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17 thoughts on CSR in India

I’ve just spent nearly a week with the Indian Centre for CSR, and in particular, their influential and energetic founder, Rajesh Tiwari, in Mumbai and New Delhi.

I helped them put together a couple of conferences. One on business strategy and CSR, the other on anti-corruption (presentation links from Slideshare to follow in another post).

It’s been a fascinating experience; my first trip back to India in 16 years. It’s a total cliche, but much has changed, while much remains the same.

Rajesh is a bit of a legend in India government and business circles. Just the kind of guy the country needs.

He starts at the top and works down, which is the right way to go when building consensus and energy on CSR in India in business and government.

If you want to understand and work on CSR in India, I’d suggest you contact him at rt@iccsr.org

(Disclosure: ICCSR and I have a commercial partnership arrangement with my Stakeholder Intelligence business and will also soon have one for Ethical Corporation)

Here’s a few random thoughts after a week or so here, two conferences and lots of meetings with head of sustainability, CSR, CEOs and senior government officials:

1.      Government, although slow to understand what CSR can mean, has been catching up since 2008, and is set to act. A 2% net profit CSR minimum spend is set to come into law by the end of 2012 (for companies making over $250,000 net PA) and that may raise considerable awareness. Or it may just drive further philanthropy. Much may depend on the guidance available. A director will need to be responsible though, and boards will need to demonstrate they have discussed how and where to spend their 2%. It will be a fascinating experiment. State company bosses are already assessed partly on CSR as of two years ago

2.      There’s a cynicism around the scale of corruption in India. It seems to be sapping national confidence in solutions. The government appears to be slowly recognising this (see today’s papers in India, for example)

3.      The media sector, despite growth, has not covered itself in glory in holding government and business to account. There’s a lack of awareness of the value and processes of investigative journalism

4.      NGOs seem fairly tame. A few firebrand political actors and some focused NGOs are doing good work in putting corruption on the agenda. But from the estimated two millions NGOs in India, the vast majority seem more interested in project cash than campaigning

5.      There’s an inherent compliance mentality, as elsewhere, when it comes to international standards related to CSR/sustainability. ISO 26,000 and GRI are seen as standards, when of course, they are not

6.      A national conversation is needed about what Indian CSR, beyond philanthropy, should look like. Clearly any change management movement will have to be firmly based in Indian culture, history and values

7.      The political landscape is volatile. So when populism against big business may win votes, rapid action around CSR issues is entirely possible

8.      The rise of media, social media and mobile/web connectivity means Indians from all walks of life now know more than ever before. This breeds the cynicism mentioned in point one above, but may also mean spontaneous protests and growing mistrust of business could blow up first. There were corruption riots in Delhi just a month ago over “CoalGate”

9.      The super rich Indian oligarchs appear very cut off from the modern CSR debate, as one might also find in Russia. But more and more attention is turning to corporate power, the notion of the captive state and corruption in general. (see new political party focusing only on corruption for evidence)

10.   The Bombay Stock Exchange, incentivised by the UK and German development agencies, is setting up a Carbon Index, and is potentially interested in a more holistic, sustainability-based approach

11.   Bottom of the Pyramid business models, much celebrated in the West, barely get a mention at business/academic/government CSR conferences here. That’s based on a sample of two, but still struck me as curious

12.   There’s increasingly concern that we have over-romanticised BOP and small business growth and some suggest we’ve over estimated what SME’s can do to close the jobs gap

13.   The jobs gap is the issue of the future. Mumbai, for example, likely has millions of (relatively) economically inactive people. What they will all do for a living is going to be come India’s most difficult CSR issue in the near future

14.   The culture of bureaucracy here remains staggering. Just checking into a hotel seems to take thirty minutes of form filling. Forms that you know no-one will ever look at again

15.   Environmental awareness is close to zero. Over a week, having met probably 50 executives, NGOs, academics and others, only the Bombay Stock exchange, who are being paid to, mentioned environmental issues. The water crisis, for example, is surprisingly under-discussed

16.   Slower growth (under 5% now for 2012) may accelerate the agenda. Or it may hold it back, depending on the type of pressures individual companies feel as a result. My guess is the latter, but it’s hard to say with any certainty

17.   Whilst corruption is top of the national and political agenda, big companies are reluctant to sign Transparency International’s integrity pledges. Apparently they don’t feel they can deliver

I should point out that all this is gleaned from a week or so in Mumbai and Delhi. Next time I need to seek out the innovations in rural India that I’ve seen before and heard much more about. What’s curious is how little discussed they seem to be in the CSR community here.

I’m looking forward to comments, and further visits to India in 2013.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Toby. For the most part, you're comments align with my experience of living and working here the in the CSR field.

    You are indeed correct that there is some progressive legislation around CSR here. The question will be the degree to which companies comply and the government follow through on the regulations. Let's just say there's a spotty record on that front.

    Corruption continues to be one of the most fundamental issues in this country and despite the public attention, there really is little being done about it. It represents an enormous challenge to India and one that is holding the country back. Sadly, even people who despise the corruption find it hard to fight back. The courts are backlogged with decades of cases so it's up to the court of public opinion to address the issue. At this stage, the people are losing the battle.

    Bureaucracy is also a huge barrier to growth and CSR. As a business owner on three continents, I can safely say that this country makes life for the entrepreneur exceedingly difficult. Addressing needless red tape would go a long way to allowing people to get on with creating jobs and raising incomes. From a CSR perspective, India needs to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty.

    One of the biggest elements missing from the national conversation is that fact that India needs enormous investment in basic infrastructure but there is no recognition that India could really make smart, sustainability focused investments now that would position them for a green economy. From energy and transportation to urban development, India should be learning key lessons from developed countries who would love to undo many of the errors of the past.

    Some days I'm optimistic about India's future. Other days, not so much. But it's safe to say that being a part of the transition is never dull!

  2. Fantastic insights Toby. I found the comments on environmental issues particularly interesting, as I wrote my MA thesis about 18 months ago on the disconnect between Coca-cola India's environmental sustainability reporting and the population, predominantly on their usage of power in language to present a picture that wasn't either accessible or reflective of the population. Kudos to anyone working in the field as it's an uphill battle, but it heartened me to see some organizations like CEE (Centre for Environmental Education in Gujarat state) who were taking innovative approaches to real environmental problems. I certainly learned a thing or two during my field study. All is not hopeless!

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