Big Claims and Baby Steps for Corporate Social Responsibility in India

CSR wall painting at Xavier Institute of Engineering

Mumbai    A week ago in Delhi I read an interesting argument on the op-ed page of the Economic Times by Kiran Karnik in which he argued that businesses in Indian needed to start going beyond the simple limits of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and begin a direct “engagement with the government and, importantly, civil society organizations on matters of social consequence – going beyond the narrow interests of business.”  He mentioned examples including land acquisition (development), environment, mining, and water, but the list could also include sanitation, education, housing, poverty, and more.  Such engagement he reasoned was superior to the simple (and sometimes simple-minded) rupee-based “philanthropy” of CSR because he called on corporations to use the full range of their power and influence, including on issues like human rights, corruption, governance, and even accept “a duty to promote the welfare of all citizens, to democratic and egalitarian values, and to the country….”

Part of the backdrop for such a high-minded call arises from an increasing consensus in many sectors of Indian society that holds that solving some of India’s more intractable problems requires a different level of CSR for its companies.  There is discussion about making CSR a mandatory expenditure for all companies.  As Karnik indicated, “The new Companies Bill may well include a clause on this [CSR] – probably a ‘comply or explain’ provision.”  Heady stuff!

On the ground level we are ready for a lot more CSR to meet the huge needs for support for ACORN’s organizing in Dharavi and elsewhere in India, but our experience with the reality is often with baby steps from smaller outfits, rather than the big claims made by Karnik.  Many of our partners have developed relationships with us that are remarkable, like the Blue Frog jazz club, the Xavier Institute of Engineering, the American School and others.  Sometimes the lessons of CSR are harder.  A bank with 125 volunteers wanting to paint classrooms ended up making the wall around Xavier more lively, but having their eyes larger than their stomachs, we ended up scrambling to pay for the paint!  In other cases companies have met our desperate needs for space by offering to build sheds next to temples, not realizing that a significant percentage of our wastepickers are Muslim!   We hope we’ll get there certainly, but the learning curve is steep and requires a lot of bridge building.

It would be interesting to see if India made CSR mandatory or at least a default that had to be addressed.  The gap between common or community interest proposed by Karnik and the more common first impulses of many business here “to build their brand” or claim they are “doing good” in some marginal way, regardless of the practice, are still mostly “business as usual” for CSR in India.   Of course that’s not surprising really, since that is also the way CSR works in the USA, Canada, and most of the rest of the world as well.

discarded books donated by the American School

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