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Amitabh Kant: ‘CSR refers to a new form of welfare governance in India’

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National Institution for Transforming India, also known as NITI Aayog, anchors the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) with support from Central Ministries and the State Governments. The Government of India constituted NITI Aayog to replace the Planning Commission, which had been instituted in 1950. This think tank and knowledge innovation hub has been given the twin mandate to oversee the adoption and monitoring of SDGs in the country and promote competitive and cooperative federalism among States and Union Territories, which makes it a crucial bridge in the nation’s future.
Amitabh Kant, who is currently the CEO of NITI Aayog, is a member of the Indian Administrative Service, Kerala Cadre, 1980 batch. He has been a key driver of award-winning initiatives such as ‘Make in India’, ‘Incredible India’, and ‘God’s Own Country’. In his capacity as Secretary (Industries), Kant drove the Ease-of-Doing Business initiative. He was the National Project Director of UNDP’s Rural Tourism Project, which brought about a paradigm shift in spreading tourism to Indian villages with a core competency in handicrafts, handloom, and culture.

Kant is the Chairman of Empowered Group 3 (now EG 7) – one of the 11 such groups constituted by the Government of India to tackle the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The group is mandated to coordinate with the private sector, NGOs, and international organizations for Covid-response-related activities.

A recipient of the One Globe Award, 2016, for Leadership in Transforming Governance in the 21st century, and the Golden Peacock Award for Leadership in Economic Transformation, 2017, he was also awarded the Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship by the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In an exclusive interview with The CSR Journal, Amitabh Kant revealed the latest developments in the Aspirational Districts Programme and the correlation between CSR, ADP and the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Q 1: Niti Aayog is a public policy think tank entrusted with the aim of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in India. How does Niti Aayog work with the government, PSUs and private sector to reach these objectives?

The SDGs represent a consensus between all national governments, that partnerships forged among national, sub-national and local governments, private sector, international organisations and civil society, would be the key, if the world were to achieve the goals under the 2030 agenda. The recently released SDG India Index is a result of our continuous engagement with Union Ministries and State Governments and is central to the support we provide to States in developing their own State and district SDG indicator frameworks and monitoring systems.
We have previously worked with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs in aligning the Business Responsibility and Sustainability Reporting (BRSR) frameworks for top 1,000 listed companies; and are presently working with the Ministry of Finance and private sector stakeholders in creating a Sustainable Finance roadmap for the country. As the nodal agency for overseeing the progress on the Sustainable Development Goals at the national level, we have undertaken a whole-of-society approach and engaged extensively with the civil society as well. This was reflected in the preparation of the country’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) on the SDGs at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum, which we presented last year. The VNR report was a culmination of structured engagement with the private sector and thousands of CSOs and NGO partners.

Q 2: Could you throw light on the Covid relief and vaccination initiatives by Niti Aayog?

Niti Aayog has been on the forefront of Covid Relief action for the past one year with me chairing the Empowered Group (EG) 3 (which is now EG 7) that had been entrusted with the task of coordinating relief efforts amongst CSOs, the private sector and International organizations. During the first wave of Covid-19, Niti Aayog had helped the needy across the length and breadth of the country by collaborating with private sector entities in increasing local manufacturing capacities of ventilators and PPE kits.
In the second wave, Niti Aayog devised an online logistics platform called www.niti.covaid.gov.in, to receive all Covid relief material (close to 2,30,00,000 individual units) from abroad and distributing it in the most efficient and transparent manner, directly to hospitals and medical relief entities across India. Niti Aayog also collaborated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote Covid appropriate Behaviour (CAB) by creating a Portal www.indiafightscovid.com which has relevant and useful digital content in 11 languages.

Q 3: How far have Civil Society Organisations have helped in the coordinated efforts to combat the second wave?

The Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)/ Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) have immensely contributed and supplemented the efforts of the Government at all levels, in successfully easing the constraints and difficulties of people. As Chairman of the Empowered Group 3 (which is now 7), I made a clarion call to all NGOs/ CSOs registered on the NGO Darpan Portal of NITI Aayog to join our efforts in combating Covid-19. I also requested Chief Secretaries/Administrators and District Magistrates of all States/UTs and Districts to engage with local CSOs/NGOs in combating Covid-19 and helping the people.
It gives me immense satisfaction to say that the Social Capital of our nation has been used effectively, both in the first wave and more intensely in the second wave considering it’s larger impact, with voluntary organisations playing a significant role. Many CSOs and NGOs have provided Masks, PPE kits, Ambulance services, Ventilators, Oxygen Cylinders, Oxygen Concentrators, Medicines, Sanitary materials, food and ration kits, setting-up of COVID Care Centres, to the needy. They also contributed hugely to reduce the problems of migrant workers at their locations by providing shelters, food, medical care, transportation facilities etc.
I compliment and congratulate all the CSOs/NGOs who have done excellent work. Though there are many, I would like to mention a few of them who have immensely supported and contributed:
– Akshaya Patra provided food to millions of needy people.
– Piramal Foundation has been supporting not only in the Aspirational Districts but across the country in healthcare and livelihood. The Surakshit Dada-Dadi Nana-Nani Abhiyaan with Piramal Foundation had immensely contributed to the Senior Citizens through the network of CSOs/NGOs.
– Gates Foundation has been continuously supporting NITI Aayog in developing effective communication tools to nudge people towards COVID appropriate behaviour through indiafightscovid.com.
– Give India collaborated with many donors for delivering the Covid material.
– I-CAN’s platform has facilitated connecting the needy with the correct NGOs.
– Save the Children have been supporting children in many aspects during the pandemic.
These are only some examples. Several NGOs have been doing pathbreaking work. NITI Aayog is continuously in contact with 1,13,000 NGOs registered on the NGO-DARPAN portal. So far 37 meetings have been held with them since last year’s outbreak to gauge the challenges faced by them and suggestions to improve Government’s responses on the ground. We are witnessing a new age of Governance in India where CSOs/ NGOs are playing a major role in the development journey, including addressing disasters.

Q 4: As the head honcho of a think tank comprising the biggest minds in our country, what is your opinion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in India?

In an era where economic inequalities are rising in many parts of the world, it is necessary to ensure that the growth process remains equitable, sustainable and inclusive. Despite the increased economic momentum in India, translating the growth into human development remains a challenge in many parts of the world including India. CSR increases availability of funds for welfare activities and leads to delivery of goods and services to the people in a cost-effective manner. For instance, CSR has played a major role in relief activities during the first and second waves of Covid-19.
In a pluralistic economy like India, there’s no assurance that without any intervention there would be a fair distribution of resources and the by-product of development would be shared by all. The establishment of a prosperous and inclusive community requires re-institutionalising the connection between business and society towards sustainability. In other terms, nudging the companies to incorporate the social and environmental concerns in their market operations. CSR facilitates in striking a balance between economic, social and environmental imperatives.
With the enactment of the Companies Act 2013, the Indian government endorsed a legislative approach to reconstruct the business-society nexus by mandating the companies to spend at least 2% of their profits towards national regeneration. The intent behind mainstreaming this law was to make companies socially, economically and environmentally responsible. The primary objective of this State-orchestrated philanthropy was to promote sustainable business philosophy and also to encourage the companies to come up with innovative ideas to balance the social and environmental concerns as per the local area preferences which align with the national priorities.
In my opinion, CSR refers to a new form of welfare governance in India that moves part of the burden of social policy expenditure away from the state to the private sector. It is an opportunity for the corporate sector to contribute to the social development and preserve the legitimacy of State support to economic value creation and growth.

Q 5: How much will CSR from India Inc help the nation in achieving the SDGs by the year 2030?

It is difficult to answer this question in precise numbers since the size of CSR available for improving SDGs would depend on the overall growth rate of the economy. However, the impact of CSR in assisting the Central and the State Governments in achieving SDGs would be substantial. Currently, CSR of the private sector is around Rs. 16,000 crore (average from FY 2015-16 to 2019-20) and that of the Central Public Sectors Undertaking is around Rs. 4000 crore (average from FY 2015-16 to 2019-20), totalling to Rs. 20,000 crore per year.
While there is a large number of schemes being implemented by the State and the Central Governments to improve SDGs especially in sectors like health, nutrition, education, water resource management, poverty reduction etc. CSR, if deployed efficiently will help in accelerating the development and fill the critical gaps besides funding innovative projects. The trick is to bring efficiency in deployment of CSR.
We are of the view that if CSR donor agencies work closely with the District administrations as they are doing under the Aspirational Districts Programme, the funds would flow to the areas where it can have maximum impact as the District administration is aware of the local needs which are different in different regions of the country. To address this issue, initiatives like the Akanksha Portal developed by the Karnataka State Government where different districts and taluka identify the urgent and critical projects thereby enabling the donor agencies to choose among them, would go a long way in bringing desired results from the CSR.

Q 6: Where do companies fall short when it comes to implementing their CSR programmes?

Even though organizations in India have been quite sensible in taking up CSR initiatives and integrating them with their business processes, there have been some shortcomings in equitable distribution of CSR funds. There is a skew in favour of industrialised states such that the least developed states receive the least corporate social responsibility funds. Relatively more industrialised states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have accounted for more than 70% of the CSR expenditure. Incidentally, these states are also frontrunners in the SDG Index report released by NITI Aayog in 2021. While least developed states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh – which account for almost 37% Aspirational Districts – receive only 10-12% of the CSR funds.
Our interactions with the district administrations and CPSEs brought out the fact that delay in project identification and implementation has been a major reason for under-spending of CSR funds. In this regard, we have extended help to all the Districts through the Project Management Unit (PMU) team in NITI Aayog composed of sector experts from ADB and UNDP, to help these Districts in identifying and formulating projects. There is a need to bridge the information asymmetry that exists in the CSR ecosystem which can help companies to channelise funds towards priority projects in geographical areas which need them the most. Companies can proactively identify good NGOs working in the geography at the grassroots and collaboratively formulate and implement projects as per the needs of the district.

Q 7: Niti Aayog anchors the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) with support from Central ministries and State governments. Could you talk about the latest developments?

The structure of the Aspirational Districts Programme is innovative. It captures real time progress across sectors like health, nutrition, education, agriculture and water resource management, skill development and financial inclusion and basic infrastructure. The principle is to capture the progress in a month and then rank the districts on the basis of their monthly performance (incremental progress over a month). This process leads to many desirable outcomes:
a) Since Key Performance Indicators are carefully chosen across the sectors mentioned above and largely determine the quality of life and economic productivity of the citizens, districts are aligned to these indicators for improving their rank.
b) As progress is monitored at different levels, availability of data helps the district teams to see what are the gap areas and where greater efforts are needed.
c) Most importantly, such ranking of districts gives rise to a healthy spirit of competition among the district teams to perform better.
Due to this innovative structure, the ADP has led to a significant improvement in many of the indicators. However, development is a continuous process and since these 112 districts have seen years of backwardness, the challenges remain. Hence, the thrust on improving performance across different indicators continues so that these districts emerge as India’s top performing districts across the performance indicators under focus in the programme.
As the main strategy of the Aspirational Districts Programme is based on convergence of existing schemes which have their own funding arrangement, large infusion of additional funds is not envisaged. However, in order to foster competitive spirit, and for addressing the critical gaps, additional allocation on challenge route is also envisaged. Every month, districts are assessed on the basis of monthly progress and the best performing Districts in overall terms and in each of the five sectors are identified and rewarded. The first and second rankers in overall terms are awarded Rs. 10 crores and Rs. 5 crores respectively. The first ranker from each of the five sectors is awarded Rs. 3 crores each. The Districts use this additional funding for implementing innovative and projects of critical nature.
Our endeavour is that these projects are completed quickly so that people benefit. In addition, Niti Aayog also undertakes focussed interventions in these Districts. Currently, a project focussing on reducing Anaemia in the worst affected 5 districts is under implementation. Another project for improving nutritional outcomes by inclusion of millets in some of the districts is under implementation. Another focus area is to improve learning outcomes for which a project on outcome-based funding is in the early stage of implementation.
Many districts have shown considerable improvement in various sectors and indicators in the last 3 years since the commencement of the programme. The 5 sectors were segregated into 49 indicators on which progress of each district is monitored every month.
– Balrampur (in Uttar Pradesh), followed by Siddharthnagar (in Uttar Pradesh) and Ranchi (in Jharkhand) have shown the maximum overall improvement since inception of the programme.
– Ranchi (in Jharkhand), Sukma (in Chhattisgarh) and Balrampur (in Uttar Pradesh) are leading in the Health & Nutrition sector which accounts for 30% of the overall weightage in the Aspirational Districts Programme and comprises of important indicators relating to health of pregnant women, child care and health infrastructure in the district.
– Balrampur (in Uttar Pradesh), followed by Rayagada (in Odisha) and Siddharthnagar (in Uttar Pradesh) are the top performers in Education which also accounts for 30% of the overall weightage in the Programme and comprises important indicators relating to learning outcomes, transition rates and school infrastructure in the District.
– Araria (in Bihar), Udalgiri (in Assam) and Gajapati (in Odisha) are leading in the Agriculture & Water Resources sector, which has a weightage of 20% in the Programme and comprise important indicators related to irrigation, agriculture productivity, farmers welfare and animal husbandry.
– Goalpara, Darrang and Baksa in Assam are leading in the Financial Inclusion and Skill Development sectors which have a combined weightage of 10% in the Programme and comprise of indicators pertaining to insurance, pension and loan coverage, and training and employment of youths.
– Bhadradri-Kothagudem (in Telangana) and Darrang (in Assam) have been the top performers in the Basic Infrastructure sector which has a weightage of 10% in the Programme and comprises of indicators related to basic infrastructure in a district such as roads, water and electricity.
I would conclude that the programme is indeed making a difference in these districts. An independent evaluation of the programme undertaken by the prestigious American think-tank Social Progress Imperative and the Institute of Competitiveness has mentioned that the impact of the programme has been both far-reaching and holistic in transforming lives of the citizens in these districts. The complete report is available online at competitiveness.in/adp-report.

Q 8: The ADP was launched in January 2018 with a vision of a New India by 2022. We have only one more year to go before ushering in 2022. What are the challenges the Niti Aayog is facing in the ADP during the Covid crisis?

These districts have suffered years of backwardness and despite the progress made, they continue to require focussed attention. Since the programme is structured in the manner that District Collectors play a pivotal role, due to Covid crises and the lockdowns, there are disruptions in implementation of the short-term and long-term plans devised by the various Central Line Ministries for each of the priority sectors.
In addition, improvement in many of the indicators requires field visits. For instance, ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) workers are to visit pregnant women for ensuring healthy delivery. However, with restrictions in place, such visits are adversely affected. Similarly, learning outcome can be improved if the schools are functioning properly. Under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan as well as under the ADP, the focus was to improve the standards of the Government schools. Due to Covid, such endeavours have come to a halt. Again, improvement in financial inclusion would require a conducive environment including availability of good projects and feasibility of their implementation. Efforts put in place by activating Bank Mitras in remote areas have temporarily suffered due to the outbreak.
At the same time, we are confident that once the situation improves and restrictions are lifted, the ADP would result in rapid progress. This is largely due to its competitive and monitoring based architecture which spurs the district administration to perform to their level best.

Q 9: The NITI Aayog has realigned the deployment of CSR funds of CPSEs in accordance with the pressing requirements in aspirational districts. How much impact have these contributions made?

At NITI Aayog, under the ADP, we have also been working in close coordination with the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE), to deliver the CSR funds of Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs) towards development of Aspirational Districts. In December 2018, the Department of Public Enterprise (DPE) issued guidelines for CPSEs to use their CSR funds in a focused manner towards national priorities. It further advised them to spend up to 60% of their CSR funds in school education and healthcare while giving preference to Aspirational Districts.
This was done as it was felt necessary to provide guidance to the Industry and CSR professionals on the CSR expenditures in Aspirational Districts. The DPE guidelines were intended to straighten these regional imbalances in the distribution of CSR funds and the results so far have been encouraging. CPSEs have approved CSR projects worth approximately Rs. 1348 crores in Aspirational Districts in 2018-19. Similarly, in 2020-21, the total CSR spending in Aspirational Districts was Rs. 530 crores.
District Magistrates have to play a Central role in ensuring that CSR is attracted to critical projects that have maximum impact. By identifying and formulating projects at districts and taluka level, District teams can channelize the CSR towards good projects. NITI Aayog also has a Project Management Unit (PMU) for the Aspirational Districts Programme, composed of sector experts which has been supporting the District Collectors in identifying and formulating meaningful projects for improving human development indices in their districts.

Q 10: Health, education, agriculture, rural infrastructure, water resources and skill development are the key parameters to gauge development in the backward districts. What is the future plan of Niti Aayog to meet these parameters?

For continuous development in the focus sectors of the ADP including Health, Nutrition, Education, Agriculture, Water Resources, Skill Development, Financial Inclusion and Basic Infrastructure, the Central Ministries had formulated short-term (3 to 6 months) and long-term (3 years) plans. We have been closely monitoring and reviewing the progress of the Districts across these plans through review meetings with the Chief Secretaries and the DMs/DCs and Central Prabhari Officers of the Aspirational Districts and also through the data entered by the Districts across 81 data points pertaining to these sectors. We also conduct third-party field surveys to assess the validity of the data received from the Districts.
Apart from these activities, several officials from NITI Aayog have undertaken visits to these Aspirational Districts for ground-level assessment. However, as mentioned earlier, due to the Covid crisis and lockdowns, there have been disruptions in implementation of the short-term and long-term plans. Also projects that are under various stages of implementation in these Districts, have slowed down. We could not start the next round of Surveys by a third party and field visits by NITI officials for the same reason.
Though Covid has impacted all sectors, I see the biggest challenge in the Education sector under this programme, as with the schools being closed for more than a year now, it would be extremely difficult to see progress in the learning outcomes.
However, as I said earlier, development is a continuous process and since these 112 districts have seen years of backwardness, the challenges remain. At the same time, we are confident that once the situation improves, the programme would result in rapid progress. This is largely due to its competitive and monitoring based architecture which spurs the district administration to perform to their level best.