PODCAST: CSR in India - Where corporates fear to tread

In this no-holds-barred Resource Alliance India ‘Listen in’ podcast interview, Anshu Gupta, the Founder of Goonj, is very clear: Corporate India falls short of living up to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) mandate defined by law. In 2014, India became the first country in the world to mandate corporate social responsibility. The new CSR guidelines require certain large companies to spend 2% of their net profit on social development.

We ask Anshu what he would advise corporations in India to do, he says that they must move beyond tokenism and the comfort zone of their working area and go deep into the issues that are impacting India’s rural poor. Anshu believes that instead of putting their weight behind a development agenda set by urban experts, corporations should look at what rural communities really need and work with non-profit partners who have the right ideas, application, skills and most importantly passion about working in certain troubled areas.


Resource Alliance India (RA India): Anshu Gupta thank you very much for speaking to Resource Alliance India Listen In Podcast Series

Anshu: Thank you.

RA India: How have you as an organisation moved the needle to get people, that is the donors, to think strategically about giving?

Anshu: We worked on a very basic thing, one, we said that whenever the urban community says we want to donate, that is actually wrong and over statement because you don’t donate you discard. You need to be thankful to the people who are using you second hand material, whether its cloth, utensils, footwear whatever second hand material. Because these are the people who give a second life to something on which we spend our hard earned money. Number two, for all the material that we give for clothing, either we wait for a disaster, or it is disaster relief material or it is a charitable subject-object. We say that why don’t we treat poverty as a disaster and we create a channel where this goes and it doesn’t go as charity. Because if you talk about so called poor people, especially in the villages, the biggest asset of those people is their self-respect, you don’t find beggars in the villages. So I think the time has come when we really move out of this demeaning word donor-beneficiary and we understand that we all are stakeholders.

RA India: Anshu, when starting off, cloth was not on the radar of any development agenda. How have you made it an urgent clarion call for both individuals and organisations to contribute responsibly?

Anshu: As I said you know I think all of us have become too expert in treating malaria and ignoring mosquitos. So I personally feel that clothing that way has been a mosquito where no attention was paid. And although when you talk about three basic needs you say food cloth and shelter. Cloth is not the ultimate thing, cloth for us is just a means it’s just a currency as we say. And so a very large initiative for Goonj right now is called ‘cloth for work’ where we are taking up all kind of development activities. When I say ‘we’, ‘we’ means largely the villagers or slum communities, where we dig a well, we clean a pond, we lay or make roads, build bamboo bridges. Hard-core infrastructure works as per the need of the area and then people are rewarded with this material. Somewhere it is if you like a parallel currency.

RA India: And how did Corporate India, open their doors to you?

Anshu: Corporates are okay, some of the organisations are doing good with us, whosoever understood our ethos, whosoever understood that the problems are not around their offices, but the problems are far off, especially in the villages of India, because many organisations otherwise just want to work in their own locality. Those are not our partners. But yes, the people who thought the problems are there outside far away from the cities. That’s one group of people who are good friends in the corporate sector. And the other larger thing is that institutions, everyone, they keep collecting material. Their dead inventory comes to us; their excess material comes to us. So that way a very large part of the collection happens through retails chains and institutions also.

RA India: So, is Corporate India really living up to the expectation of partnering with social organisations as per the CSR mandate? Is CSR living up to its potential?

Anshu: No no no! I don’t think a large part of it is on the right track now. I mean a long way to go, like last year, when we heard that 7000 crore rupees have been spent as part of CSR. 7000 crore rupees is a huge amount of money. So I think it is important to be absolutely transparent and upfront in saying that where are we spending the money and how are we spending this money? What is the admin percentage? How big are the salaries? And are we really saying that if I am a company or factory that manufactures maybe cars, so am I really saying that all my employees, who had to be my employees in any case -even their training is our CSR? and we call it employment generation? So I think all that is rotten – if that is happening. Because in any case you are running a company, you have to hire people. I think the CSR money has to go beyond what you are doing – for your own business so let’s not bring that CSR component into your own business. Because 7000 crore rupees is not a small sum. Even today 100,000 rupees you spend in a village in India you can actually change the entire water scenario in the village. Yes, some of the Corporate leaders, some of the CSR people are very sensitive and they are using it as a very beautiful opportunity.

RA India: So if you were in an advisory role on CSR for a Corporation what would be the 5 things you would tell them to do?

Anshu: One is that as I am saying is that you need to basically treat the mosquito! So don’t come and start painting one school again and again, because the most important part is that if we can really solve the problem in the villages of India, half the problems are solved. The rampant migration will not happen. The issues in cities will not come up in that way. And the education and everything will really work well. For the next few years I would suggest that whatever the money, whether the development sector or the corporate sector or the government will have to spend, they most focus on water. Because ours is really an agriculture country, where agriculture is the base of the economy, water is everything. So when the water is not there, the agriculture is not there, the employment is not there, migration happens. So even in those villages, even if you are creating the best possible schools there is no use of that, because the kid is not there, the kid has already migrated.

RA India: And you’ve also said that all of us should be made integral stakeholders in decision making, you’ve just referred to that, the fact that you don’t like calling it a donor beneficiary relationship. Do you think CSR can actually do that?

Anshu: Why can’t it do that? I mean CSR, that way you have been given a good amount of money, mandate and lot of freedom. You’re absolutely free to do so many things all across and listen it is not about CSR. CSR is a small component of the entire game. If you talk about any government scheme, the traditional NGOs, the international NGOs and people like us. I think the biggest problem has been, and maybe that’s where we miserably failed in so many things. We impose the development agendas, we impose the schemes, we say that every single village will have a road. We are not understanding that maybe out of those villages, out of 100 villages, 10 villages do not need a road, they need better water. Five villages need just a small sum to repair their schools. Who are we, you know, as the big agencies to decide that this is how the village should look like? Can we really make them a part of the decision? Why we have got a bit of success in our cloth for work initiative, where this material is really becoming a currency, because it is decided by the villages that whether they want to clean a lake or they want to make a road. What is the priority of the communities there? So that’s where you are putting your effort and that’s where you ultimately pay to the nation in a currency called labour because that’s what you have, and you are rewarded in a currency called material. It is a revival of the traditional practices in India called shram dan and barter system.

RA India: So in the context of this, what does sustainability really mean to you?

Anshu: Sustainability means the idea should be replicated or copied. I don’t care for the sustainability of the organisation because that can always survive, grow, whatever. I think most important part is that how the idea is sustainable. Because for us the most important is the idea not the organisation only. The organisation is just a tool, just a structure.

RA India: And finally, you have experienced great success in raising resources from corporates. What are then some lessons for social organisations, who sometimes have their own unique visions, listening to this interview who are struggling to pitch to Corporate partners?

Anshu: I think the organisations need to have their own agendas. Why did these organisations get into this particular work? Because they were passionate about certain things. They were passionate about certain issues. They were passionate about certain ways of tackling those issues. So I think it is important for us to stick to that, number one. Number two, let’s not just get into that cycle of – if the corporate is sitting with 10 lakhs rupees and they say no, we want to work on education and we want to work in this area and only in this approach. So we are not just the contractors that you give us a contract to solve the problem of education. Development organisations need to understand that these are the expert agencies and the relationship has to be of equal. It’s not about that someone is giving money so that guy is really very high, no not at all. Because if the money can solve the problem, whole lot of these big corporates and the big guys would have solved it. It is the idea, it is the application, it is the skill, it is the passion about working in certain troubled areas. That’s what the development agencies bring.

RA India: Alright, Anshu Gupta thank you very much for speaking to Resource Alliance India’s Listen In Podcast Series

Anshu: Thank you.

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