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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Organizing Around Education and Art in Dharavi

new concrete fence and concertina wire in Dharavi after 10 meters of slums were cleared on each side of sewer pipes

Mumbai     This was a different visit to ACORN’s organizing in Dharavi.  In the year since I had been here the Mumbai water & sewer system had implemented their plan to clear away 10 meters on either side of their huge drainage pipes thereby eliminating hundreds of residents and our original offices overlooking the pipes.  We now were perched precariously four levels up over the ground level in a slender space running us 9000 rupees per month ($185 USD) with the landlord who shrugged at the fact that we were nonprofit, not caring if we ran a factory for plastics or a recycling and sorting center for our wastepickers.   Another 5000 rupees was going to put tar on our corrugated roofing today in order to keep the coming monsoons due this weekend from ruining the castaway books we had in great supply from the recent spring cleaning at the American School where we do recycling.   We had also picked up some old desktop computers, but weren’t sure if they would be e-waste or working instruments because our space had already been broken into five times since we relocated.  Offers of donated laptops had been deferred until we could solve the problem.

Ironically, only a few blocks away in the last year our partnership with St. Xavier’s, the Jesuit school abutting Dharavi had flourished mightily.  We used to have to rent the classrooms for meetings of our members to issue ration cards or do our normal business, but now St. Xavier had opened their arms to our activity.  On the weekends their long dirt-and-grass patch field now was the site of our football (soccer) team where volunteer coaches were sorting out 70 or more boys every Sunday for the games.  Another group of donors to the ACORN Foundation (India) had come up with four different colors of jerseys for the teams, which were quite a treat as well.

ACORN football jersey

I visited at length with Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN’s work in Mumbai, and the principle of St. Xavier’s.  He had gone to school at Marquette University in Milwaukee and had another of his team who had been to Santa Clara in California, so we were able to talk about Jesuits in New Orleans, recent problems in Wisconsin, and how Dwyane Wade was representing Marquette in the NBA Finals.  More importantly he walked with us from the field to see how our new Dharavi Project class in English was going with our volunteers.  We listened to some of the lesson in the completely packed class teeming with over 50 participants.  Only weeks ago the first class had only a bit more than a dozen, but popularity was soaring for the 630 PM session.

Next we waited for the weekly music class and practice of ACORN’s Dharavi Rocks group of a dozen of our kids.  The group plays on recycled items that have been part of their livelihoods in Dharavi and because of our partnership with the Blue Frog jazz club we have been asked to open for some of their acts, hosted some great European bands doing concerts in Dharavi, and have been featured in People magazine, MTV, and even a story in the Times of India when Dharavi Rocks played in nearby Pune last weekend.  What had been a roar of talking and laughing was transformed into totally focused music once they started the rhythms of this plastic drum circle.  Stay tuned to the ACORN International Youtube channel when I get back and we upload the video and music from these sessions, which I guarantee will rock your world.  This is hard work but it is what I would call “360 degree community organizing” from livelihood to art and education all done on a shoestring using volunteers, member activity, and money and partnerships where we can get them.

Dharavi Rocks!

It would be precious without a campaign component, and similarly to the bursary campaign ACORN Kenya is running the lack of implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act may allow us to campaign up to scale.  The DNA- Daily News and Analysis for 6/13/12 indicated that the State of Maharashtra is threatening to “derecognize” 32000 schools, both public and private, for not having set aside 25% of their admissions for poor children.  The response from many of the schools quoted was simply pathetic, claiming that they had received no applications, even while admitting that they had not created an applicant procedure.  Vinod also could put the lie to that when he listed the schools where our members had applied and were told that they were “already full.”

Organizing like the work that ACORN is doing in Dharavi and other slums around India is going to be knocking at the door of many of these schools and the groundwork is being laid now right in our own office and recycling center and at night in the halls of St. Xavier, and our members will not be denied.

recycling

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