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BW Businessworld

Business And Society

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Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is one term that evokes decidedly mixed emotions in the corporate world. To some, it is something that the government is trying to foist on them — a sort of tax by other means, so to speak. To others, it is one of the integral goals of any corporation. And to still others, it is simply a way of doing business without getting into conflict with the people living around its surrounding areas. But almost everyone today agrees that no corporation can afford to ignore CSR.

 From a larger point of view, a corporation giving back to society does make sense. It is the evolution of the old time concept of haves giving to have-nots in the hope of bridging the gap. So, there is no surprise that both the government and the private sector are waking up to the cause.

 But long before CSR became a buzzword, the Ficci-Socio Economic Development Foundation (SEDF) and Businessworld had recognised that it would play an increasingly important role in the coming years. Which was why, almost a decade ago, the two joined hands to institute the Businessworld-Ficci SEDF CSR Awards. Held on 23 August, the awards are a celebration of exemplary work in this direction.

"I really think now more companies are considering it as an integral part of their business than ever before. Of course, CSR has also changed into two distinct portions with some companies still considering it a philanthropic activity, but the better companies have started integrating it with their own operations which is more like what the Tatas did in Jamshedpur and I think that's the way forward," remarked Businessworld editor Prosenjit Datta at the event.

CSR as a business practice is also a way of ensuring sustainability of your business — a fact highlighted by corporate affairs minister, Veerappa Moily, in his speech. He set up the Mahatma Gandhi Residential School with the aim of nurturing and providing education to drop-outs. As a result, even students with low marks could manage to get admission. Moily is obviously proud of his initiative, but the point he wanted to drive home was that every little step goes miles in transforming society. And this is the role corporate India — the privileged class — has to play.

 There is of course, a lot of progress still to be made. CSR needs to be made a part of the mainstream culture as opposed to the predominant view of treating it as an add-on activity, as Rajiv Kumar, secretary general of Ficci, pointed out in his address. "Making CSR mandatory may sometimes militate against it by creating inspectors," he added.

 The Businessworld-Ficci SEDF Awards stands as a testament to the efforts of creating awareness. This year saw about 80 applicants vying for the honour. In the end, after a stringent selection process, only the best were chosen. In the large enterprises category, it was Vikram Cement Works — a unit of Aditya Birla Group's Ultratech Cement — which was chosen as the winner.

CSR and Aditya Birla have had a long history. "Mainstreaming CSR into our businesses and delivering societal value has given us tremendous profits, albeit of a different kind — the turnaround of human lives. There's a newfound dignity among them. What more can one ask for?" said the message of its director Rajashree Birla. Though not present at the event, she oversees the group's social activities across 30 companies. Vikram Cement has been involved in the all-round development of surrounding communities for a while now. But what really won the jury over was their ‘Health for All' programme.

The unit is based in the remote district of Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh where even basic health facilities are lacking. Vikram Cements' ‘Health for All' project aims to provide quality health services to the local community as well as strengthen the government service delivery mechanism. Activities such as a Mega Eye Camp, an Orthopaedic Camp, immunisation of infants and pregnant mothers, and HIV/AIDS awareness have been initiated under the programme. The company-owned hospital extends round-the-clock service to the locals. It has even received appreciation letters from the gram panchayat for its CSR activities.

Vikram Cements, however, was not the only large enterprise to win an award. MSPL, the flagship company of the Baldota Group, caught the jury's attention for its stellar work in Hospet. For all the beauty and history the South is famous for, in recent times areas like Hospet have garnered infamy in almost equal magnitude. Illegal mining has been tearing the region apart, but MSPL's story stands out like a silver lining among the dark clouds. The company has not only been doing business the right way, but they have also been involved in uplifting the local community from the start. Recognising this commitment, the jury — chaired by Abid Hussain and comprising of eminent personalities like Mohini Giri, Dipanker Gupta and Mark Runacres — presented MSPL with a special commendation.

"We have worked on CSR by visiting the villages and finding the need of the people there," explained Rahul Baldota, executive director of MSPL.

For example, the company found poor sanitation in the local area. Based on that, they decided to build about 1,600 individual facilities for households in the area. It worked in most cases though sanitation was so alien a concept that at least in some cases, toilets were turned into store rooms. Though the story did elicit hearty laughter, it also reflects on the sad state of affairs in rural India. By explaining the importance of good sanitation to the villagers, MSPL was able to convert them. Today, 98.98 per cent of the facilities are in use.

 While this may seem like a relatively small success story to some, there are quite a few other community development activities to judge MSPL by. Considering the shadow that has enveloped the mining industry, recognition of this sort is a big deal. This was amply evident in the somewhat emotional acceptance speech of MSPL's executive president Rahul Baldota.

 MSPL was not the only company from South that won the jury over. Coimbatore-based Ammarun foundry took home the award under the category of innovative approach to CSR. As the name suggests, the category's primary focus is to recognise new, advanced ways of delivering CSR.

"Unless and until the innovative zeal gets cracking, nothing much can happen," remarked Dr Abid Hussain, former ambassador to USA and a current member of the International Panel on Democracy & Development of Unesco.

Ammarun beat the second finalist in the category, Apollo Hospitals, for their unique technology of waste sand reclamation. The foundry sector generates copious amounts of waste sand during their operations. This is where Ammarun's technology comes in. The company uses waste foundry sand, and turns it into material suitable for construction. They have developed methods to use the waste to lay roads, to make flooring as well as pavement blocks inside the foundry. In essence, this translates to lesser landfills and thus, better environment protection. The company is also training other foundries to use the same technology. To top it off, they are even making the technology available free of cost.

When it comes to short-listing finalists and selecting winners, there is a rigorous procedure that is followed.

Step 1: Ficci SEDF selects potential candidates and sends them to Grant Thornton for assessment.
Step 2: Assessment partner Grant Thornton judges candidates on the basis of criteria such as policy, action plan, drivers of CSR and disclosure. Step 3: Second assessment partner Partners in Change verifies the claims by carrying out field inspections and selects the finalists.
Step 4: The jury deliberates over the finalists and selects the winners.

In fact, so stringent is the screening process that despite having a category for SMEs, none of the applicants from this industry were found worthy. That is of course, attributable to certain inherent hurdles like lack of money and resources that put SMEs at a disadvantage. While no SME won the award, GNG and Vasu Healthcare were chosen as finalists.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 17-10-2011)