Four years ago, a good friend and a very senior government colleague here in India, Pravir Kumar, asked me to weigh the prospects of getting into the area of CSR. Given that his thoughts and ideas were way ahead of time, I was taken by surprise by his confidence in my own abilities to make a mark in what was then an emerging field.
At the time, I had just founded Tikona Digital Networks, naming it after my farm house in Tikona Maharashtra. The company was promoted by Goldman Sachs, Oak Investment Partners and Everstone Capital, and I was completely caught up in making it a billion-dollar enterprise. Getting into such a diametrically opposite space as CSR was the last thing on my mind.
It, therefore, took me some time to shape my thoughts and align my mindset before jumping in. In fact, it took me two years to set up the Indian Centre for CSR (ICCSR). I started with the conviction that without a strong and stable foundation, nothing concrete could be built. With this belief, I went to Brussels to become a registered CSR Practitioner and worked on my doctorate for social administration. After all, I had to first gain knowledge before imparting it to others.
In India, while people had a vague view on CSR, they had little to no knowledge and understanding of it. The basic charter for ICCSR was to clear the air surrounding CSR through assimilating and disseminating CSR knowledge.
Today, ICCSR partners with leaders in the CSR world, and has emerged as a reference point for CSR in India, with a focus on three verticals: Education, Media and Advisory, which together are showing the way ahead in how CSR should be conducted.
Under the Education vertical, we provide India’s only Master of CSR and Ethical Management programme in association with the University of Applied Sciences, Vienna. In addition to online programs, we also organize seminars and conferences in association with global experts. The Media vertical publishes CSR Today, a magazine which is steadily gaining mindshare in the CSR fraternity. The Advisory vertical is committed to providing the best consultancy services to clients.
For a not-for-profit organisation, achieving so much in such a short time span is very encouraging and satisfying.
Looking back, I often recall my learning and experience in the Government and corporate sectors, more importantly at Reliance Industries. Mr. Dhirubhai Ambani, the firm’s patriarch and founder, often said that when driven by determination ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results. This thought has always stayed me, helping me achieve what others have dubbed near impossible.
Back in 2000, I was asked to build 240,000 kms of optical fibre in a targeted time span of 2.5 years – an assignment that few in the world had dealt with, let alone achieved! After successfully completing it, I realised that we may have paved the foundation for India’s telecom revolution. If today, India sells 20 million telephones every month, some credit for this goes to the historic and spirited work executed by RIL. Sometimes I wonder: What would have happened had it not been completed successfully?
After a span of over 20 years, India now has a stable government. It does not have any coalition compulsions, which makes governance easy and wards off of policy paralysis. The new government seems poised to make great economic strides. Virtually all the sectors could be opened for Foreign Direct Investment. I am sure the country’s growth momentum will gain steam along with its GDP, making India once again the toast of South Asia, and a preferred destination for investment.
In the global context, CSR and Sustainability have evolved from being just philanthropy or charity to becoming a strategy for sustaining competitive advantage. In India, however, CSR has traditionally focused on funding religious sites, community centres, schools and hospitals. Though these are significant contributions, they do not necessarily have a direct linkage to business and its long-term social license to operate within a society. Such initiatives remain lacklustre and piecemeal with almost negligible possibility of re-drawing them.
The Government of India was the first to authorize a 2% mandatory spend for CSR. Hopefully the money available to corporates can now be meaningfully deployed for not just meeting stakeholder needs but also for positioning them as responsible corporate citizens. It is time to build a robust platform for companies to contribute meaningfully towards People, Planet and Society. We, at ICCSR, would want to be a true and trusted companion in this journey.
Rajesh Tiwari is the Founder & CEO of Indian Centre for CSR. ICCSR specializes in CSR and Sustainability Advisory services. Prior to ICCSR, he founded Tikona Digital, was a Group Director at Reliance Industries and spent 14 years as one of the founding members of the public sector telecom company MTNL.