Majority of India’s population reside in rural areas. In order to make it to the list of developed nations, it is very important for the country to focus on the development of these rural areas.
Ambuja Cement Foundation, the CSR arm of Ambuja Cement, has been focusing on holistic rural development through various initiatives. In an exclusive interaction with The CSR Journal, Ms Pearl Tiwari, Director and CEO, Ambuja Cement Foundation, highlights various programs of the foundation with primary focus on Rural Development.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the education sector has suffered significantly. How can corporates aid in picking up the sector? What are the issues that require addressing in the sector?
None of us were prepared for the pandemic when it hit us last year. I’m going to stick with our experiences which are much more to do with the rural communities but I think this goes even for the underprivileged population when it comes to education. There is this massive digital divide that we see that has been created. Privileged schools and privileged institutions have been able to somehow manage and teach online. But the underprivileged sections, because of the lack of technology or devices have really lost out on that. Apart from that also the education system in terms of infrastructure – wherein to run online virtual education, Smart learning mechanisms are required in the classrooms which are terribly lacking. When some of that got to be put in place, we also saw high level of stress prevailing on the mental health of a lot of the staff and teachers who were unprepared for managing this kind of technology without the right kind of training.
Apart from education in schools, we also saw across our skilling centres where a lot of devices were unavailable. The jobs have changed in the last one year, and has generated a need for education to move with what is required. So when I talk about skilling, upskilling, reskilling or if one has to sit at home and teach online, all the practical courses need to get practical input. To address this, the corporates can reach out and allow on the job trainings within their setups similar to the models already working in factories.
What is the plan of Ambuja Cement Foundation for furthering the cause of education going forward?
We moved everything online. Luckily, even in the past in some sectors we provided support to look at eLearning and get ready for smart classrooms. While it was not adequate, but to some extent it helped us during this when everything had to go digital, because these schools were used to the interface.
We have about 35 skilling centres. For them too we have adopted reskilling and upskilling of people. We needed to start focusing on trades which had a market value. These included trades such as Customer Relationship Management, banking and finance, nursing aids, among others. There was a need for such trainings and we have geared up to provide those as well as new generation courses such as AIML, IoT, etc.
During COVID lockdown, the displacement of labour caused loss of jobs for many, and significant reduction of incomes for others. What role can CSR play in reviving the jobs and incomes of these people?
For ACF, livelihoods has always been a major thrust area. When COVID happened, and we saw this phenomena of ‘reverse migration’, we mapped these migrants who returned. We tried to then understand what each migrant wanted to pursue, and how skilled they were at it. We then began helping them by placing them in appropriate vocation. For the people who did not possess any particular skills but had potential, we enrolled them in our skilling programs. If they needed to earn immediately, we enrolled them at MNREGA sites. This kind of a model has worked very well for us and can be scaled up a lot more with more CSR participation.
What role has Ambuja Cement Foundation played in India’s fight against COVID-19?
Our focus was our Rural communities. Our approach was need-based. So we reacted as the situation demanded. We have a lot of village leadership institutions, including federations of many SHGs, farmer producer companies, village development committees, water user associations, school management committees, etc. When the first wave hit, all of these leadership institutions because our leader force to use them as single points of contact to push information such as awareness building, monitoring isolation of returning migrants, or COVID patients and their families in general, etc. When vaccination started, there was a certain resentment or suspicion against the vaccines, so we were engaged in dispelling those myths. This was besides providing the rations, medicines or other aid that was needed.
During the second wave, one of the most important need was that of oxygen for treating COVID patients. The worst of it was experienced in the remotest parts of India where they already have weak healthcare systems. With the help of our partners, we were able to support all our blocks with about 450 oxygen concentrators, many more oxygen cylinders and all kinds of equipment to provide for oxygen therapy.
What role does the foundation look to play in the future of healthcare sector in the country?
Our commitment remains to rural India where the public health system is already inadequate and weak. We have already in the past worked closely with ASHAs, we have our own community health workers that we call ‘Sakshis’. When we talk of health we also would like to talk about out ‘Pashu Sevikas’ who are paraveterninary women who manage the health of the animals in the village.
We work with the health department constantly. We are looking to create many more general duty assistants and nursing aids through our nursing courses. We are also looking to provide other healthcare courses including technitians such as phlebotomists. We have already set up few community clinics that we are looking to scale up. We are in talks to look at sustainable health entrepreneurs, set up telemedicine services in villages, among other services.
Patriarchy and gender inequality has been prevalent in the society since ages. While there was progress on that front, the pandemic has negated all of it and vulnerable sections are far worse of now that before.
Amid this what role is Ambuja Cement Foundation looking to play to empower these people?
Our experience has been slightly different. This is in the sense that we have already addressed gender quite seriously across all of our verticals. Gender equality has been integrated across our operations from last many years now.
For example, if we take a look at SHGs and women, we have about 30,000 women organised in SHGs. Many of them are now part of very large federations. These federations are not only generating economic value, but also generating socio-economic development in those villages. We have consciously put women in all these committees to ensure that there is equal representation or rather adequate representation of women in the decision making process of these committees.
Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, we have Sakhis as our community health workers, Pashu Swasthya Sevikas as our para-vets. And when they start to do meaningful work in the community, they start alleviating their own status in the community.