
As a company, we do not really get into direct implementation for the simple reason that we are no experts in implementing programmes on ground. We prefer partnering with NPOs/NGOs. The only time when we implement the programme on ground is when there is construction involved since that's our expertise. But otherwise for most of the welfare programmes, we try to engage with an NGO for better implementation. However, selecting the right NGOs is very crucial. We talk to people who have previously engaged with them, ask their feedback and study the image the NGO has amongst their peers. We look at the financial and the personnel capacity of the NGO and finally, their ideology. When I was designing the menstrual hygiene programme, we had a very strong stand against promoting plastic products. Some NGOs would state that access is more important than the environment, but had a different say. So, while choosing an NGO we have to ensure that we’re on the same page in terms of ideologies.
Q: How has your CSR programme implementation been affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
“People are struggling with oxygen deficiency in the country, they need ration and medicines. So, if we were doing a programme around entrepreneurship development, we cannot do that anymore because the immediate need is for them to find a job which is financially stable.”
I really doubt that there is anybody in this country who has not been affected by COVID. Our board keeps calling us back asking how we are changing our programmes according to the new normal. We were going to do a worker welfare programme on ground, but we couldn't. However, our construction sites were on, so the staff came forward saying that they will help us. It was an added responsibility but nonetheless, they wanted to create that impact for the workers. So, we are implementing CSR programmes with our core staff and adding that into their KRAs. But again, a big problem is their training. We undertook all our training virtually to ensure that our work does not come to a halt. I think companies really need to relook and redefine their priorities. People are struggling with oxygen deficiency in the country, they need ration and medicines. So, if we were doing a programme around entrepreneurship development, we cannot do that anymore because the immediate need is for them to find a job which is financially stable. We talk about companies not paying salaries, but the companies are also struggling. And I think that is where your knowledge really comes handy. If you see that your company is not doing well, if you have the knowledge, you will be able to move out of that slump.
Q: Lastly, what are your suggestions and message to your corporate colleagues on building a strong CSR environment in the country?
“I have been in this space for more than six years now and I know that competition does not work for the sector. You are working for the maximization of welfare, and collaboration has always ensured that better results come out.”
We do so many programmes and a lot of times, people end up reinventing the wheel because there are no proper mechanisms. It is very important that different companies working in CSR come together, collaborate and decide what each of them should be doing. I have been in this space for more than six years now and I know that competition does not work for the sector. You are working for the maximization of welfare, and collaboration has always ensured that beautiful results come out. When I was at TATA trusts, we were working on a transformation initiative programme and the idea was that if I'm working in village A on education, then the livelihood team, the water and hygiene team, the skill-building team will also go and work there, and we would call it a transformation initiative because when you are working on multiple programmes, it will create a change that that will not be reversed in the long run. It's equally important for a company to ensure that whatever programme they implement, it is sustainable, because we are not an NGO who is going to stay in a particular geography for 10 or 15 years. We are going to implement a programme, move forward, look for a new geography and do it there. I think that there is so much to be done in this sector. And if we come together, we can really create some really beneficial impact.
The panel discussion, therefore, proved to be extremely insightful, revolving around multifarious aspects of CSR in India and touching upon themes including but not limited to:
1. Detailed analysis of laws governing CSR requirements and what can be done to improve them.
2. Need for striking a balance between advertising the company’s CSR initiatives and following through with real impact and groundwork.
3. Quantitatively measuring the impact generated from CSR initiatives
4. CSR activities undertaken by Tata Realty and Infrastructure Ltd over the past years.
5. Stakeholder engagement with respect to CSR activities
6. Prospects of a career in the development sector, etc.
It was an honor to have Ms. Itika answer all questions with immense detail and precision. We extend our heartfelt gratitude for such an extremely informative discussion that helped us achieve more clarity in our work specifically in the CSR domain. We look forward to conducting more such informative sessions with her in the future.
Through this blog, we would also like to extend an invitation to professionals from various fields, for a conversation with us on multidisciplinary issues and themes. For further details, please feel free to contact us through our website.