At the beginning of the year, we surveyed our readers to find out what they would like to read in our magazine. Many of them wrote back with CSR- related questions. We put these to the representatives of two corporate foundations – Pearl Tiwari, President (CSR and Sustainability) and Director, Ambuja Cement Foundation and Vartika Bhatewar, Manager, CSR at Rohan Builders, Pune. - Interviewed by Meher Gandevia-Billimoria
What are the priority areas/chief causes of your company’s CSR program? On what basis were they selected?
Pearl: Ambuja Cements Limited (ACL) conducts its CSR activities through its CSR arm – Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF). ACL’s plants operate mainly in rural geographies and ACF conducts its CSR activities in the communities neighbouring its plants. The community is placed as the primary stakeholder in the plant’s activities and is thus an important determinant of the company’s CSR programme.
Over the years, the organization has evolved a strategic sustainable approach by which it designs its development programmes through participatory needs assessments and empowers communities to be stakeholders in their own sustainable development. ACF’s communities and its stakeholders participate in identifying issues and evolving solutions in a systematic and continuous manner. Based on this approach, ACF’s activities are classified under our major thrust areas of Water Resource Management, Livelihoods (including Skill Development) and Socio-Economic Development.
Vartika: The priority areas of our CSR initiatives are several and varied. These include eradicating hunger, poverty and malnutrition, promoting preventive health care and sanitation, promoting special education and vocational skills especially among children and the differently-abled, animal welfare, protection of our national heritage, art and culture through the restoration of buildings and sites of historical importance and works of art, and
combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
We opted to support these causes because of our management’s interest and passion, needs assessments, and ours or the implementing agency’s expertise in achieving the desired outcome. Our links with the stakeholders was also a factor in our choice.
2. Is there another excellent program or cause that was recommended or considered that doesn’t fall within your core areas?
Pearl: Skill training facilities in semi-urban and urban communities. Skill training is an urgent need, vital to livelihood and income generation in the country. ACF has 16 Skill and Entrepreneurship Development Institutes (SEDIs), which are all located in rural areas, near our plant locations. However, though it is outside our core area, it is essential to expand such institutes to semi-urban and urban geographies to meet the shortfall in these regions.
Vartika: We select our programs after very careful consideration of the cause, the beneficiaries, the impact that is being created, and mechanisms to monitor and report the input and outcome. However, if a new cause requires urgent attention and resources, for example, floods or other natural disasters, we would certainly take it up.
3. How does your foundation keep abreast of compliance requirements? What channels do you use, internally and externally?
Pearl: ACF works closely with various ACL departments such as Internal Accounts, Secretarial, Finance, Legal and Internal Audit to meet its compliance requirements. ACF also has its own internal Compliance Executive to manage these requirements. Additionally, ACF’s activities are audited by its internal accounts team, the ACL Internal Audit team and also an external audit agency.
Vartika: As an organisation we are very sincere about compliance; whether it is related to environment issues, labour laws or our CSR. We want to and have adopted best practices internally (we recently received the CIDC award and have also received a 7-star Eco Ratings for two of our projects). As CSR compliance is a new arena, we have availed of CAP’s expertise and they have helped us every step of the way. They make sure that our activities reflect our intentions.
4. What is your ‘risk appetite’ for projects? How do you manage risks while collaborating with implementing agencies?
Pearl: ACF is the implementing agency for all its activities, and with a staff of over 450 development professionals it can afford a good risk appetite for its projects. ACF receives a substantial amount of its funds from ACL which is a legitimate profit-making company and therefore has capacity to undertake risks for sake of innovation.
For example, in order to address the salinity ingress problem in Gujarat, ACF undertook the interlinking of canals in the Ambujanagar area. Interlinking of canals, while not a tried and tested methodology in salinity mitigation, seemed to be a technically viable solution and our community had faith in its benefits. ACF lent an ear to traditional wisdom and combined it with technical expertise to channelize water from flooded areas and harvested pits to other pits through seasonal canals, thus increasing the local population’s access to irrigation facilities, land under cultivation and an improved water table, checking salinity ingress.
ACF has successfully conducted similar experiments, maximizing our communities’ access to sanitation and creating Open Defecation Free (ODF) villages in Chandrapur, Maharashtra.
Vartika: As an organisation, we do the required due diligence of the implementing agency and also try to partner with established agencies in order to make sure that we achieve our CSR goals. We don’t take w.r.t achieving the outcome, however, we are open to taking risks in terms of the cause that we select. For example, for International Women’s Day 2016, we did a whole social media campaign around menstruation, emphasising the fact that it is not a taboo or an illness and that women should not be socially isolated when they have their monthly period. We addressed a lot of social taboos around menstruation and promoted the use of pads for sanitary reasons.
5. Are your employees and stakeholders engaged enough in your CSR initiatives? How do you ensure this?
Pearl: ACF was established with a mission to ‘Energise, involve and enable communities to realize their potential’ and its approach is to conduct program activities in close engagement with its stakeholders. This approach has been adapted to build community ownership in the CSR projects and make them sustainable in the long term.
ACF also facilitates a volunteerism programme to engage ACL employees in CSR activities. Employees lend their technical expertise and their precious time to help ACF facilitate Community Safety Initiatives, create HIV/AIDS awareness and provide guidance to students at SEDI.
Vartika: Over the years our employees have shown good intent by donating to causes like the Uttarakhand Flood Relief Fund and by participating in activities like painting a crèche for children of migrant construction workers. We have the right values, however, now we are coming up with a plan to streamline employee volunteering and make it a part of ‘Rohan culture’. Our management will be involved in promoting, facilitating and appreciating (through awards) this culture.
6. Has your company been involved with CSR prior to it being mandated by law? What drives you to do CSR beyond legislation?
Pearl: ACF was founded over 2 decades ago, in 1993, to initiate development activities in communities and villages neighbouring ACL’s plants. The founding principle of ACF has been to empower the host communities with productive livelihood resources and to create and reinforce institutions, so that they prosper at the same rate as ACL. It was the ethos of ACL’s founding management that our community becomes a partner in our business and is empowered to grow in a sustainable manner. This philosophy has consistently driven ACL’s CSR initiatives beyond legislation and is reflected in strengthened people’s institutions like Farmer Producer Companies, Women’s Federations, Water User Associations, Village Health and Sanitation Committees and the like.
Vartika: We define CSR as giving our customers good quality homes; a good and challenging work environment for our employees; following environmentally sound practices; and donating and bringing our expertise to those who need help. So, yes, we have been involved in CSR since our existence. It is this thought process that guides us to do CSR beyond legislation.
7. How has mandatory CSR legislation changed the way you conduct CSR?
Pearl: The mandatory CSR law has not really changed the way we conduct our CSR activities. However, we have organised our reporting structure and documentation methods to comply with the requirements of the Schedule VII of the law. This has increased our association with the internal accounts and audits department of ACL. What the mandatory legislation has done is that it has freed up dedicated funds for CSR.
Vartika: Earlier, we never set aside any amount for CSR, we would take up activities as and when we heard about a cause. The new Act also brings a professional approach to conducting CSR by way of having specified project outcomes and reporting requirements.
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