In an exclusive interview with The CSR Journal, Ajoy Mehta, who heads MahaRERA (Maharashtra Real Estate Regulatory Authority) talked about the specific areas India Inc. can engage in through CSR to address supply-side and demand-side constraints of local bodies. Excerpts:
Q 1: What is your assessment of Mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility Experience and Expenditure Patterns in India following its roll-out?
It has been a good initiative from two perspectives. First and foremost, there is the financial aspect. The government is now heavily involved in these areas, but CSR backs up the government’s efforts. As the business sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) become more involved, new and better techniques emerge. There may have been issues that were overlooked, but when CSR money comes in from various sources, everyone has a cause that is dear to their hearts, and thus certain causes that were overlooked – not because someone wanted them to be overlooked – find a place and are supported through these CSR activities. It’s come a long way.
Q 2: How do you think Governments at various levels understand their role to realise the successful implementation of the CSR mandate in letter and spirit?
Governments that I am aware of – I don’t have access to any surveys, but I’ve found that the majority of state governments and the federal government have been quite supportive of CSR initiatives, seeing it as a way to augment and complement their own efforts. So, in addition to the government’s efforts, CSR has supplemented those efforts. The government has exhibited a supportive and encouraging approach.
CSR can play a critical role in two or three sectors, in my opinion, in the future.
1) Areas that have not been addressed or completely ignored, in which case CSR activities can play a significant role;
2) there are specific gaps in the way we are doing things today, and that the government is doing; these gaps may be due to the government’s financial and human resource limitations, or government processes that limit what you can do. As a result, private efforts play an important role in those areas as well.
Q 3. The CSR policies have to meet the socio-economic and cultural realities. To this end, what do you think and suggest as the dos and don’ts for sustainable, impactful, replicable and scalable CSR interventions in the field?
The whole concept of CSR has been that you decide the area you want to work in, earmark a certain amount of funds and then ensure that you can push that area forward. There are two ways of doing it. First, just follow what the government is doing; Second, very proactively you find the gaps. The gaps could be of two types: one, in the area where the government is putting in money, and the money is going to a certain area but in another area, it may take some time before that support reaches. So, India Inc. can accelerate the programme, which the government has been doing. For example, if the government is doing 100 villages a year, the corporate decides to supplement it and commit to doing the work in additional 10 villages. So, the effort gets accelerated.
Second, because the need is small, some areas are often overlooked which are in need for assistance. I happened to come across an organisation that helps accident victims, particularly at railway stations. It is a small space, and only a small percentage of individuals are involved in a train station accident, but it requires rapid assistance and involvement. It necessitates prompt and high-quality medical attention. However, because the population affected is so small, it is often overlooked. It’s a one-time occurrence. But there is a crisis arising from that situation for the person who was involved in the accident; she or he is a working member of the family. As a result, this person must be saved or at the very least treated urgently. These are often overlooked areas where CSR may make a significant difference.
Finally, there are good practices – there is a limit to the number of innovative or efficient procedures that the government can introduce. However, when the private sector acts, it may source the best practices from all over the world. Consider vaccination: what is the best strategy to vaccinate the most number of people in the shortest amount of time with the fewest resources? There are various ways and techniques to achieving this, and determining which approach provides the most efficiency in terms of vaccination is a hot topic right now. When it comes to vaccinations, how do you get to the most isolated villages? What kind of procedures must be in place? India is, after all, a huge country. There are locations that are completely inaccessible; how can you contact such areas, individuals, and maintain track of their records? How are you going to make sure they get their second shot? As a result, best practices can be sourced from anywhere in the world, and these best practices can be used to build a repository that can be included into current activities, thus increasing the efficacy of CSR activities.
Q 4: A focus on local governance and planning needs serious attention from various stakeholders, especially financing of [urban and rural] local bodies in various states; what specific role and areas can India Inc. engage in through CSR to address supply-side and demand-side constraints of local bodies?
The devolution of funds and the distribution of monies between the centre and the states, and subsequently from the states to local governments, is governed by a variety of legal and constitutional structures. This is not an area where I believe we should be involved. The area we should focus on is the fact that the local government is usually short on funds due to the numerous demands and difficulties that it faces. For example, a local government might be responsible for primary education, primary health, preventive health, nutrition, drinking water, and sanitation, among other things. As a result, these local governments deal with a wide range of challenges with limited resources and they must address some at one time and others at another.. Here, at the local body level, it is to be determined what is an area that requires immediate attention, and the private sector steps in with the human and financial resources to suggest that you handle primary healthcare, and we will handle drinking water and supply, or that if the government handles 100 primary healthcare centres, the private sector can handle 50 more PHCs. If a, b, and c are addressed by the government in the area of health, the CSR effort can act to support nutrition initiatives. Corporates must identify shortcomings and take action in this area.
By their very nature, local bodies work in remote places, making it impossible to haul personnel out for training and bringing them up to date on best practices. This is another another area in which the private sector can help. So, not only are you working in child nutrition, but you can also be training other child nutritionists. Building capacities, educating people to be more effective, increasing their level of commitment, ensuring that the delivery is done right, and data is recorded and maintained effectively, as data management is a significant issue. This competence may not exist at the Gram Panchayat level. They can collect data for you, but analysing that data and producing effective outcomes necessitates a higher degree of understanding, which the Gram Panchayat may lack. These, in my opinion, are the major areas where India Inc. can make a difference through CSR.
Q 5: Social development is intrinsically linked to financial sources and natural resource planning at the local body level. Can you share how we can ensure inclusive and participatory planning across urban and rural LSGs? How do you think CSR organisations can effectively and efficiently target various development sectors?
With access to tools and best practises from around the world, the private sector can help create capacity, uncover gaps and areas that are being overlooked, and provide independent feedback on what needs to be addressed. For example, providing information on how far government programmes have progressed and what still remains to be done. Certain areas within a plan – for example, when we develop a scheme, it is a standard system for all the villages, but a particular village may have a very specific requirement that is not addressed in that scheme – may need to be addressed to enable the scheme to be effective in that village. The CSR initiative can make a pitch in this scenario – and concentrate on resolving this issue.
For example, if you need to vaccinate the population living at a certain remote location who cannot come at a central location. So while the scheme provides for a nurse, a doctor, equipment, and so on, but then you realise you don’t have anyone to fetch people from the village’s remote corners; perhaps a small population of the village who lives on top of a hill who can’t come to the PHC and get the vaccination because it would mean foregoing their daily wage. It’s possible that the scheme didn’t account for such scenarios. Corporates could step in and ensure that daily wage workers are transported to the vaccination centre and vaccinated; they could also ensure that food is provided to them. This is only an example, the important thing is how you identify the gap and the manner in which CSR funds are deployed to close these gaps.
Q 6: How can this intensification happen?
Corporations that engage in CSR must conduct extensive research on the areas in which they operate. As a result, eventually, corporations will engage in CSR in areas that are important to them. Corporations may wish to work in areas such as child nutrition, blindness, farmer empowerment, mental disease, and so on. Then it’s important to understand what’s going on in these areas right now, since the government is already putting in a lot of work in all of these areas, finding the gaps and then implementing CSR policies and actions to fill those gaps will be vital To perform effective CSR, businesses must first research what they are getting into and where the gaps are.
Q 7: As the Chief Secretary, G/o Maharashtra you headed the COVID-19 response in the state, can you share what are your reflections from this experience, especially in the way India Inc. and civil society played a role in the state?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the private sector provided a tremendous amount of support. Individuals, organisations, and businesses all contributed, and help was given in areas we couldn’t even imagine. We had set up a specific cell in Mantralaya where these groups and individuals could contact us, and we’d keep track of who was providing us with what kind of assistance. Importing masks since masks were unavailable, food for migrant workers and their children, and catering to their medical requirements, especially in slum areas, are just a few examples. People contributed in a variety of ways to the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic.
As an example many people came forward to say that they have these many trucks and tempos, and that they could temporarily transform them into ambulances. In addition, retired Indian Army medics volunteered to help the frontline workers. Help came from all quarters, and the Maharashtra government’s dedicated unit took care of them, tapped into them, and placed them where assistance was required. Through the efforts of civil society, a large number of people were fed. So, efforts do not only come from major corporations, but also from individuals who approach and ask if they can assist? This was a huge help.
Q 8: How can CSR budgeting and spending be more impactful particularly if promoted under the PPP model? Do you think improved communication between Government and corporate is the answer or does this require a more sophisticated response from both sides through innovation, technology and digitisation?
You must determine where the gaps are in a PPP model. There may be gaps in the numerous initiatives that the government has undertaken in various areas, how can these gaps be filled? Fundamentally, a public-private relationship is one in which each party identifies a gap and then fills it by complementing one another’s capabilities. The PPP concept only works if it has been meticulously planned. It isn’t a reflexive response to a problem. An assessment of the situation for gaps is required, followed by an assessment of your strengths to determine your capabilities and how you may help to close these gaps. Finally, PPP should benefit the people you’re assisting. It isn’t even improved communication in my opinion. It all boils down to a better understanding. We can communicate for hundreds of hours, but what matters is how you plan, analyse challenges, and fill in the gaps. It’s all about assessing the situation and discovering communication gaps.
Q 9: Can you share about a select experience or challenge during your decades of public service that shaped your perspective and outlook towards society and social responsibility?
I’ve witnessed several situations where minor efforts have yielded big results. For example, an NGO that works with children in municipal corporations and Zilha Parishad schools, where children from economically disadvantaged families come to learn. Nobody in these schools considers the possibility that these children’s eyes may be weak. So, back in the day, a few NGOs did a fantastic job of hosting check-up camps for children, performing eye tests, and providing the children with spectacles. Of course, a large number of people are now doing so. This was a tiny effort, but now this youngster is a member of the class. Previously, everyone assumed that this child did not want to learn and only wanted to cause mischief, but no one realised that the poor child could not read what was written on the board. As a result, this small effort became a significant initiative.
Another example is when drinking water schemes were introduced into villages naturally waste water was generated. We did not consider the element of drainage in these communities; and without an adequate drainage system, the mosquito population would increase. As a result, some people thought that “drinking water introduced malaria in the village.” It’s not that drinking water brought malaria to the communities, but no one anticipated the problem of village drainage. Therefore, as tap water came to villages, there were bound to be wastage of water and in case the water is stagnated, mosquitos are bound to come. As a result, finding an appropriate drainage system became crucial. There were many groups that came forward to provide elementary drainage systems thus increasing the hygienic levels. These are little, supplemental actions that make a big difference.
Q 10: The participation of women in institutions is a major roadblock across different sectors. In your experience, how can participation of women in formal institutions be improved and make these institutes gender-sensitive, facilitating inclusive development?
Women are equal members of society, and their capacity to contribute is equal to, if not greater than, that of men. Second, they have significant advantages in certain areas. For example, education, health, and preventive healthcare, to name a few. Furthermore, you cannot talk about development without including 50% of the population in the planning process. Let’s be honest about it. To begin, one must account for the fact that half of our population is as efficient as the rest, and that they should be included in the system so that society benefits.